When Katherine Lee Bates, an English literature teacher at Wellesley College, was on a trek to the Pikes Peak in Colorado in 1893, when she was stunned with the beauty she saw overhead. Instantly, the poetic side of her functioned and the hymn’s opening lines began to float into her mind.
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
Those lines soon became part of the song that will be featured in numerous formal ceremonies and also in band concerts. Before the “Star Spangled Banner” became the US national anthem, this hymn was among the choices considered. Originally, the hymn came from a Bates’ poem of the same title. It was included in her work America the Beautiful and Other Poems that was published in 1911.
Setting the Words to Music
Initially, the words to “America the Beautiful,” were sung to the tune of popular folk songs like “Auld Lang Syne.” It was composer and organist Samuel Augustus Ward (1848-1903) who wrote the melody we all now associate with this iconic American patriotic song in 1882. Ward has originally called his piece “Materna.” Eventually, Bates’ lyrics were combined with Ward’s tune and were published together in 1910. That formed the version of the song we now know today.
Memorable Recordings and Renditions of the Hymn
Various artists have recorded their own versions of this patriotic song. Among them were Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson and Mariah Carey. In September 1972, Ray Charles sang the song during his appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. Watch the recordings of the song below by Charles, Nelson, and Presley.
Ray Charles’ Cover
Willie Nelson and Friends’ Performance
Elvis Presley’s Version
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America the Beautiful, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Katherine Lee Bates, Mariah Carey, Willie Nelson