What are the lyrics to ‘America the Beautiful’, and what’s the patriotic song’s history?

5 February 2021, 16:37

Jennifer Hudson performs 'America the Beautiful' at the 2013 Pepsi Super Bowl
Jennifer Hudson performs 'America the Beautiful' at the 2013 Pepsi Super Bowl. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

We explore the lyrics and history of a beloved American patriotic song, ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Once on the table to become the national anthem of the United States, ‘America the Beautiful’ has never quite succeeded in ousting its musical rival, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ – but it holds a meaningful place in the hearts of many Americans.

The song’s music and lyrics were conceived in the 19th century, by two people who never met: Katharine Lee Bates, whose words formed the poem Pikes Peak, and organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward, who composed the music at his church in New Jersey.

For her lyrical inspiration, Bates looked to her surroundings, the “purple mountain majesties” reflecting the view she found at the summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado.

Ward, equally, originally wrote the melody (known as ‘Materna’) for a completely different purpose – the hymn ‘O Mother dear, Jerusalem’, in 1882.

Finally, in 1910, Ward and Bates’ creations were combined and published under the name ‘America the Beautiful’. Ward died in 1903, with no idea of the status his music would one day take on.

Read more: Calls for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ to be replaced with a new anthem >

Opera star Renee Fleming sings 'America the Beautiful' at Harvard University in 2015
Opera star Renee Fleming sings 'America the Beautiful' at Harvard University in 2015. Picture: Getty

Who has performed ‘America the Beautiful’?

Some of America’s biggest music sensations have wrapped their vocal cords around ‘America the Beautiful’, including Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, who both recorded the song in the 1960s.

More than a decade later, the patriotic melody was repopularised through a soulful, chart-topping 1976 rendition by Ray Charles.

On this side of the year 2000, it was heard in a typically rousing rendition by Beyoncé at Barack Obama’s inaugural concert in 2008. It’s also often heard at the Super Bowl, and will be taken on this year by Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson, a singer-songwriter known as H.E.R.

Read more: What are the lyrics to the US National Anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner? >

But until we hear that, please enjoy this absolutely belting rendition from Whitney Houston, who does it with melismas aplenty:

Is ‘America the Beautiful’ an official US anthem?

It’s a beloved melody and was even considered as a candidate for the official anthem before ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was eventually chosen in 1931, but ‘America the Beautiful’ doesn’t officially have legal status as a US national hymn or anthem.

That’s not for want of people trying. Notably during the John F. Kennedy administration, there were swathes of calls to make it at least a national hymn, to no success.

Many have argued that ‘America the Beautiful’, as well as being an easier sing and more adaptable to new orchestrations, lacks the often controversially perceived, warlike connotations of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’.

Read more: US congressman files bill to make ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ new national hymn >

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What are the lyrics to ‘America the Beautiful’?

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!