One of the most recognizable and patriotic songs of our great nation, “America the Beautiful” was penned in 1895 by Katharine Lee Bates, originally submitted as a poem for the Fourth of July edition of a church periodical at the time called The Congregationalist.
“America the Beautiful” didn’t receive its accompaniment until 1910. Church organist Samuel A. Ward wrote a song in 1882 called “Materna” that he intended to become the music for another song., After his death in 1903, a publisher paired Ward’s song to Bates’ poem, and the result is the full song we know now, “America the Beautiful”. This may be one of the most significant yet oddly paired musical collaborations of our nation’s history, and Bates and Ward never met!
Bates, 33 years old at the time of writing “America the Beautiful,” was inspired to write the poem shortly after traveling to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado. Of the trip, Bates wrote, “We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.”
Her poem highlighted things she saw on her train ride from Massachusetts to Colorado to teach during a summer session:
O beautiful for spacious skies
For amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain
America! America! God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good
From sea to shining sea!
O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine!
O Beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
While “America the Beautiful” is a widely-recognized piece of Americana today, Bates received little acclaim for her writing, was paid just $5 dollars for the piece and gave up all royalties once it was published. Similarly, Ward’s family never pushed to the rights for the use of his song in “America the Beautiful.” It was a contender for the United States national anthem, along with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” President Herbert Hoover signed a law in 1931 that made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the American anthem, yet over the years, there have been petitions to change the national anthem to the quieter, easy to sing “America the Beautiful.”
Ray Charles made the song more popular by recording a version and including it on his Greatest Hits album. He’s one of the more public supporters of the song becoming America’s national anthem, saying, “Wouldn’t you rather sing about the beauty of America?”
Indeed, we live in a beautiful nation!