Song Spotlight: “America the Beautiful”

"O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain"

“O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain”

“America the Beautiful” was first published in 1910 and has remained for more than a century one of our nation’s most beloved patriotic songs. It also has what I think is a beautifully American story.

This song has two stories of inspiration and creation: one for the lyrics and one for the music.

Katherine_Lee_Bates

Katharine Lee Bates wrote the lyrics for this song, inspired by the sights on a cross-country trip.

The lyrics were written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1893. The English professor from Wellesley College took a train trip from Boston to Colorado Springs to teach a summer school session at Colorado College. On her way there, several sights served as inspiration: the White City of the Chicago World’s Fair, the ripe wheat fields of Kansas, and the view of the Great Plains from the top of Pike’s Peak. It was on that mountaintop that Bates began composing her poem, which she finished later in her hotel. Two years after that, the poem was published in The Congregationalist to honor the Fourth of July.

Although several existing pieces of music were adapted to fit the poem, the hymn tune “Materna” by Samuel A. Ward has been the most popular tune for setting this poem, and continues to be the most familiar today. Ward was also inspired to pen his tune, in his case on the ferry from Coney Island back to New York City after a lovely summer day in 1882. As the story goes, Ward was so eager to capture the melody in his head that he wrote it down on a fellow passenger’s shirtsleeve. (Presumably the other guy gave his permission!) Originally intending the melody for the old hymn “O Mother, Dear Jerusalem,” Ward retitled his tune “Materna.”

Samuel A. Ward wrote the music that eventually became the preferred setting for this song.

Samuel A. Ward wrote the music that eventually became the preferred setting for this song.

Unfortunately, Ward died in 1903, years before his melody and Bates’s poem were matched together to become one of the most famous patriotic songs in American history. Bates herself never met Wardl; but she did get to see the popularity of her song firmly established by the time of her death in 1929.

There are many reasons to love this song, especially for its American-ness.

  • The composers represent at least a small part of our nation’s diversity. Yes, they were both privileged white folk from the East Coast, but it is no small thing that one of the nation’s most beloved patriotic songs was written by an educated woman who never married (a “free-flying spinster” according to one friend) and a church musician who was the last in an unbroken line of men named Samuel Ward, the first of whom was a representative to the Continental Congress. To me, these two artists were both grounded in the nation’s history and reaching for a new future. What is more American than that?
  • These artists were inspired by a variety of sights across America, from Pike’s Peak to Coney Island. I love that this song represents the variety of landscapes across our country (including my special favorite – the “amber waves of grain” of Kansas).
  • This song has even been a political football. At various times in the last century, some people have tried to give “America the Beautiful” some sort of official status as a national anthem, on par with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Some prefer this song’s peaceful lyrics over the battle imagery of the national anthem. Of course, for some, the reason for preferring “America the Beautiful” is musical rather than political:
  • “America the Beautiful” is more singable than “The Star-Spangled Banner,” according to some critics. I have to say I agree – I sing “America the Beautiful” with music therapy groups much more often than our official national anthem. The kind of song that everyone can sing together – no divas or sports stars required – that’s the kind of song that I think is truly American.

What do you think? Is “America the Beautiful” one of your favorite patriotic songs, or do you have another? For my friends not in America, what are the favorite songs to represent your country? Please leave your thoughts below.

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