Book Excerpt: America the Beautiful

We've all sung it a thousand times, and most of us know at least the first verse by heart. "America the Beautiful" has been called a hymn, a prayer, even the "national heartbeat set to music." In this book, ABCNEWS correspondent Lynn Sherr explores the history of our "unofficial national anthem. Read the excerpt here.

EXCERPT — Prologue

This is a story about hope and dreams and the sure, undiluted patriotism of another era.

It is the real-life legend of a gifted young poet from New England who saw her country clearly from a mountaintop in Colorado and turned her vision into timeless verse. It is the unlikely tale of a modest young musician from New Jersey who conceived a melody of uncommon dignity after a splendid day at the seashore. The woman and the man never met — never even communicated — but their soaring creations so seamlessly captured the American spirit, the two would be linked forever in our national heritage.

Above all, this is a story about America.

America the Beautiful.

Why a biography of a song? Because this one gives us goosebumps. Because this one makes us proud. And because this one weaves the essence of our past and the promise of our future into a lyric of boundless optimism. We've all sung it a thousand times, and most of us know at least the first verse by heart (although some get it wrong. One woman actually admits thinking it was, "O beautiful for spaceship guys." A third-grader who drew a picture of a jumbo jet laden with oranges, grapes and bananas told his teacher his artwork was "the fruited plane.")

It's gotten us through some of our bleakest moments: on the battlefields of World War I, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in the wake of the horror that a youthful President had been murdered. And it's helped salute our biggest stars: at countless commencements and inaugurals, at the World Series, anywhere there's a champion or a party. Ray Charles electrified the Superbowl audience in 2001 with his soulful version. When Elvis Presley crooned "amber waves of grain" at a sold-out concert, he set off a burst of teenage squeals. It's been called a hymn, a prayer, an ode to the land, even "the national heartbeat set to music" — in short, our unofficial national anthem. In fact, numerous proposals and half a dozen bills in Congress have tried to replace "The Star-Spangled Banner" with this more singable, less militaristic, song.

I can't remember when the hairs on my own neck first started tingling, but I suspect it stems from my days at Wellesley College, where students routinely substitute "sisterhood" for "brotherhood" when singing the chorus. "America the Beautiful" was our song, because the woman who wrote the words, the poet Katharine Lee Bates, was a revered Wellesley alumna who had taught English there for decades.

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