“America the Beautiful” is an American patriotic song. The lyrics were written by Katharine Lee Bates, and the music was composed by church organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward at Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey. The two never met.
Bates originally wrote the words as a poem, “Pikes Peak,” first published in the Fourth of July edition of the church periodical The Congregationalist in 1895. At that time, the poem was titled “America” for publication. Ward had originally written the music, “Materna,” for the hymn “O Mother dear, Jerusalem” in 1882, though it was not first published until 1892. Ward's music combined with the Bates poem was first published in 1910 and titled America the Beautiful. The song is one of the most popular of the many U.S. patriotic songs.
In 1893, at the age of 33, Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College, had taken a train trip to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to teach a short summer school session at Colorado College. Several of the sights on her trip inspired her, and they found their way into her poem, including the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the “White City” with its promise of the future contained within its gleaming white buildings; the wheat fields of America's heartland Kansas, through which her train was riding on July 16; and the majestic view of the Great Plains from high atop Pikes Peak.
On the pinnacle of that mountain, the words of the poem started to come to her, and she wrote them down upon returning to her hotel room at the original Antlers Hotel. The poem was initially published two years later in The Congregationalist to commemorate the Fourth of July. It quickly caught the public's fancy. Amended versions were published in 1904 and 1911.
The first known melody written for the song was sent in by Silas Pratt when the poem was published in The Congregationalist. By 1900, at least 75 different melodies had been written. A hymn tune composed in 1882 by Samuel A. Ward, the organist and choir director at Grace Church, Newark, was generally considered the best music as early as 1910 and is still the popular tune today. Just as Bates had been inspired to write her poem, Ward, too, was inspired. The tune came to him while he was on a ferryboat trip from Coney Island back to his home in New York City after a leisurely summer day and he immediately wrote it down. Supposedly, he was so anxious to capture the tune in his head, he asked fellow passenger friend Harry Martin for his shirt cuff to write the tune on. He composed the tune for the old hymn “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem,” retitling the work “Materna.” Ward's music combined with Bates's poem was first published together in 1910 and titled “America the Beautiful.”
Ward died in 1903, not knowing the national stature his music would attain since the music was only first applied to the song in 1904. Bates was more fortunate since the song's popularity was well established by the time of her death in 1929.
At various times in the more than 100 years that have elapsed since the song was written, particularly during the John F. Kennedy administration, there have been efforts to give “America the Beautiful” legal status either as a national hymn or as a national anthem equal to, or in place of, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but so far this has not yet succeeded. Proponents prefer “America the Beautiful” for various reasons, saying it is easier to sing, more melodic, and more adaptable to new orchestrations while still remaining as easily recognizable as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Some prefer “America the Beautiful” over “The Star-Spangled Banner” due to the latter's war-oriented imagery. Others prefer “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the same reason. While that national dichotomy has stymied any effort at changing the tradition of the national anthem, “America the Beautiful” continues to be held in high esteem by a large number of Americans, and was even being considered before 1931, as a candidate to become the national anthem of the United States.
This song was used as the background music of the television broadcast of the Tiangong-1 launch. The song is often included in songbooks in a wide variety of religious congregations in the United States.
Original poem (1893)
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!
O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties Above the fruited plain!
O beautiful for pilgrim feet Whose stern impassioned 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 glory-tale Of liberating strife, When valiantly for man's avail Men lavished precious life. America! America! May God thy gold refine Till all success be nobleness, And every 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.
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, impassioned stress A thoroughfare for freedom beat Across the wilderness! America! America! God mend thine every 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 every 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!
Bing Crosby included the song in a medley on his album 101 Gang Songs (1961).
In 1976, while the United States celebrated its bicentennial, a soulful version popularized by Ray Charles peaked at number 98 on the US R&B Charts. Ray Charles did this again in 1984 to re-elect Ronald Reagan. Ray Charles did this yet again in Miami, Florida, in 1999.
Three different renditions of the song have entered the Hot Country Songs charts. The first was by Charlie Rich, which went to number 22 in 1976. A second, by Mickey Newbury, peaked at number 82 in 1980. An all-star version of “America the Beautiful” performed by country singers Trace Adkins, Sherrié Austin, Billy Dean, Vince Gill, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Toby Keith, Brenda Lee, Lonestar, Lyle Lovett, Lila McCann, Lorrie Morgan, Jamie O'Neal, The Oak Ridge Boys, Collin Raye, Kenny Rogers, Keith Urban and Phil Vassar reached number 58 in July 2001. The song re-entered the chart following the September 11 attacks.
A punk rock adaptation of the song was recorded in 1976 by New York band The Dictators, and released on their album Every Day is Saturday.
Popularity of the song increased greatly following the September 11 attacks; at some sporting events it was sung in addition to the traditional singing of the national anthem. During the first taping of the Late Show with David Letterman following the attacks, CBS newsman Dan Rather cried briefly as he quoted the fourth verse.
For Super Bowl XLVIII, The Coca-Cola Company aired a multilingual version of the song, sung in several different languages. The commercial received some criticism on social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, and from some conservatives, such as Glenn Beck. Despite the controversies, Coca-Cola later reused the Super Bowl ad during Super Bowl LI, the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2016 Summer Olympics and for patriotic holidays.
“From sea to shining sea,” originally used in the charters of some of the English Colonies in North America, is an American idiom meaning “from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean” (or vice versa). Other songs that have used this phrase include the American patriotic song “God Bless the U.S.A.” and Schoolhouse Rock's “Elbow Room.” The phrase and the song are also the namesake of the Shining Sea Bikeway, a bike path in Bates's hometown of Falmouth, Massachusetts. The phrase is similar to the Latin phrase “A Mari Usque Ad Mare” (“From sea to sea”), which serves as the official motto of Canada.
“Purple mountain majesties” refers to the shade of the Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which inspired Bates to write the poem.