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The Story Of José Feliciano's World Series Guitar

Oct 7, 2019
Originally published on October 7, 2019 12:59 pm

At the World Series game between the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals in October 1968, Puerto Rican singer José Feliciano sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" — to no little controversy. Feliciano put a personal spin on the song, giving it a slower tempo, almost like a folk anthem. The rearranged version got a cold reception from many listeners, doing lasting damage to the singer's career.

That performance and its aftermath are the subject of one episode of a new podcast called Lost at the Smithsonian. Hosted by Peabody Award-winning actor, writer, comedian and author Aasif Mandvi and created in collaboration with the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, each episode tells the story behind one iconic artifact — including Fonzie's leather jacket, Muhammad Ali's robe, and in this case, Feliciano's guitar from the '68 World Series performance.

NPR's Michel Martin spoke with Mandvi about the history behind the guitar, the performance and the national anthem's presence at sporting events. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read on for an edited transcript.

Michel Martin: The podcast tells the story of the backlash that José Feliciano received after performing his version of the anthem, including this excerpt from a littler to the editor after the performance: "What screwball gave permission to have the national anthem desecrated by singing it in the jazzy, hippy manner that it was sung? It was disgraceful, and I sincerely hope such a travesty will never be permitted again."

Aasif Mandvi: That could be a tweet today.

You explained in the podcast that this really did damage his career. What happened?

People saw this as a sort of desecration of our national anthem. They saw a long-haired hippie with a Latin name playing the song in a way that nobody had interpreted it before. I always thought it was an interesting conversation around that and the parallels of what happens today when football players take a knee and protest, even though José wasn't protesting at the time.

Tell me about that. You're saying he wasn't protesting.

He wasn't protesting. What he says in the podcast is that people never paid attention during the national anthem. So he took this risk and played it in this way that was really nontraditional, just to get people to pay attention. It was an uber-patriotic act which got completely misinterpreted as some kind of desecration of the anthem.

You asked him whether he sees some connection with the football players who created such a stir by taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence and other social injustices. And this is what he said: "I don't understand why athletes who are making tons of money should be protesting about the anthem. They should stand up and be proud that this is a country that has tried to right its wrongs." I take it that was a bit of a surprise to you.

It was a surprise. I did not expect him to have that reaction, but it was interesting to hear his take on it, [with him] having been at the center of a similar controversy. So it was a complicated interview. It didn't pan out the way I thought it would.

You were saying earlier that you started out talking about José Feliciano's guitar, but it actually turned into a conversation about patriotism.

It did. It turned into a conversation about patriotism, about race and about what it means to be American.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week marks the anniversary of an event that you may not have heard about. It happened in October 1968, just before the start of the World Series in Detroit. The Detroit Tigers were playing the St. Louis Cardinals, and Puerto Rican singer Jose Feliciano was chosen to sing the national anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSE FELICIANO: (Singing) Oh, say, can you see...

MARTIN: Feliciano also put a personal spin on it, giving it a slower tempo almost like a folk anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FELICIANO: (Singing) What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming...

MARTIN: Now, later you might have heard and even loved Jimi Hendrix, Whitney Houston, Lady Gaga, their versions, but this came before all that. And that song seriously damaged Feliciano's Feliciano's version of the national anthem and its aftermath is the subject of one episode of a new podcast created in collaboration with the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. It's hosted by comedian Aasif Mandvi. It's called "Lost At The Smithsonian," and in it, Mandvi gets up close and personal with a handful of iconic artifacts at the museum. There's an episode on Fonzie's leather jacket, Archie Bunker's chair, Muhammad Ali's robe and Jose Feliciano's guitar, the same one he played at the World Series in 1968.

And Aasif Mandvi is with us now from New York. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

AASIF MANDVI: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Why were you attracted to this particular object, Jose Feliciano's guitar? Do you play?

MANDVI: I don't play. Jose Feliciano's guitar actually - it's actually one of my favorite episodes of the whole bunch because it was not one of the objects that I had originally put on my list. And John Troutman, the curator, showed it to me. And he said, look, we have Feliciano's guitar from the 1968 World Series, when he sang the national anthem. And I thought it was such an interesting parallel between what he experienced then and the sort of African American football players today who are taking a knee and receiving so much flak for protesting. And so I thought there was an interesting parallel there. And I thought, oh, well, this would be a really interesting conversation to have.

MARTIN: So the podcast tells the story of the backlash that Jose Feliciano received after performing his version of the anthem. And the curator, John Troutman, read some of the letters to the editor which were received after the performance.

MANDVI: Right.

MARTIN: And I'm just going to play a little bit of that clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "LOST AT THE SMITHSONIAN")

JOHN TROUTMAN: (Reading) What screwball gave permission to have the national anthem desecrated by singing it in the jazzy, hippy manner that it was sung? It was disgraceful, and I sincerely hope such a travesty will never be permitted again.

MANDVI: I'll read this one. (Reading) I've never heard anything so disgraceful and disrespectful. The only things that resembled our national anthem were the words. I am ashamed of the person who would let such a thing happen. I remember hearing John Glenn say I get chills when I hear our national anthem. I didn't get chills. I got sick. No wonder our country is losing its dignity.

That could be a tweet today.

MARTIN: I mean, wow (laughter).

MANDVI: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you go on to explain, like, why people had such a visceral reaction to it. But you explained in the podcast this really did damage his career. Like, what happened?

MANDVI: You know, people saw this as a sort of desecration of our national anthem. And they saw it as this long-haired hippie with a Latin name playing the song in a way that nobody really had heard it done before or interpreted before. And so like I said, I always thought it was an interesting conversation around that and the parallels of what happens today when football players take a knee and protest, even though Jose wasn't protesting at the time.

MARTIN: Yeah, yeah. Tell me about that. You're saying he wasn't protesting.

MANDVI: He wasn't protesting. What he says in the podcast is people never paid attention during the national anthem. They were eating peanuts or getting popcorn, and they were just waiting for it to be over in the game to start. And he said I wanted to play in a way that people paid attention again. So he took this risk and played it in this way that was really non-traditional just to get people to pay attention. So it was sort of an uber-patriotic act which got completely misinterpreted as his, you know, some kind of desecration of the anthem.

MARTIN: Yeah. So spoiler alert - this is where you were headed.

MANDVI: Yeah.

MARTIN: Spoiler alert. But since you were going to tell us, I'm going to tell everybody that you asked him whether therefore he sees some connection with the football players who created such a stir by taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence and other social injustices. And this is what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "LOST IN THE SMITHSONIAN")

FELICIANO: I don't understand why athletes - and that goes really for football - who are making tons of money should be protesting about the anthem. They should stand up and be proud that this is a country that has tried to right its wrongs.

MARTIN: So I take it that was a bit of a surprise to you.

MANDVI: It was a surprise. I did not expect him to have that reaction. But it was interesting to hear his take on it, having been at the center of a similar controversy himself. So it was a complicated interview. It didn't pan out the way I thought it would.

MARTIN: So you were saying earlier that you started out talking about Jose Feliciano's guitar, but it actually turned into a conversation about patriotism.

MANDVI: It did. It turned into a conversation about patriotism, about race, about what it means to be American. You know, how do we interpret our democracy and what we get to call patriotic? And what does it mean to be American and to be able to say, like, OK, you know, this is how I interpret what America is, even if it's as much as interpreting how the national anthem is sung, you know?

MARTIN: That's Aasif Mandvi. He's a Peabody Award-winning actor, writer, comedian and author. He's host of the new podcast "Lost At The Smithsonian." We reached him in New York. Aasif Mandvi, thanks so much for joining us.

MANDVI: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.