On this July 1, 2014, America stands divided politically after some contentious Supreme Court business, and yet we are united in our support of Team USA at the World Cup against Belgium this afternoon.  America is also united in looking forward to a nice, long, Fourth of July weekend coming up.  I can think of no better time to explore our unofficial national hymn, America the Beautiful.

The hymn really has two authors.  Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929) wrote the words, inspired by a visit to Pikes Peak in Colorado and other western vistas.  She was a distinguished professor of English at Wellesley College in Massachusetts who agitated for American involvement in the League of Nations and lived with a female partner for 25 years.  Her poem, originally entitled simply America, was published on July 4th, 1895.  Samuel Augustus Ward (1847-1903) wrote the tune, which he called Materna, in 1882.  He was a church organist in New Jersey and the last descendent in a long line of Samuel Wards that started with a Rhode Island governor and Continental Congress delegate.  Ward and Bates would never meet.  Their works were not combined until a 1910 publication, 7 years after Ward’s death, presented them in the form that is still familiar today.

There are few things more American than Mormons, so here is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with a very straight-ahead version of the hymn:

Gospel is certainly among the most uniquely American of musical genres.  Here is one of America’s greats, Ray Charles (who, it should be noted, could never behold the beauty of America himself) in 1972 with a truly heartfelt rendition.  Note that he starts with the third verse (see below), which seems to contain a call for putting country before self:

Of the many arrangements of America the Beautiful that exist for band, Carmen Dragon‘s is by far the most epic.  Dragon (1914-1984) was a conductor, composer, and arranger whose work included numerous film scores, a long engagement with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, and a long-running classical music radio show on the Armed Forces Network.  He unleashes the full color palate of the band and pushes the harmonic language as far as is possible in a traditional tune.  Here is the band original:

And here is his arrangement as performed by the US Navy Band, featuring the Sea Chanters Chorus:

Bates’s poem (presented here in its 1913 revision) captures the glory of the American landscape while calling for goodness, unity, and brotherhood from its people.

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 of 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!