I’ll admit to being an unabashed fan of “America the Beautiful” and a proponent of the idea that it should replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem.
It’s singable, for one thing. Ordinary people can carry the tune without having to strain, or resort to the kind of godawful screeching we sometimes hear nonmusical people engage in when they attempt the national anthem. For this we have to thank Samuel Ward, the composer, an experienced musician and organist for the Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, who clearly knew how to build a tune that could be managed by ordinary folks while still building drama. Sadly, Ward never got to experience the success of “America the Beautiful”; the tune he wrote in 1882 was not matched with the lyrics until 1910, seven years after his death.
The poem that was to become known as “America the Beautiful” was written by Katharine Lee Bates, and it first appeared in The Congregationalist, a denominational magazine, in 1895 under the title “Pikes Peak.” It was written in the summer of 1893, after Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley College, had traveled by train to Colorado Springs for a summer teaching job and then ridden with friends to the top of Pikes Peak. On her train trip, Bates had stopped at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (thus the “alabaster cities”) and had, of course, seen amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty, among other things. The poem was reprinted in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1904, a music publisher matched it with Ward’s tune in 1910, and the rest is history.
Bates kept reworking the poem after its initial publication, smoothing out lines and looking for better images (that fruited plain was initially an “enameled” plain, a line that truly goes “clunk” with that extra syllable squished in). But the essential structure of the four verses remained the same.
The first verse celebrates America’s beauty, and that’s the one we sing most often. But I think most of us are aware of the other verses, even if we can’t quite remember them. The second verse celebrates its founding ideals, the third verse honors its military heroes, and the fourth verse looks forward to the future. But what I especially like about this song is that none of those verses is unthinking or simply self-glorifying. Each of those ideals is presented in a moral framework. For example, in the second verse, the “pilgrim feet” that “a thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness” are celebrated, but then Bates reminds us that freedom shouldn’t be unlimited: “Confirm thy soul in self-control, / Thy liberty in law.” And the military victories of the third verse are good as long as “all success be nobleness / And ev’ry gain divine” – in other words, for liberation and self-defense, not for glory or conquest.
“America the Beautiful” is a great patriotic song, proud but not boastful, celebratory but not unquestioning. There are a lot of great versions out there; many people like Ray Charles’ soul rendition, and although I’ve never been a huge Ray Charles fan, who am I to say they’re wrong? That’s America for you.