Tuesday, July 04, 2017

America. A Poem for July 4

That's what Katharine Lee Bates called the poem she wrote in 1895 after a trip to Pike's Peak in Colorado. When she got home to Wellesley College outside Boston, MA, where she taught English, she wrote the poem inspired by the sights she saw on the train trip out and back, and which was duly published in the Fourth of July edition of the church periodical The Congregationalist. In 1910 she adapted the words a little to be set to the hymn tune "Materna" by church organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward of Newark, NJ, and this became known as "America the Beautiful". It has been proposed as our national anthem throughout the 20th Century, especially during the administration of John F. Kennedy (and you know Jackie had to be the force behind that effort!), but entrenched habits don't give up easily, and "The Star Spangled Banner" remains the national anthem.

If you're a long-time reader of this blog you know I'm a fierce advocate for replacing "The Star Spangled Banner" with "America the Beautiful". I really don't like "The Star Spangled Banner"; the tune is horrible, an old London drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven" composed for a drinking society whose whole purpose was to get drunk and sexually assault the "serving wenches". That high note toward the end - "the land of the free..." - was where they lifted up their tankards to clash together and consequently slopped their beer over each other. The character Belize in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" said of that passage, "The cracker who wrote that knew what he was doing; he set the note for the word 'free' so high that nobody can hit it!" It's really not a tune fit for a national anthem. Add to that the fact that the song is about a single battle in the War of 1812, and not a particularly significant battle at that.

Now look at "America the Beautiful". Lyrics by a teacher and music by a church organist and choirmaster; seriously, how hometown America can you get? The tune is is both simple and memorable, and the harmonization lends itself well to instrumental orchestration and SATB choral arrangement. And most important, the song is about America, the land, the people, and the ideals it was founded upon, everything a piece of music representing a nation should be. Plain and simple, it's a beautiful and meaningful piece of music and it's a travesty that it's not our national anthem.

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 with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every 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 every 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!

And here's a beautiful rendition of the song from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of the late Eugene Ormandy:

So there's my argument in favor of "America the Beautiful" as the US national anthem. What say you?

© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 


  1. I agree - I always tear up when I hear this song. Simply beautiful.

  2. To paraphrase you, Roy, I'm a fierce advocate for replacing "The Star Spangled Banner" with just about anything! "America the Beautiful" would be an excellent choice, but "The Star Spangled Banner" is inappropriate for many reasons, even more than those that you listed. No one knows how to properly sing it, anyway. Ever hear Robert Klein's routine about it? Hilarious.