There’s a scene in the movie Peggy Sue Got Married where 43-year old Peggy Sue, played by Kathleen Turner, finds herself back in her high school home room singing either “America the Beautiful” or “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (I can’t remember which, and we no longer have a working VCR, so I can’t check.) She sings with such gusto that her friends look at her like she’s nuts. I’ve always found her passion inspiring.
I thought of this scene last night at a rehearsal for our town’s Memorial Day service next weekend. Every year for the past four or five years, I’ve sung with a group of other people in town at this and other occasions. I hadn’t practiced with them for a few months and I had forgotten not only how much fun we have, but also how moving the songs we sing are. Of course we sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” We also sing “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, “God Bless America” and my favorite, “America the Beautiful.”
“America the Beautiful” was written by Katherine Lee Bates in 1893. Bates was an English professor at Wellesley College, and she was inspired to write her poem after a trip to Colorado.
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
Most people know only the first verse and chorus, which celebrates the beauty of the American landscape. The rest of the poem pays tribute to the Pilgrims and patriots who made the ideal of America possible and asks for God’s help in living up to the possibilities of our freedom. You can read it here (and learn more about Bates and her trip to Colorado). Although it had been sung to other tunes, Samuel Ward’s music, originally written in 1882, was added in 1910 and became the accepted version.
Several picture books have been created using Bates’s poem. Neil Waldman illustrated a version in 2002, and Wendell Minor’s interpretation of the poem was published in 2003. Anita Silvey featured this lovely book on her Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac last summer.
A stunning pop-up version was created by Robert Sabuda in 2004. In 2010, Katherine Lee Bates’s great, great, grandnephew, Chris Gall paired his unique vision with his relative’s famous verses. America the Beautiful: Together We Stand is the most recent version, published just this year. This rendition is illustrated by a virtual who’s who of picture book illustrators. Quotes from presidents are paired with the lyrics and illustrations.
After 9/11, my school had an assembly to come together and mourn. The principal said a few words, but we mostly sang patriotic songs. I was shocked to discover that many of my students didn’t know the words to these songs. After that, I always included a song in the morning routine my classroom. This is one of the things I miss the most about not having my own classroom.
These songs are part of our cultural heritage. No matter what our politics, curriculum, or testing demands, we should be sharing these songs with our students every day. Peggy Sue shouldn’t be the only one excited about singing them.