America, the Beautiful
DESCRIPTION: In praise of America, productive and fertile "from sea to shining sea." God is begged to care for and improve the nation.
AUTHOR: Words: Katherine Lee Bates/Music: Samuel A. Ward
EARLIEST DATE: 1895 ("Congregationalist")
KEYWORDS: America patriotic religious nonballad
FOUND IN: US
REFERENCES (4 citations):
Krythe-SamplerOfAmericanSongs 12, pp. 177-184, "America the Beautiful" (1 text, 1 tune)
Colonial-Dames-AmericanWarSongs, pp. 145-146, "America the Beautiful" (1 text)
Silber/Silber-FolksingersWordbook, p. 46, "America the Beautiful" (1 text)
Fuld-BookOfWorldFamousMusic, pp. 96-97, "America the Beautiful"
Pete Seeger, "America the Beautiful" (on PeteSeeger31)
Pete Seeger w. Robert DeCormier, "America the Beautiful" (on HootenannyTonight)
NOTES [411 words]: An article in the October 2004 issue of American History magazine reveals a complex history for this song, with, in a sense, both the words and music coming first.
Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929) in 1893 was a professor of English heading for Colorado. She made several stops along the way: first at Niagara Falls, then at the World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago (where new shining-white buildings made her think of "alabaster cities"); the Midwest gave her "fruited plains" (so Cecilia Margaret Rudin, Stories of Hymns We Love, John Rudin & Company, 1934 (I use the fourteenth printing of 1951), p. 80). Eventually she climbed Pikes Peak (which made her think of beautiful skies). She started on a rough draft of it then and there, and after polishing it a little, sent it to The Congregationist, which published the poem in its July 4, 1895 edition.
The result doesn't strike me as particularly good, even if you like the common version of the song: "O beautiful for halcyon skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties Above the enameled plain! America! America! God shed his grace on thee Till souls wax fair as earth and air And music-hearted sea!"
Nonetheless, the poem was a hit, and reportedly inspired no fewer than 75 musical settings. But it wasn't until 1905 that Clarence A. Barbour managed to fit it to Samuel A. Ward's 1890 tune "Materna" (which, according to William Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal, Broadman Press, 1976, p. 153, had been written for a hymn, "O Mother Dear, Jerusalem").
That process seemes to inspire Bates; she revised her poem once in 1904, and produced the final, quasi-canonical version in 1911.
The tune still took some time to settle down; as late as 1926, the Lutheran publication The Parish School Hymnal publishes it with William W. Sleeper's 1926 tune.
Reynolds, p. 452, says that composer Ward was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1847, and died there in 1903; he studied music in New York City, then settled down to run a music business in Newark. He was for many years the organist at Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, and he also founded and directed the Orpheus Club of Newark. He held both these positions at the time he wrote this tune.
Reynolds, p. 153, notes that when the satellite Echo I was launched in 1960 (in essence, it was a giant metallic balloon used to reflect radio waves -- a very primitive communications satellite), this song was the first music beamed at it. - RBW
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