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A Stirring Story Behind 'America the Beautiful'

November 09, 2001|BETH COONEY | STAMFORD ADVOCATE

They wrote the words and music to "America the Beautiful," but poet Katharine Lee Bates and church organist Samuel Augustus Ward never met.

Indeed, the writer and musician never even corresponded about the accidental collaboration that became one of the nation's sentimental anthems.

Ward died before the music he wrote, which was a church hymn inspired by a majestic day spent with family and friends at New York's Coney Island, became a piece of the national fabric.

And the humble Bates, who casually referred to the poem as "A the B," made only $5 profit from its initial publication in the Congregationalist, a church publication.

It's these snippets of history that make the song so compelling to ABC News correspondent Lynn Sherr.

"The song really has a fascinating story that is as American as the words and music," she says. "But so many people don't know it."

Sherr, who reports for the ABC newsmagazine "20/20," began researching her new book, "America the Beautiful: The Stirring True Story Behind Our Nation's Favorite Song" (Public Affairs Books), about a year and a half ago. She first got hooked on the song while a student at Massachusetts' Wellesley College, where Bates was an alumna and English professor.

The story begins in 1893 when Bates, then a young Wellesley professor, headed west to teach a summer course at Colorado College. She was 33 and, as Sherr notes, "The trip was a big deal. An adventure. For a young, single woman, it was a fairly mammoth undertaking."

Bates did not squander the opportunity. She was stirred by the "amber waves of grain" she saw in Kansas wheat fields during a July 4 train trip. Later, on a faculty trip to the top of Pike's Peak in Colorado, she saw what she later described as the "purple mountains' majesty." There, the poem "America the Beautiful" was inspired. Bates wrote: "The words just floated into my mind. It is the people who sing it who make the song."

Exactly when Bates' poem was paired with Ward's music is a mystery that Sherr hasn't completely solved. Her research suggests that the first time Ward's "Materna" was introduced as a musical background for the poem was by the Rev. Clarence Barber in 1904 at a Protestant church in New York.

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Beth Cooney writes for the Stamford Advocate, a Tribune Co. newspaper.

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