America, the Beautiful

One of the first things I thought of when I saw the spontaneous outpouring of emotion that followed the news that Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump was the importance of music to the celebration. The power of music – to express joy, to comfort sorrow, to inspire the best in us – is overwhelming and inescapable.

Music has been a part of America’s identity from Yankee Doodle to hip hop. Musical forms as diverse as blues, jazz, rock’n’roll, and country music all grew and blossomed in the fertile soil and soul of American culture.

The lyrics to “America, the Beautiful” were written by Katherine Bates, an English professor at Wellesley college, in 1893. She was 33 years old when she took a train ride from Massachusetts to Colorado, inspiring the poem that she called “Pike’s Peak” because it was written at that mountain’s summit. Over the next 17 years, more than 75 melodies were written as a frame for Bates’ words but the tune that worked best was written a year before her lyrics, by Samuel Ward, the organist and choir director for Grace Church in Newark, New Jersey. His melody came to him during a ferry boat ride home from Coney Island. Bates and Ward never met but their art did.

On September 18, 1972, less than two months before Richard Nixon was reelected, Ray Charles appeared on The Dick Cavett show and performed this transcendent interpretation of their work.

Oh, 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
'Til all success be nobleness
and every gain divine

when I was in school, you know, we used to sing it something like this:
Oh, beautiful for spacious skies
for amber waves of grain
for purple mountain majesties
above the fruited plain
Look here, I'm talking about
America, sweet America, you know, God done shed his grace on thee
He crowned thy good, said with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea
America, ooh I love you America, because my God done shed his grace on thee
and you ought to love him for it 'cause he
crowned thy good, he told me he would, said with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea
Oh lord, oh lord
Thank you Jesus
Shining sea

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