“America The Beautiful” Lyrics You Probably Don’t Know

“America the Beautiful” isn’t the United States’s national anthem (that honor goes to “The Star-Spangled Banner”), but it’s arguably just as well loved. The song promotes the idea of a bountiful country with spacious skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountains majesty, and a fruited plain.

But do you know which scenic lands inspired author Katharine Lee Bates to write the immediately popular lyrics? Or, for that matter, what Bates meant by “alabaster cities”?

The origin of “America the Beautiful”

In 1893, Bates, a professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, went to Colorado Springs to teach a summer class on Chaucer. Her cross-country travels took her through much of the heartland in the Midwest, as well as the World’s Columbian Exposition happening in Chicago that year.

The exploration didn’t stop once she arrived in Colorado. Toward the end of her class, Bates took a wagon more than 14,000 feet up to the top of nearby Pikes Peak on the front range of the Rocky Mountains. The views were, and are, expansive—you can see Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Kansas from the mountain top on a clear day.

Bates later wrote in her diary that the view showed “the sea-like expanse of fertile country,” and that “all the wonder of America seemed displayed there.”?Her experiences inspired her to write a poem called “Pikes Peak” before she left Colorado.

Two years later, in 1895, a religious Boston weekly newspaper called The Congregationalist published the poem under the title “America.” Fittingly, it was published on July 4.

The poem wasn’t yet set to music, but by some accounts, as many as 75 song versions existed by 1900. Bates tweaked the lyrics a bit to add the lines “And crown thy good with brotherhood / From sea to shining sea” in 1904, and the poem was republished in the Boston Evening Transcript. She self edited once again in 1910, and changed the title to “America the Beautiful.”

The latest version was set to Samuel A. Ward’s 1882 hymn “Materna” (also known as “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem”). The accompaniment stuck, and that version is the one Americans know and love today.

What inspired the lyrics to “America the Beautiful”?

Bates drew from what she saw in Massachusetts, Colorado, and everything in between to write her poem. The “amber fields of grain” in the Midwest, for example, and the “purple mountain majesties” that she viewed from her perch on Pikes Peak.

The man-made aspects of the country inspired Bates as well. The line “thine alabaster cities gleam” is a reference to the buildings she witnessed at the World’s Columbian Exposition (alabaster is a type of white rock often used for ornamental carvings).

Frequent references to God show Bates’s strong religious beliefs. The lines “O beautiful for pilgrim feet / Whose stern, impassioned stress” recall the history of Europeans landing in Massachusetts, while the stanza beginning “O beautiful for heroes proved / In liberating strife” references the country’s soldiers “Who more than self their country loved.”

Which lyrics have changed over time?

The original poem published in 1895 was a little different than the one we’re familiar with today. Here’s the earliest first verse:

O beautiful for halcyon skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the enameled plain!

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
Till souls wax fair
as earth and air
And music-hearted sea!

And here are the lyrics as we know them today:

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 for 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!

 

Croon your way to the patriotic top with these forgotten verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Or try to correct these grammatically incorrect lyrics found in popular songs:

WATCH: Can You Correct These Grammatically Incorrect Song Lyrics?

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