All Americans get excited about this past week – a time for observing the Fourth of July. We usually think of a holiday, flags, picnics, fireworks, and patriotic speeches. To me, one of the memorable things about the Fourth is singing great patriotic hymns and the stirring music associated with our national heritage.
Ira Cook said that music is the only language in which you cannot say a mean or sarcastic thing. And Leonard Bernstein observed: “The value of a musical work does not lie in physical structure but in the effect it has on us.” Patriotic music has a stirring effect on me; I still get tears when I stand and sing the national anthem. I feel goose bumps when I hear stirring patriotic music.
I am reminded that even some of the great music can be misinterpreted. The story is told of a kindergarten class in which one of the students announced with great pride that she had learned “God Bless America.” She regaled her parents with: “God bless America, land that I love; stand beside her and guide her, through the night with the light from a bulb.” It may be helpful to know the background and what is intended in the words of some of our great music.
Perhaps no piece of music about America is more beloved than the song, “America the Beautiful.” It was written by Katherine Lee Bates, the daughter of a Congregational minister, in Colorado Springs, Colo., on an evening in 1893 after Miss Bates had returned with a group of teachers from a visit to the summit of Pike’s Peak.
Referring to this visit she said: “I was there, and as I was looking out over the sealike expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under the ample skies, the opening lines formed themselves in my mind.”
While on her way from Wellesley to teach in a newly founded summer school in Colorado Springs, she topped for a visit to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago with its “Alabaster City,” the fair White City set in gardens green and beautiful, which gave her the inspiration for at least the last stanza.
Miss Bates, while attending the 66th annual meeting of the National Education Association held in July 1928, said to the audience: “One of the suggestions that was most insistently made in the years following the writing of this song was that I add a stanza to express international brotherhood. It has not seemed easy to do that, for, although I long for world brotherhood, the song is long enough already. So the best suggestion I can make is that when you sing the first stanza, you think of from sea to shining sea, as applying from the Pacific to the Atlantic, around the other way, and all the states in-between; and that will include all the nations and all the people from sea to shining sea.”
It would be my hope, like that of Katherine Bates, as we enjoy our freedom and celebrate it this week, that we, too, pray for brotherhood and peace in our world. Let us begin by praying that we as a nation might be worthy of God’s continued blessings.
As we whistle, hum and sing this song, I will remember a lady who was impressed by the beauty of this land and her people – and the One who created it all! “America, America, God shed His grace on thee, and crown Thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”
Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.