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.

But it wasn't until I started poring through the archives — a rich lode of letters, diaries, and loving tributes — that I appreciated Bates' talent and creativity and saw how her life spanned the great sweep of America's century of progress. Katharine Lee Bates had a childhood memory of Lincoln's assassination and a grownup's awe at the new invention called radio. At 35 she learned to ride a giant tricycle and admitted she was "some scared." At 65 she abandoned her Republican roots to vote Democrat because she believed the League of Nations offered "our one hope of peace on earth." That was just four years after women won the right to vote, a cause Katharine Lee Bates endorsed.

Her life blossomed as the nation's social conscience awakened. Bates entered Wellesley one year after it opened and spent her life educating other women. At a time of ingrained patriarchy, she was among the handful of women in the workforce, earning enough independence through her teaching and writing to travel freely and own her own house. In an age of material excess she was aligned with movements to care for the nation's poor. The public knew her as a beloved teacher and respected poet who published or edited more than forty books and encouraged young talents like Robert Frost and Amy Lowell. Privately, she worried about her weight, made up silly games to play with the children of friends, and was devoted to her dog named Hamlet and her parrot named Polonius. Her whimsical sense of humor enlivened everything. Students were abuzz one day over the note attached to the professor's door: "Miss Bates regrets, since probably no one else will, that she will be unable to attend class today."

The contemporary newspaper and magazine articles I read attested to her celebrity and made me realize that her trip out West in the momentous summer of 1893 - when she wrote the lines to "America the Beautiful" — was not just a sightseeing jaunt to Niagara Falls and the Chicago World's Fair and Pike's Peak, but a cultural reflection of the emerging power and idealism of a young nation. It was also the year that America invented the picture postcard, a lively new craze that graphically illustrates the self-confidence of a country on the move. As I dug further into the history of the song, I discovered the intriguing drama behind the music, written in a moment of Victorian inspiration by Samuel Augustus Ward and elevated to new heights in our own day. Ward's role has frequently been overlooked, perhaps because so little is known about him, or perhaps because the tune's association with the words was almost accidental. But a famed classical performer recently told me he found "America the Beautiful" to be "organic. It's as if you turned over a rock and came upon the song all at once." And another modern master, Marvin Hamlisch, confirmed the unrivaled power of Ward's music through its cadence and structure.

For the first time I also understood how very American the song is. And what it really means. Why "liberating strife"? What are "alabaster cities" anyhow? And where did a woman from Cape Cod come up with "amber waves of grain"?

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.