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Nation's Favorite Song Extols US Virtues, Acknowledges Flaws

Journey through American West inspires 'America the Beautiful'

A journey through the American West inspired poet Katherine Lee Bates  to write 'America the Beautiful' in 1893.
A journey through the American West inspired poet Katherine Lee Bates to write 'America the Beautiful' in 1893.

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While “The Star Spangled Banner” is the national anthem of the United States, "America the Beautiful" could be considered the country's most beloved song.

“This is the song that has always given me goose bumps," says Lynn Sherr, author of “America the Beautiful: The Stirring True Story Of Our Nation’s Favorite Song.” "I think it is the quintessentially optimistic vision of America. It is hopeful. It is peaceful. And it just feels great to sing.”

"America the Beautiful" was written by poet Katherine Lee Bates during her journey through the American West in 1893. Her words were put to a gently rousing melody by Samuel Augustus Ward.

The popular song will be heard a lot this July 4th, Independence Day.

Each of the song’s four verses includes something significant about America; something to celebrate, something to pray for and some challenge to overcome. In the poem’s familiar first verse, Bates praises the beauty of the land and its bounty;

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

Terraces of Steam, Yellowstone National Park (Carol M. Highsmith)

Sherr likes to quote the prayer from the 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 we had a ways to go, which of course we still do, and yet she still understood that you could know that and still be patriotic."

Folk singer and left-leaning social activist Pete Seeger has performed “America the Beautiful.”

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

Spring in Western Colorado (Carol M. Highsmith)

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. The “Star Spangled Banner” appealed to many in America because of all the martial words in it: ‘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, and it’s about a people who are on the edge of greatness about to be great.”  

The words to “America the Beautiful” abound in heroism;

“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 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 building when everyone else was coming out? It’s an amazing thought in that verse.”

Sherr says “America the Beautiful” is not so much an alternative national anthem, as simply a song of joy.    

"This is a poem and therefore a song for the common person. This is not an elitist song. This is not for the soldier. This is not for the president only. This is for everybody.”

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