Thursday, July 22, 2021

THROWBACK THURSDAY: From Sea to Shining Sea


On this day in 1893, an English professor at Colorado College sat down and wrote a song about purple mountains, amber waves of grain, spacious skies and shining seas.

And thus did Katharine Lee Bates become a one-hit wonder -- though that one hit, "America the Beautiful," was a doozy. 

Bates, a Massachusetts native born in 1859, never got as famous as Francis Scott Key. But I'm not alone when I say I like her song better.

From the Colorado Virtual Library:

Katharine Lee Bates only spent one summer living in Colorado, but that year she wrote the words to one of the United States’ most famous patriotic songs, “America the Beautiful.” At the time she wrote the song, in 1893, she was living in Colorado Springs teaching English at Colorado College. The words, particularly the phrase “purple mountain majesty,” are said to have been inspired by Bates’ stay in Colorado.

Unless she was thinking of the majestic purple mountains of Massachusetts.

Actually, according to her page at the Songwriters Hall of Fame website, it was one purple mountain in particular that inspired bates to write to the song. It quotes an interview with Bates:

 "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. When we left Colorado Springs the four stanzas were penciled in my notebook, together with other memoranda, in verse and prose, of the trip. The Wellesley work soon absorbed time and attention again, 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."

"America the Beautiful" in its early days was sung to the tunes of several existing melodies. But the one that stuck was a song by one Samuel A. Ward, a "hymn-tune 'Materna,' previously known as 'O Mother Dear Jerusalem,' which was written in 1888."

No, she wasn't Norman Bates' mom

Bates had graduated in 1880 from Wellesley College in her home state. That was a time in which very few colleges in this great nation were open to women. She later taught at Wellesley.

And though she's best known for this song, Bates also published several books, including books of poetry children's literature. She worked as a New York Times reporter covering the Spanish-American War. She crusaded for various social reforms on behalf of women, immigrants and poor people and worked for attempts to establish the League of Nations, which she told the New York Times was "our one hope of peace on earth."

Bates died in 1929.

I have personal experience with "America the Beautiful." One night back in the early 1980s I was onstage at The Forge performing my regular tacky tunes when I was joined onstage by one of my favorite songwriters Butch Hancock. And guess what song we sang. If I remember correctly we did the first verse, which everybody knows, as well as the verse that begins "O beautiful for pilgrim feet, Whose stern, impassioned stress ..."

It wasn't some random event. I'd met Butch a couple of times before through our mutual friend, artist Paul Milosevich. Both Butch and country star Tom T. Hall were in town for one of Paul's art openings that afternoon and both had come to hear me at The Forge. 

I wish someone would have recorded that duet with Butch. (And I wish Tom T. would have joined us on the stage.)

So let's see how others have covered "America the Beautiful.

Most of us grew up with versions like this one:

However, I like a less pomp and a lot more soul. Ray Charles in the early '70s made it grand without being grandiose.  (The Sunday morning gospel show on WWOZ in New Orleans usually ends the show with Ray's recording of this.)

Here's a blusier, funkier version by Bobby Rush (with the Curb Collective and Eddie Cotton

And The Dictators put some rock 'n' roll into the song

Anyway, have a great Throwback Thursday and may God shed his grace on thee.

For more deep dives into songs, check out The Stephen W. Terrell Web Log Songbook

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