Behind the Hymn: America the Beautiful

In honor of Veteran’s Day this week, I wanted to look at a beloved Patriotic hymn.

Katherine Lee Bates

Katherine Lee Bates

Katharine Lee Bates and a group of colleagues ascended up Pike’s Peak by prairie wagon in the summer of 1893 while on a working vacation.  She was so inspired by the view that beheld her that she began to write the poem to America the Beautiful.

Katherine Bates was a professor at Wellesley and was teaching the summer of 1893 in Colorado Springs.  Before leaving Colorado Springs that summer she finished the poem.

Two years later the poem was published in The Congregationalist newspaper on July 4, 1895. She submitted the poem under the title Pike’s Peak, which was then changed to America for publication.

The words were set to the music to a variety of songs, most common the Scottish Auld Lang Syne, before finally being fitted to Samuel A. Ward’s Materna, which was written for another hymn in 1882.    Ward was inspired to write the melody while on a ferryboat trip from Coney Island back to his home in New York City.  He was so anxious to write the melody down that he wrote it on the shirt cuff of another ferry passenger, Harry Martin.  The tune was first published ten years later in 1892.

Ward died in 1903 before seeing the marriage and popularity of his tune with the words Bates had written.file0001238246804

In 1904, Bates revised the lyrics.   The poem and tune were published together in 1910 under the title America the Beautiful.  The lyrics were amended one more time in 1913.  Both revisions were printed in The Boston Evening Transcript.

While Bates was initially surprised by the poem’s success, she later reflected that its enduring “hold as it has upon our people, is clearly due to the fact that Americans are at heart idealists, with a fundamental faith in human brotherhood.”

In 1926, the National Federation of Music Clubs ran a contest for a new melody to the poem but failed to find a winner.

Bates lived to see her poem become much loved by her death in March 1929.

The song has become one of the most loved American patriotic songs.


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