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The 'Other' Anthem:  <i>America the Beautiful</i> - 2004-07-04

America The Beautiful, is a song almost every American can sing. And while it's true that The Star Spangled Banner has been America's official national anthem since 1931, many Americans feel a unique affection for the peaceful, patriotic words the poet Katherine Lee Bates was inspired to write during her great journey through the American out West back in 1893. The gently rousing melody, written by the hymnist Samuel Augustus Ward also helped to popularize the song.

Willie Nelson's version of America the Beautiful, is just one of countless styles in which it's has been sung. Lynn Sherr, author of America the Beautiful: The stirring True Story of Our Nation's Favorite Song, seems to appreciate them all.

"This is the song that has always given me goose bumps," she says. "I think it is the quintessentially optimistic vision of America. It is hopeful. It is peaceful. And it just feels great to sing."

Ms. Sherr notes that in each of the song's four verses, Katherine Lee Bates includes something significant about America to celebrate, something to pray for, and some challenge to overcome. In the beginning of the poem's familiar first verse, Ms. Bates praised the beauty of the land and its bounty.

? Thy purple mountains majesties, above the fruited plain, America, America, God shed His grace on thee?

Each stanza of Katherine Lee Bates' famous poem also contains a prayer. Ms. Sherr likes to quote the prayer in the song's second verse, which says "America, America, God mend thy every flaw?"

"Imagine understanding that America has some flaws and that we are after all a work in progress," she says. "It is a song of pure patriotism. But it's not blind patriotism. She knew this was a country that was not perfect. She knew we had a ways to go which of course we still do, and yet she still she knew that you could know that and still be patriotic. It is important to understand that we are complex human beings and it's a complex country. We are not perfect but we still love it."

Folk singer and left-wing-leaning social activist Pete Seeger whistling the introduction to his version of America the Beautiful.

"? And Pete Seeger and understands about patriotism in a way that a lot of Americans didn't have to," says Ms. Sherr. "He got into trouble with the law because of some of his [political] beliefs. The very fact that he also sings it indicates that, bottom line, he loves America."

Ms. Sherr contrasts the meaning of America the Beautiful with The Star Spangled Banner - a song which also happens to be much harder to sing.

"Our actual national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, was written by a man, Francis Scott Key, who saw a battle and he was writing about a war," she says. "'The rocket's red glare, and the bombs bursting in air?' This one, on the other hand, is peaceful. It's about a land and a country, not about a flag and a war."

Still, the words to America the Beautiful abound in heroism, as we hear in Ray Charles' iconic rendition of the song, which he began with the third verse.

Oh beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved, in mercy more than life?

"'Oh beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved, in mercy more than life?' I think those words were astounding, and so did he, obviously," says Ms. Sherr. "And I must say they resonate more than ever after 9/11. How can you hear the words 'who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life?' and not think of all the rescue workers who went into the buildings when everyone else was coming out? It's an amazing thought in that verse and he does it just beautifully?. The Ray Charles version is just so exuberant. It's this kind of bluesy take which of course is pure Ray Charles, very American, very democratic? And this exactly represents Katherine Lee Bates' point of view?. This not an elitist song. This is not for the soldier. This is not for the president only. This is for everybody?."

Ms. Sherr says we can think of America the Beautiful not just as an alternative anthem, but, simply, as a song of joy.