Book Excerpt: America the Beautiful

Finally, I found myself exploring the issue of anthems. Why does a nation need a national song? And why music in the first place? A patriot from a distant land and an earlier age concluded a discourse on independence for Scotland by noting, "I knew a very wise man that believed that if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation." In our own country, when the Civil War ignited a new craving for a national anthem, a thoughtful Union loyalist recognized the impulse. "Music is the universal language of emotion," he wrote. "Men will sing what they would be shamefaced to say ? It is not food for the soul, but wine."

Since one of our most enduring forms of group singing — no matter what one's spiritual belief — is the hymn, I asked the same questions of a contemporary authority. Carl P. Daw, Jr. , the president of the National Hymn Society, said he thought the allure of hymns was one of those left brain-right brain equations, where the logic of the text and the art of the music produce "moments of cohesion and revelation … In a very real sense, hymns put words in people's mouths - and people are grateful for the opportunity to have their beliefs so codified and clarified." They are so memorable, he added, "that people return to them in times of crisis or doubt as a source of stability and meaning. It is also worth noting that a remembered hymn is the most portable of all religious things: no external equipment is required… [Singing] it becomes an almost sacramental experience — a moment of transcendence and timelessness, a source of comfort and strength."

Katharine Lee Bates often referred to "America the Beautiful" as "our hymn." When I started this book and told people I was writing about "America the Beautiful," the first thing some said was "Why?" For others, it was "Wow!" But then they all paused and added the same thing: "I love that song." So do I.

Copyright 2001 by Lynn Sherr. All rights reserved.

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