‘America’ articulates love of country

Published 2:19 am Saturday, June 25, 2016

Some years ago when July 4 fell on a Sunday, the first words of the hymn we sang at church that morning were “O beautiful for spacious skies…” Then and now when the words and music of “America the Beautiful” flow, colorful images float in my mind: waving fields of grain; mountains of unbelievable heights; fluffy white clouds in a blue sky; and emerald waves rolling onto beautiful white sands of the Gulf of Mexico. My heart sings within me, along with my voice.

I looked down at the hymnal to see who had painted those images so perfectly in the lyrics and found the name, Katharine Lee Bates. I suspect her name is unfamiliar to most people, but the words of the song have thrilled and inspired Americans for years. At one time, in 1926, an unsuccessful drive sought to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” with it as our national anthem.

That Sunday morning as we moved from verse to verse, I wondered how Miss Bates had been inspired to capture her surge of emotions on paper. That afternoon, I searched for the answer. In 1893, she was a teacher lecturing at a summer session of a Colorado college. She and others engaged a prairie wagon to transport them to the summit of Pike’s Peak. They ascended in the wagon near the top, then left it to finish the trip on mules. The trip tired her, but she was awed by the view that spread out before her. “All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies,” she wrote. She jotted four stanzas in a notebook before she left Colorado. Her referral to the “alabaster cities” in the fourth stanza was inspired by the White City at the Columbian World’s Exposition in Chicago, which she had visited earlier.

As was fitting, the original poem appeared in a weekly journal on July 4, 1895, two years after she composed it. She revised it twice; once in 1904, again in 1913. People sang it to various tunes that the lyrics fit, including “Auld Lang Syne.” It appeared in print with the tune, “Materna,,” that was composed by Samuel A. Ward in the 1880s. It is this music for “America the Beautiful “ with which we are familiar today.

Miss Bates was born to a Congregational minister and his wife in Falmouth, Mass. Her father died when she was a month old. Even though dying and paralyzed, he baptized his infant daughter six days before his death. She was 33 when she wrote the original “America the Beautiful” poem.

Many of us sometimes feel in our hearts what we cannot put into words. “America the Beautiful” stirs me with love of country and thankfulness to God for our great land. Each time we raise our voices to “America the Beautiful,” we have Miss Bates to thank for expressing that strong conviction so well.


Nina Keenam is retired from the newspaper business. Her column appears on Saturdays.