AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL A Colorado Song

When I was attending college in Boulder, a friend of mine – a 21-year old reminiscing about her childhood long before in Colorado Springs – told me that when you look out at the scenery in Boulder you see the mountains; but when you look out in Colorado Springs you see the MOUNTAIN.  And if you climb the MOUNTAIN and look back, you see America the Beautiful – which just happens to be the second song in our Colorado Songs series,.

THE MOUNTAIN - Pikes Peak as seen from Colorado Springs

THE MOUNTAIN – Pikes Peak as seen from Colorado Springs

The MOUNTAIN, of course, is Pikes Peak, which rises to 14,115 feet above sea level.  Although it is only the 30th highest mountain in Colorado, it is more than 8,000 feet higher than Colorado Springs, which lies only 12 miles away.  It is higher than any point in the United States that lies East of its longitude, so it is an imposing and impressive sight.

Nevertheless, it is not difficult to get to its summit.  There is a steep, but fairly easy hiking trail; a paved auto road runs to the top; and there is a cog railroad.  It was a little more difficult back on July 22, 1893, when Katherine Lee Bates, an English professor from Wellesley College who spent several weeks one summer teaching at Colorado College, went to the top.  She described her ascent as follows:

One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pike’s Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.

While on the mountain, she began a poem in her notebook, writing, “O beautiful for halcyon skies . . .”  That is probably not exactly the way you remember the words, but they have changed a bit over the years.  

The words she wrote – the poem which became the song “America the Beautiful” -described a view from a special Colorado mountain, a view which her diary says was the “most glorious scenery I ever beheld”; but they also described aspects of a growing country that were fresh in her mind.  Some three weeks earlier, she and her life partner, a Wellesely economics and history professor named Katharine Coman, had traveled by train from Boston, to Niagara Falls, to Chicago, where they visited Coman’s family and visited the World’s Columbian Exposition, which she described as an “alabaster city,” through the amber waves of grain growing across Kansas, and finally to the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

KATHERINE LEE BATES

KATHERINE LEE BATES

Ms. Bates was previously known as the author of some travel books and poetry, including a very long poem from 1889 entitled “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride” in which she introduced the character of Mrs. Santa Claus to the popular Christmas story1.  Certainly, though, nothing she wrote was ever as popular as “America the Beautiful.”  The song paints pictures with its words, and tells us, as Pope John Paul II reminded us, “Yes, America, you are beautiful indeed, and blessed in so many ways…   But your greatest beauty and your richest blessing is found in the human person: in each man, woman and child, in every immigrant, in every native-born son and daughter.”

That is certainly the ideal on which the United States of America was built.  Sometimes our nation and our people come close to its realization, though at other times we come up short.  Katherine Lee Bates recognized that the country and the times in which she was living were not perfect.2 Her poem was first published in the Fourth of July, 1895, edition of the Congregationalist, a church publication.3 The last two verses of that version (as you can see in the footnote), ended by asking that God shed His grace on the country until “selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free” and until “nobler men keep once again Thy whiter jubilee.”

Those critical comments were overlooked by a public that quickly grew to love Bates’ poem, and people began singing its words to various popular tunes, such as “Auld Lang Syne,” which was a very good fit.  The tune we know today was composed by a gentleman named Samuel Ward, who was a descendant of the Samuel Ward who had been Governor of Rhode Island and member of the First Continental Congress.  This Samuel Ward was the organist for the Grace Episcopal Church in New York City.  In 1882, he was on a ferry, returning home from Coney Island, when a tune popped into his head.  It is said that he wrote his initial inspiration on the shirt cuff of a friend.  The tune, which was first published under the name “Materna” in 1892,  was originally intended as a setting for the hymn, “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem.”   Ward passed away in 1903.  Sometime between 1904 and 1910, his tune was combined with Bates’ words (which she had slightly altered) to produce the “America the Beautiful” we know today.

This hymn to a great country is one of the most beloved Colorado Songs, and one of the most beloved American songs.  Before the “Star Spangled Banner” was officially designated  in 1931, many considered “America the Beautiful” to be the national anthem; and as recently as 2014, Congress considered legislation to adopt it in place of the the “Star Spangled Banner.”4

Let us end with a quote from Katherine Lee Bates, and then a soulful version of the song from Ray Charles:

“It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind. When we left Colorado Springs the four stanzas were penciled in my notebook, together with other memoranda, in verse and prose, of the trip. The Wellesley work soon absorbed time and attention again, the notebook was laid aside, and I do not remember paying heed to these verses until the second summer following, when I copied them out and sent them to The Congregationalist, where they first appeared in print July 4, 1895. The hymn attracted an unexpected amount of attention. It was almost at once set to music by Silas G. Pratt. Other tunes were written for the words and so many requests came to me, with still increasing frequency, that in 1904 I rewrote it, trying to make the phraseology more simple and direct.” –Katherine Lee Bates, as reported by the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

America the Beautiful
By Katherine Lee Bates and Samuel Ward

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine!

O Beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

For an index of the Colorado Songs in this series, please click here.

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  1.  “Goody” is short for “Goodwife” or “Mrs.”
  2. This is another of those lessons about how the words of a song can fool you.  How many people, for instance, still think that Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is a patriotic anthem only to be shocked when they listen carefully and find it is a protest against the Vietnam War; or to Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” which sounds quite patriotic as it delivers a haunting commentary on contemporary social issues.
  3. The first published version was as follows:O beautiful for halcyon skies,
    For amber waves of grain,
    For purple mountain majesties
    Above the enameled plain!
    America! America!
    God shed His grace on thee,
    Till souls wax fair as earth and air
    And music-hearted sea!O beautiful for pilgrim feet
    Whose stern, impassioned stress
    A thoroughfare for freedom beat
    Across the wilderness!
    America! America!
    God shed His grace on thee
    Till paths be wrought through wilds of thought
    By pilgrim foot and knee!O beautiful for glory-tale
    Of liberating strife,
    When once or twice, for man’s avail,
    Men lavished precious life!
    America! America!
    God shed His grace on thee
    Till selfish gain no longer stain,
    The banner of the free!O beautiful for patriot dream
    That sees beyond the years
    Thine alabaster cities gleam
    Undimmed by human tears!
    America! America!
    God shed His grace on thee
    Till nobler men keep once again
    Thy whiter jubilee!
  4. One reason suggested for the change is that “America the Beautiful” seems a song of peace, in contrast to the “Star Spangled Banner,” which one of war – though some prefer the “Star Spangled Banner” just for that reason.  Another reason is that “America the Beautiful” is much easier to sing.  As Hoyt Axton noted in his song, “Country Anthem”:I’d like to sing our country’s anthem,
    But I can’t seem to make it ring.

    Old Frank Key, the man who wrote it
    Obviously didn’t sing.
    Mmmmmm.

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