The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #94336   Message #1825512
Posted By: Genie
02-Sep-06 - 03:02 PM
Thread Name: Common poems set to music
Subject: Common poems set to music: America the Beautiful
It's probably not commonly known that "America The Beautiful" was originally a poem, not a song. Massachusetts school teacher Katharine Lee Bates wrote the first version of the poem in 1892 IIRC (I was just a kid at the time) ;-) and for several years after its publication, people in the US set it to just about any well-known 4/4 tune they could find -- most notably and most commonly "Auld Lang Syne."   

Actually, the specific dates of the milestones in the development of this song are elusive, as different sources cite different versions thereof.

This is from Bates's own journal:
"... When we left Colorado Springs the four stanzas were penciled in my notebook …. The ... the notebook was laid aside, and I do not remember paying heed to these verses until the second summer following, when I copied them out and sent them to The Congregationalist, where they first appeared in print July 4, 1895.   The hymn attracted an unexpected amount of attention.   It was almost at once set to music by Silas G. Pratt.   Other tunes were written for the words and so many requests came to me, with still increasing frequency, that in 1904 I rewrote it, trying to make the phraseology more simple and direct."

That version was published in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1904, titled "America."   Bates kept perfecting her poem until 1911, when she published the poem in its present form, in a collection titled "America the Beautiful and Other Poems."

Samuel A. Ward, a NJ church organist, wrote the tune "Materna" in 1882. It's said that on his way home from Coney Island the melody popped into his head and he wrote the notes on a shirt-cuff.   He published it as a hymn in 1888.

In 1904 a NY Baptist minister, Dr. Clarence A Barbour, noted the fit of Bates's poem to Ward's tune and introduced the pairing as a hymn for his congregation. Its popularity quickly spread beyond his Rochester congregation. Barbour included this hymn in "Fellowship Hymns," published in 1910 (though he misspelled Bates's name as "Katherine.")

It appears that the lyricist (Bates), the melody composer (Ward), and the man who published the two as a hymn (Barbour) never met.

The rest, as they say, is history.   At least till Ray Charles put his own twist on both the tune and the lyrics. I'd say he has the best-known recording of this poem-set-to-music.

Regarding the Ray Charles version, I found this historical note about Bates's views very interesting:

"... Bates gave permission to use the poem to anyone who wanted it, requiring only that not a single word be changed, "so that we may not have as many texts as we already have tunes." ... "

Katharine Lee Bates bio, with info on history of ATB

Despite Bates's wish that "not a single word be changed," it the song seems to have undergone several modifications via "the folk process" -- probably people mis-hearing or misremembering some lines. E.g., the phrase "purple mountain majesties" often gets sung as "purple mountains' majesty."    And Ray changed "[May] God shed His grace on thee and crown thy good with brotherhood" to "God done shed His grace on thee and crownED thy good ... "   The former doesn't really change the meaning, but the latter really does.