More Musical Musings for the Season

“America the Beautiful” is one of those songs that seems to keep changing. Here are the original words, which don’t always 1) fit the meter of the tune (“Materna”) and 2) include references I don’t think 99.9% of us including Yours Truly would get these days, and 3) are not really a mainstream-denomination hymn. Original poem (1893)[6]

O beautiful for halcyon skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the enameled plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
Till souls wax fair as earth and air
And music-hearted sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
Till paths be wrought through wilds of thought
By pilgrim foot and knee!

O beautiful for glory-tale
Of liberating strife,
When once or twice, for man’s avail,
Men lavished precious life!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain,
The banner of the free!

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
Till nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!

The verses most of us who sing it on a somewhat-regular basis are familiar with (although I notice more and more that two and four get conflated in order to skip the pilgrims, or just dropped altogether in the case of verse two.*)

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,
Thy 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!

I wager a goodly number of you heard the tune in your mind as you read the text. It is an excellent fit, which in interesting given that the text was not written for the tune. But let’s go back and look at the second verse again, about the pilgrims.

I’ve never really thought about that verse, aside from noting its absence in more recent hymnals, until this year. the Pilgrims, the people who settled Plymouth Plantation and other parts of New England, the Separatists, are out of favor in the United States right now. When I was in grade school they were the brave initiators of Thanksgiving, the founders of New England, the first religious-freedom-seekers, and role models for America. Now they are Indian killers, intolerant, superstitious, cruel, litigious, bigoted, and sexist and quite out of favor.

I had to read a goodly (or should that be Godly 😉 ?) amount about the Mayflower settlers and their spiritual brothers and sisters in graduate school, and later on (see David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed) and I think Katherine Lee Bates got it right. Perhaps not entirely about the stern part, but for good, ill, and otherwise, the Pilgrims were pilgrims. They made a pilgrimage, a spiritually motivated physical journey into what seemed to them and their European contemporaries to be a wilderness, and they followed Indian trails and animal trails to settle new communities. There they struggled to establish relatively egalitarian communities where literacy and education and vocations were encouraged and prized, and they could worship G-d in what they firmly believed was the Right Way. Women were valued and had more rights than among some of the other groups that settled the colonies. And the plea for G-d to mend every flaw in the nation, and to “confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law” is a request and a goal I think most people can agree is not a bad thing. More self-control in government, as in individuals, is the foundation to self-improvement and planning for the future. We tried to confirm our liberty through law, although since the 1910s the federal government has been nibbling away at that.

The hymn as it now stands strikes me as being less a pure celebration of the country and more a plea for continuing improvement and remembering where we came from, and what we need to work on. That hasn’t changed, I think. During the Early Republic (1783-1830s or so), states and even the president and congress on occasion called for days of fasting and prayer for the good of the nation and the states in times of trouble. There were also days of celebration to give thanks for blessings and bounties. You might not agree with the government calling for such a day of national humility, but encouragement to acknowledge errors, learn from them, and then move on and not repeat them is found in a lot of spiritual and psychiatric and psychological movements.

I had a grad school professor who snarled about the “G-d Bless America”  and “G-d bless the USA” stickers and magnets that had appeared on cars after 9/11, since in his view America wasn’t good or deserving. I blinked, because I had always assumed it was more of a plea: G-d bless America because we need all the help we can get.

Likewise the song by that title. Everyone knows the words, except for the introduction, added in 1939. “As the storm clouds gather far across the sea/ let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free./ Let us all be grateful for a land so fair/ As we lift our voices in a solemn prayer:/ G-d bless America…” Irving Berlin’s parents were Jews who fled Russia because of the pogroms. He wrote the song during WWI but it just didn’t quite work for him and he set it aside. He brought it back out in 1938 and 1939, tweaked the lyrics here and there, added the introduction, and the rest is history.

The opening always chokes me up, not a good thing when you are trying to sing a concert arrangement. Especially this year, one of the best things about coming home from “far across the sea” is not having to watch every word I say in public and not having to worry that someone will overhear a comment about Islam, or politics, or 20th century history and fuss at me or report me to the police.

Oddly, this year, what got me the hardest was “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Heck if I know why, but I had to dig my nails into my hand to keep from crying as the orchestra played. Perhaps it was because everyone was on their feet, clapping along. Then the choir, which had been told to sit for this number, spontaneously rose to its feet. There was a sense, for lack of better words, of solemn, ferocious joy and pride that I’ve rarely felt in the past few years.

Which is what I think July 4th needs. it’s fun, and there’s always sitting back and watching people gripe about using the 1812 Overture for patriotic concerts**, but underneath the hotdogs and parades and fireworks is something deadly serious, even as it overflows with joy. The men who signed the Declaration of Independence pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Is America worth that?

Yes. She is flawed, she is tattered in spots, but she’s still the best hope as the storm clouds loom and the storm grows closer.

*Like the third verse of “Be Thou my Vision,” the one about “Be Thou my battle-shield, sword for my fight/ Be Thou my dignity, Thou my delight. Thou my soul’s shelter, Thou my proud tower;/ Raise Thou me heavenward, o power of my power.”

The author paraphrased Psalm 144: 1-2.“Blessed be the Lord my strength which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight:My goodness, and my fortress; my high tower, and my deliverer; my shield, and he in whom I trust; who subdueth my people under me.”  (KJV)

**Why are Americans using a Russian song about the defeat of Napoleon that was written for an autocratic despot in order to honor our national independence, especially since we went to war with England in 1812 in part because of the Napoleonic wars? Because 1) it’s great music 2) that works very well with fireworks, 3) and that has cannons written into the score. 4) And because Americans love to grab neat stuff from other times and places and re-purpose it for our own ideas of what’s good. Or to quote William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, “Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?”

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13 thoughts on “More Musical Musings for the Season

  1. I was unfamiliar with the new version of America the Beautiful, until we sung it at church yesterday. I have to say I like it better than the original (and we sung all four verses including the pilgrim one).

    • *Winces* Kinda. Actually, there was a fad for enameled jewelry and china painting at the time the verses were written, and she probably means beautiful and perfectly preserved. Certain types of women’s cosmetics were also called enamels, although I am going to go out on a bit of a limb and say that she’s probably not implying that what she sees has been, ah, “touched up” for guests.

  2. Thanks for the education. Being half deaf, I don’t catch all the words half the time anymore. Didn’t realize there had been that many changes.

  3. In this case, thank heaven for revisions and/or editors. I’m wondering now, was it Katherine Lee Bates herself or somebody else who polished up “America the Beautiful”?

    On the largely-missing verse for “Be Thou My Vision,” I sang it first as a student in grad school (theological college) in England. The version I learned there is translated as “Be thou my breastplate, my sword for the fight; be thou my whole armour, be thou my true might; be thou my soul’s shelter, be thou my high tower; O raise thou me heavenward, great Power of my power” (New English Hymnal). It’s always had an echo of St. Patrick’s Breastplate to me, as well as referring to Ephesians 6:11. Thanks for the Psalm 144 reference. It’s good to know.

    Anyway, first time here. I had to comment for two reasons: First, because I’m visiting from your post on Not-Marketing over at Mad Genius Club and thought you would like to know. And second, because “Be Thou My Vision,” is one of musical themes for the novel I’m trying to get published ASAP, and I’ve arranged for my female protag to know that verse and call it to mind in a desperate situation. (Considering if I should do some Not-Marketing here and be reticent about the name of my own book. Or should I have the guts to spill it here? Well, it’s your blog. If you say it’s okay, I will. I mean, it wouldn’t kill me to mention it . . . )

    • Welcome! Thanks for stopping by and for commenting.
      You are free to mention titles you have and works in progress, but I ask that you check with me before adding advertising links. (AlmaTCBoykin AT aol DOT com)

      As I understand it, Bates modified the words in 1904, but the 1911 version (the “official” version) was done by someone else specifically for inclusion in a hymnnal. There’s a book about the song America the Beautiful by Lynn Sherr that goes into a lot of detail about who wrote what and why.

      • Thanks. My teetering-on-the-verge-of-getting it-indie-published debut novel is a romantic suspense number called _The Single Eye_, by Catrin Lewis. Matthew 6:22 reference (KJV), so yeah, BTMV works in well.

  4. On 1812, as there were two Wars of 1812 (and one less known in many circles.. and other shapes, yes) there is bound to be confusion. As you say, what is more American than “appropriating” the good stuff? And America not snagging a tune that has an Artillery Section when properly done? Come on, really. }:o)

  5. A great article and some good reflections on America – thanks for provoking some thoughts.

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