America the Beautiful – The Story Behind The Song


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Of all the patriotic songs written in praise of the United States of America, “America the Beautiful” is one of the most lovely, if not the loveliest U.S. patriotic song. Written by Katherine E. Bates in 1895, it was first published as a poem.

Until quite recently, it was quite popular to re-use popular tunes from church hymns, folk songs and other sources. The practice was so wide-spread that metrical guides matching poetic meters to musical compositions were placed in the back of many hymn books to help with tune switching. “America the Beautiful eventually became associated with a hymn tune composed Samuel A. Ward. Samuel Ward was an Episcopal organist and composer who originally composed the “America the Beautiful” tune for another hymn called “Materna”.

The other top contender tune for “America The Beautiful”, was the “Auld Lang Syne” song commonly sung on New Year’s Eve. “Auld Lang Syne” is a traditional Scots folk song written by the great poet Robert Burns, who used a common Scots folk tune, originally an uptempo dance tune, for his poem. Ironically, the supporters of “Auld Lang Syne” preferred it because they thought it more stately, somber, and dignified than “Materna”, originally written as a church hymn.

Katerine Bates was an English professor at Wellesley College, a liberal-arts women’s college that was established in 1875 in Massachusets. Bates interest in History and Politics, combined with her Puritan heritage, helped to shape her patriotic nature.

A cross-country journey for a summer teaching assignment in Colorado inspired her further, and her now famous poem was born. After its initial publication, it was reprinted and expanded, with the final version completed in 1913. Legend has it that much of the poem came to her while she visited Pike’s Peak, one of the most scenic and famous mountains in the United States.

The original “America the Beautiful” poem was four verses long. Later, it was expanded to eight verses. Minor changes were made to the language as well. For example, “halcyon skies” became “spacious skies” the “enameled plain” became the “fruited plain” and “Glory-tale” became “heroes prov’d”. These changes greatly improved not only the sing-ability of the song, but simplified the language and made it accessible to a wider audience.

“The Star Spangled Banner” wasn’t officially chosen over “America the Beautiful as the United States National Anthem until 1931. Because of the easy, singable nature of Samuel Ward’s hymn, several attempts have been made to have “America the Beautiful” usurp “The Star Spangled Banner”‘s position. Several presidents, including John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, seem to have preferred “America the Beautiful” to “Star Spangled Banner”. Even though “The Star Spangled Banner” is notoriously hard to sing, as evidenced by many failed attempts by celebrities at sporting events, its long history as a patriotic song and heroic sentiments appeal to enough people to help it keep its status as national anthem.

Samuel Ward died in 1903, never knowing that his “Materna” would be re-purposed into one of America’s favorite patriotic songs. Though he lived in New Jersey and Katherine Bates lived in Massachusetts her entire life, the poet and the composer never met. Katherine Bates died in 1929, having seen her Fourth of July poem grow from publication in a church weekly to national publication and acclaim. Though she wrote other poems and books, “America the Beautiful” will always be her best known composition.

Click here for a course in playing American The Beautiful

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