Hymnspiration: America the Beautiful (Part 2)

AmericaTheBeautifulToday’s article is the conclusion of the history of beloved American hymn America the Beautiful.  In case you missed Part 1 you can read it here.

Samuel A. Ward, Composer

Samuel A. Ward was born on December 28, 1848 in Newark, New Jersey.  At the age of six, while recovering from a broken leg, Samuel began playing the accordion.  Having a natural talent for music, he began giving piano lessons as a teenager.  He had no formal musical training and at the age of sixteen he was hired as a church organist.  Later he opened a music store and began to compose his own music.

He and his wife Virginia had four daughters (only two survived).  His children and descendants would later relate a story similar to Katharine Bate’s journey to Colorado as the inspiration for composing the tune which would make American patriotic music history years later.  Samuel, his friend Harry Martin and Virginia traveled to Coney Island one summer day in 1888.

SamuelAugustusWardWhile it isn’t known exactly what activities they participated in that day, there is one record that stands.  He and Virginia had their picture taken.  Standing at the rail on their return trip across the bay, Samuel began humming a tune.  His son-in-law would later relate the details:

“Harry,” he said to his friend, “if I had something to write on, I’d put down a tune that has just come to me.”  Harry dug in his pockets.  He fumbled through his coat, his trousers, his vest, searching for some paper.  Finding none, he took off a starched linen cuff and gave it to his friend who, leaning on the boat rail, drew a staff and clef and wrote the melody of America the Beautiful.

What of it?  Katharine Bates had been inspired by the Chicago World’s Fair and the glorious Rocky Mountains – Samuel Ward had been inspired by an ocean ride and an amusement park!  Of course, his tune was composed eleven years before Katharine penned her poem.  The tune, Materna, was first used with a hymn called O Mother Dear Jerusalem.  Samuel composed other hymns but none were as well known and remarkable as Materna.

Samuel Augustus Ward died on September 28, 1903, never knowing the impact his tune would have on American musical history.  Katharine continued to work on her poem and in 1911 the final version (the third stanza and refrain were rewritten) was published in her book of poetry, America the Beautiful and Other Poems.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

America!  America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood,
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!

America!  America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self control,
The liberty in law!

O 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
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!

America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

Most often the poem was sung to the tune of Materna, but there were others such as Auld Lang Syne and some composers wrote their own tune.  Katharine received scores of musical scores and called upon the services of her friend Marvin Hamlisch, a talented composer in his own right.

Score after score Hamlisch would deem “dull, complicated, boring, unmemorable.”  By far, Materna met both the criteria for musicality and emotional impact.  Katharine also received “suggestions” for lyric or rhyming changes, which she politely declined.  However, she didn’t object when other nations translated it for their own purposes:

Mi México!  Mi México!
Bendigate el senor
su gracia de hasta rebosar
Del uno al otro mar

For her part, Katharine Bates wanted no part – she refused to participate  when it came to choosing the best composition to set her poem to music.  Nevertheless, the song became increasingly popular no matter what tune was attached to it.  It was included in a pocket-sized book given to World War I soldiers.  She received numerous requests from publishers and composers, so many she had to assign a special cabinet to hold the correspondence.

Katharine’s primary job was running the English Department at Wellesley, not promoting her poetry, and certainly not selecting the music.  She did, however, agree to lend her name to a contest which would decide once and for all which tune would be wedded to her poem.  The National Federal of Music Clubs decided to hold a contest in 1926 . . . the goal to award a $500 prize to an American-born composer whose “setting best expresses the love, loyalty and majesty its lines express.”

There were almost one thousand entries (961) and all were supposed to be directed to the Boston Office of the NFMC.  However, some entrants chose to forego the rules and appeal directly to Katharine.  Her assistant wrote to each and politely declined.  On April 22, 1927 four nationally recognized music critics were to make the momentous decision amidst a festive atmosphere.  The heightened anticipation met with disappointment, however.  The four judges had concluded “although some of the settings showed fine musicianship, no one impressed us as reaching the high standard called for, none was fully adequate to the inspiring text.”  No prize was awarded, but Samuel Augustus Ward was the winner since it’s his tune we sing today.

National Anthem – Which Is Best?

The United States’ search for a national anthem dated back to the Civil War era, even as the country was coming apart at the seams.  The Star-Spangled Banner had been around for awhile, inspired by an American victory in the War of 1812.  However, many thought it was time for a new national song appropriate to the times.

In May of 1861 a committee of thirteen was audaciously tasked with finding a new national anthem.  One judge expressed the goal in this way: “Any truly patriotic national hymn is, of necessity, the great peace song and the great war song of the nation.  It fits every emotion. . . . It is the national heart-beat set to music.”

An appeal went out to compose “a national hymn or popular and patriotic song appealing to the national heart.”  The winner would receive $500.  After submissions were complete, the committee spent a month and a half reviewing them.  On August 9, 1861 they announced they could not choose a clear winner.  Some entries were deemed completely nonsensical:

Our banner, our banner, long may it wave o’er us!
And the bird of our freedom long fly on before us!

Thus, no consensus for a national anthem, although during the war the South had Dixie, the North had John Brown’s Body and Julia Ward Howe’s The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which was set to the tune of John Brown’s Body.  In many ways, Howe’s version more closely symbolized the North’s cause.

After the war the nation reunited, yet without an official unifying anthem.  America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee) had been composed in 1832, but was deemed inappropriate for America’s national anthem – its tune was England’s God Save the Queen (or King).  By the early 1900’s, The Star-Spangled Banner was considered as at least the “unofficial” anthem of the United States.

In 1912 bills were introduced in Congress to make The Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem – then the debate began and would continue for almost twenty years.  The song’s biggest criticism was its militaristic theme, deemed inappropriate for a country committed to peace and stability.  America the Beautiful had no such undesirable thematic element, and with the onset of World War I its popularity increased.  The day the Germans surrendered, American soldiers were stirred to hear America the Beautiful and the hymn was sung in later ceremonies to celebrate the war’s end.

In 1926 the National Hymn Society pressed Congress to make America the Beautiful the official national anthem.  Again, Katharine Bates refused to participate or take sides – in her estimation that was Congress’ job.  The issue was hotly debated in both Congress and the public square for four more years.  Editorials flooded the nation’s newspapers, some expressing concern of The Star-Spangled Banner’s militarism or it was too local (it was written for an event occurring in Baltimore) or it was too difficult to sing.  Some believed America the Beautiful more appropriate because it best expressed the nation’s idealism and goodness.  One objection to America the Beautiful, expressed in the New York Times:

America the Beautiful” will not do on account of its title, for we must admit that there are other countries which are far more beautiful than ours, and even if there were not, one would not wish to be too boastful in our national anthem.

The debate ended on April 20, 1930 when Congress officially made The Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem.  President Herbert Hoover signed it into law on March 4, 1931.   Katharine Lee Bates, however, had passed away on March 28, 1929.

The_News_Palladium_Fri__Apr_22__1927_According to Lynn Sherr, author of America the Beautiful: The Stirring True Story Behind Our Nation’s Favorite Song:

Toward the end of her life, after the song was embedded in the national psyche and the author had become a genuine celebrity, Katharine Lee Bates held fast to her belief that the enduring success of “America the Beautiful” was due to the public, not to herself.  “That the hymn has gained, in these twenty-odd years, such a hold as it has upon our people,” she once wrote, “is clearly due to the fact that Americans are at heart idealists, with a fundamental faith in brotherhood.”

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.



  1. Early American Faith and Hymnspiration: In Case You Missed These | Diggin' History - […] America the Beautiful (Part One) and (Part Two) – This beautiful American hymn has an interesting history.  Written by…

Leave a Comment