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"America the Beautiful" - Katharine Lee Bates & Samuel Ward

History of an American folk song


American Flag

American Flag

photo: Getty Images
"America the Beautiful" (lyrics and guitar tab)—often called the national hymn of the United States—was adapted from a poem by a Wellsely College English professor named Katharine Lee Bates, written in 1893. She wrote the poem on a long trip she took to Colorado, about the beauty of the country through which she traveled. As the story has it, she thought up the poem while visiting Pike's Peak, and wrote it down as soon as she returned to her hotel. Now, there is a plaque atop the mountain commemorating Bates and her poem's composition.

Evolution of the Poem and Its Music

The original version, which included only four verses (later, it was expanded to eight) was first published in The Congregationalist in 1895, to commemorate Independence Day. Later, she added more verses and revised the lyrics a bit, republishing in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1904. The music that became adapted to the poem was actually composed a decade earlier (1882) by New Jersey composer Samuel Ward. Ward's music and Bates' poem were first published together in 1910. Before that, there were several other melodies to which people sang "America the Beautiful."

A New National Anthem?

There has been an ongoing movement since the mid-20th century to make "America the Beautiful" the national anthem, rather than "The Star Spangled Banner," with no success so far. Whereas the latter focuses on wartime imagery, "America the Beautiful" focuses on the physical beauty and breadth of the country, before turning to the trials and tribulations that have been involved with conquering the land:

America! America!
God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self control,
Thy liberty in law

Famous Versions of "America the Beautiful"

Through the years, the song has been famously recorded by artists across the musical spectrum—from Ray Charles (purchase/download) to Reba MacIntyre, Elvis Presley (purchase/download) to John Legend.

Full lyrics to "America the Beautiful"

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