If we make room for a second American national anthem, it’s America the Beautiful, a song so rounded and inclusive, it’s a national hymn, if not an official anthem.
by David Stone
America the Beautiful for National Anthem?
Maybe a country like the United States needs two anthems just to cover all the bases.
At a flip top desk in a two classroom school at Acre Place, I learned America The Beautiful. For a boy in Upstate New York, the poetry filled my imagination. We were blessed to live in what we knew was the greatest country in the world.
The song’s lyrical praise of America brims over with what its author, Katharine Lee Bates, cared most about: nature’s beauty, brotherhood, God’s blessings on an exceptional country and her wish that America become, not just great, but good too.
Bates wrote the poem on inspiration after taking a train trip from Boston to Colorado. It ended with a view of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains from the top of Pikes Peak.
The “purple mountain majesties” and “the fruited plain” spread out in front of her. She’d ridden past the “amber waves of grain” and the “alabaster cities gleam,” seeing the World Expo in Chicago. The words came to her spontaneously, starting at the top of the mountain. She wrote them down in her hotel room that evening.
The music, by Samuel A. Ward, with which we sing America The Beautiful now, written for a completely different song, existed already. Although the two works of art wouldn’t marry for almost two decades, Ward also wrote his tune on inspiration.
So excited was Ward when it came to him, on a ferry to New York from Coney Island, he borrowed a friend’s shirt cuff to write it down before it left his imagination.
Inspiration’s a wonderful thing, especially when it marries well.
Officially, of course, the Star-Spangled Banner is our national anthem. Written by Francis Scott Key, the poem is a tribute to patriots fighting foreign domination. It was later set to the tune of a popular British drinking song.
But some argue that the Star-Spangled Banner falls short because it’s singular focus on war is too narrow. America the Beautiful nods at military heroism, too. “O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife” But it goes far beyond.
I wouldn’t want to do without either, and since there’s only so much time to sing out our patriotism at public events, we need to stick with one or the other. If we ever vote, mine’s for America the Beautiful, though. It’s not just more inclusive, it’s a hell of a lot easier to sing.
On the other hand, I’ll take the Star-Spangled Banner any day. The more I learn about that song and the history that made a garden for it, the more I admire it.
Recent, unnecessary controversies have brought America The Beautiful into sharper focus and instigated a debate about what it means to be American.
I don’t know about you, but if someone sings about America The Beautiful in Spanish or Swahili, I can’t see how that makes it anything less of a hymn of praise.
Safe to assume, Katharine Lee Bates, a deeply rooted progressive, would have little patience for a demand that it be sung only English.
Love for your country is love for your country, no matter the language used. Hearts don’t have language, do they?
America the Beautiful: A progressive national anthem?
Katherine Lee Bates was a Wellesley College professor and poet. For most of her life, she lived and worked in a time in America when women could not vote.
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Her activism for peace accelerated with the horrors of World War I. Her fears about American imperialism are in America The Beautiful: “God mend thine every flaw / Confirm thy soul in self-control.”
A social progressive, she wasn’t just filling a line when she wrote, “And crown thy good with brotherhood,” not once, but twice in the finished version of her poem.
It was published in its final version, joined with Ward’s music for the first time, in 1910, eighteen years after inspiration hit her on Pikes Peak.
So, finally, Star-Spangled Banner or America The Beautiful?
Both are works created in inspiration, wildly different as they may be. I like them both and enjoy hearing them sung.
Like so many other things in America these days, I just wish the poles would move closer together with less friction. It’s all the same beautiful country, its independence won by heroism of war, isn’t it?