Format Web Pages
Contributors Library of Congress
Dates 2002
Location Washington
Washington D.C.
Subjects Article
Popular Songs of the Day
Songs and Music
Songs Collections
America the Beautiful
Created / Published
Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 2002.
Subject Headings
-  popular songs of the day
-  songs and music
-  songs collections
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O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain . . .

The author of "America the Beautiful," Katharine Lee Bates, was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts in 1859 and grew up near the rolling sea. Her graceful poetic style came through in poems such as "The Falmouth Bell:"

Never was there lovelier town
Than our Falmouth by the sea.
Tender curves of sky look down
On her grace of knoll and lea. . . .

Bates, who eventually became a full professor of English literature at Wellesley College, made a lecture trip to Colorado in 1893 and there she wrote the words to "America the Beautiful." As she told it, "We strangers celebrated the close of the session by a merry expedition to the top of Pike's Peak, making the ascent by the only method then available for people not vigorous enough to achieve the climb on foot nor adventurous enough for burro-riding. Prairie wagons, their tail-boards emblazoned with the traditional slogan, "Pike's Peak or Bust," were pulled by horses up to the half-way house, where the horses were relieved by mules. We were hoping for half and hour on the summit, but two of our party became so faint in the rarified air that we were bundled into the wagons again and started on our downward plunge so speedily that our sojourn on the peak remains in memory hardly more than one ecstatic gaze. It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind."

On July 4, 1895, Bates' poem first appeared in The Congregationalist, a weekly newspaper. Bates revised her lyrics in 1904, a version published that year in The Boston Evening Transcript, and made some final additions to the poem in 1913.

For several years "America the Beautiful" was sung to almost any popular air or folk tune with which the lyrics fit: "Auld Lang Syne" was one of the most common. Today it is sung to a melody written in 1882 by Samuel Augustus Ward, a Newark, New Jersey, church organist and choirmaster. Ward originally composed the melody (also titled "Materna") to accompany the words of the sixteenth century hymn "O Mother Dear, Jerusalem." When the National Federation of Music Clubs sponsored a 1926 contest to elicit new music for Bates' poem but failed to find a winner, Ward's music prevailed.

"America the Beautiful" has been called "an expression of patriotism at its finest." It conveys an attitude of appreciation and gratitude for the nation's extraordinary physical beauty and abundance, without triumphalism. It has also been incorporated into a number of films including The Sandlot and The Pentagon Wars. Its lyricist, Katharine Lee Bates, died March 28, 1929, and is buried in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and its composer, Samuel A. Ward, died on September 28, 1903, in Newark, New Jersey.

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Print Bibliography
  1. Collins, Ace. Stories behind the hymns that inspire America: songs that unite our nation. Illustrated by Clint Hansen. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003. Call number: BV315 .C58 2003.
  2. The Congregationalist 22 no. 44 (3 November 1870) through 86 no. 20 (18 May 1901). Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1978. Microfilm. Call number: Microfilm 01104 no. 1911-1919 AP.
  3. Covert, William Chalmers and Calvin Weiss Laufer, eds. Handbook to the hymnal. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1935. Call number: ML3176 .C6 H3.
  4. Frank, James. A portrait of Pikes Peak County. Text by Dan Klinglesmith. Canmore, Alberta, Canada: Altitude Pub., 2000. Call number: F782 .P63 F73 2000.
  5. Glover, Janice. Katharine Lee Bates, author of "America the beautiful." Illustrated by Susie Howard. North Eastham, Massachusetts: Byte Size Graphics, 1993. Call number: PS1077 .B4 Z67 1993.
  6. Howard, John Tasker. Our American Music: A comprehensive history from 1620 to the present, 4th ed. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Company, 1965. Call number: ML200 .H8 1965 .
  7. Sherr, Lynn. America the beautiful: the stirring true story behind our nation's favorite song. New York: Public Affairs, 2001. Call number: PS1077 .B4 A837 2001.