This re-imagined America the Beautiful began as a work for TTBB choir that eventually outgrew itself and morphed into a full SATB anthem. As I began, I felt that I wanted to give the old words a new melody, even though I am quite fond of the original melody by Samuel A. Ward. But as the project began to unfold, I realized that I also wanted — and needed — to transform the words as well.
I felt that the first and fourth stanzas should hold for the most part to the original and well-loved words by Katharine Lee Bates. But the second and third verses presented more angles for development the longer I pondered them. This is an important time we are in — a time of reckoning, of taking stock, of settling imbalances, of naming truths long denied. It is a time of facing our collective past with greater honesty and accountability. This means some of our cultural iconography has to either transform with us, or be left behind as outdated relics.
Bates’ original words from verse two present a one-sided depiction of the settling of our country: a movement from east-to-west, led by “pilgrim feet” beating a “thoroughfare of freedom…across the wilderness.” However, in reality, as we know, the North American continent was populated by native Americans from west-to-east, between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, and of course their trails were the first “thoroughfares across the wilderness.” And, far from “beautiful,” the trauma and tragedy of the conflict between native Americans and European settlers is something that still reverberates centuries later. After many pages of scratched attempts and rhyme lists, I worked out this retelling:
O beautiful that ancient feet
Beneath the countless stars,
Ten thousand years in Beauty walked,
Through wilderness unmarred.
And fateful then, that sailing fleets
A new world sought, and found,
And whose bright promise wrought a doom
Whose echoes yet resound.
May God forgive thy vying strains.
Thy pride yet tame with rightful shame,
That others’ loss bought selfish gain.
Bates’ original verse three praises the “heroes proved in liberating strife” — Revolutionary War heroes. But I felt it was more important to focus on the third founding “strand” of Americans: African-Americans — present well before the founding of the country in 1776. Their story is followed from enslavement through the “liberating strife” of the Civil Rights movement — in which Bates’ original words ring more true, actually, since nonviolence was the chief technique utilized in that movement:
O sorrowful for captive feet
In chains against their will,
Who toiled through centuries of wrong
To triumph still:
Whose heroes proved so beautiful
In claims of lawful rights,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life.
May God yet mend thine every flaw,
Redeem thy soul and be made whole,
Thy liberty in law.
For the final verse, I wanted to return to Bates’ original words, inspired by the ideal America of the future (she had attended the World’s Fair before traveling to Colorado and up to Pikes Peak). I added a few lines to her closing section, to more fully name the breadth of origination that our country of immigrants truly has: “America! America! from farthest shores thy people stream.”
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed human tears.
From farthest shores thy people stream,
The multitude that seek thy good,
And share a common dream.
God shed His bounteous grace on thee,
Thy beauty crown with unity,
From sea to shining sea!
Tonality, the LA-based choir dedicated to promoting unity, peace, and social justice through choral music, gave the premiere of America the Beautiful in their “Democracy in Action” concert on October 7, 2018, led by Alex Blake.