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America the Beautiful

posted Jul 1, 2012, 8:20 AM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Sep 10, 2017, 12:20 PM ]
In 1893, Wellesley College English professor Katherine Lee Bates took a train trip from Boston to Colorado Springs.  Inspired by the sights along the way – the “White City” of Chicago's alabaster buildings; Kansas' wheat fields and the majestic views of the Great Plains – she wrote a poem titled Pikes Peak.  However, the title was changed to America for its publication in The Congregationalist to commemorate the 4th of July.


And in 1882, church organist Samuel A. Ward was similarly inspired while traveling, though he was on the Coney Island Ferry sailing to Manhattan to catch a train to Newark!  He was so anxious to compose a tune, he borrowed a shirt cuff from a fellow passenger to write it  on!  Originally composed as O Mother Dear, Jerusalem, he retitled it MATERNA.  He died in 1903, not realizing in his lifetime the national stature this music would attain, since his melody and Bates poem weren't published together until 1910 as America the Beautiful.

In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow African-American Marian Anderson to sing in Washington D.C.'s Constitution Hall because of her skin color, even though she was one of the most celebrated singers of the 20th century.  Undeterred, she instead sang this song as part of a critically acclaimed open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a live crowd of 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions. 

Elvis Presley had great success with the song in the '70s.  Then three different renditions entered the Hot Country Songs charts: by Charlie Rich; Mickey Newbury and an all-star version in 2001.  That year, its popularity increased greatly following the attacks on 9/11;  CBS newsman Dan Rather cried on camera as he quoted the fourth verse.  Currently, Ray Charles is credited with the most popular interpretation, though he usually sings the third verse first. And every year at graduation, Wellesley students still honor the song's author by substituting:

And crown they good with sisterhood,
from sea to shining sea.