What seems like a patriotic song is really an intercessory prayer.
What better way to celebrate the 243rd birthday of the United States of America than with “America the Beautiful,” sung by our very own United States Navy Band. This arrangement attempts to capture the essence of our wide-ranging borders with equally grand orchestration, all presented with beautiful high-definition footage of America’s varied ecosystems and wildlife.
“America the Beautiful” is widely regarded as one of the finest patriotic tunes in the American songbook, but it was written and composed as a hymn, which is why we sometimes hear it sung in church. While the beginning of each verse highlights another of the land’s most glorious aspects, each stanza ends with an intercessory request of the Lord: First that God shed his grace on America; second that he mend our every flaw; third that he refine our gold (our spiritual resources); and finally a repetition of the first verse.
The lyrics were written by Katharine Lee Bates, a prolific writer, educator, and scholar of the 19th century. The daughter of a minister, Bates has several hymns credited to her name, but none of them come close to the renown of “America the Beautiful.”
As the story goes, the lyrics were written at the summit of Pikes Peak, in Colorado. At the time, Bates was teaching at Colorado College, when she and a few other teachers decided to climb the mountain. Ballad of America, a website concerned with the musical heritage of the country, has Bates’ own record of writing these lyrics:
“One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.”
The tune was first published in a special “Independence Day” edition of the church periodical The Congregationalist in 1895, under the name “Pike’s Peak.” Over the next several years the lyrics were set to several different melodies, but none of them stuck until they were set to a tune called “MATERNA,” written by Samuel A. Ward, in 1882. In 1910, the lyrics were published with this melody and they have been inseparable ever since.
So remember, if you sing “America the Beautiful” this week at Sunday Mass, it is not just a song to feel patriotic. It is a prayer that God care for our country.
And at the end of the day, when the party winds down, turn up this excellent arrangement by Ray Charles, a perfect closing hymn for all our backyard BBQs.
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