07/04/03
"America the Beautiful"
    by John Cech

Brief sound clip

That's the Boston-based storyteller, Brother Blue, with a few notes of his version of one of America's most moving national songs, a song that some have called the unofficial second national anthem.

In fact, "America the Beautiful" was a serious contender to become the national anthem during the 1920s, when it was set to the melody of a hymn, "Materna," written by Samuel A. Ward, as part of a National Federation of Music Clubs competition to find the right music for this popular poem, which had first appeared on July 4th, 1895. Eventully, in 1931, Herbert Hoover officially settled the matter in favor of the "Star-Spangled Banner." But many have felt that, along with being simply more singable, "America the Beautiful" expressed more enduring, transcendent values.

The poem was written in 1893 by Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, who had journeyed west to Colorado Springs to teach summer school, visiting Niagra Falls, the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, riding the railroad west through the Great Plains, jotting observations and lines of verse in her journal when she could. It was during an excursion to the top of Pike's Peak that summer that Professor Bates, had the vision of America that became the poem. She had only a " brief ecstatic" moment, she recalled later in her journal -- to contemplate the landscape that was stretched before her, the colors changing in the late afternoon sun, before several members of her party collapsed from the altitude and rigors of the trip to the summit, and the tour guide hustled the visitors back into the wagons to make the descent. But it was enough for Professor Bates to have her inspiration, to hear the first lines whispered to her, and to begin writing that night. Over the years she kept revising the poem until its final form was published in 1904. She changed "halcyon skies" to "spacious," and made the "enameled plain" "fruited" in this version, but she resisted all the critics who said she should change the word "beautiful," that it was outworn and over-used. Having been to the top of that mountain, she knew that it wasn't a cliché.

Brief sound clip

Copyright 2003 © John Cech

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