“America the Beautiful” has endured for more than a century as one of our country’s best-loved patriotic songs. It began as a poem written by Katharine Lee Bates, who was born in Falmouth and spent much of her life as a teacher at Wellesley College.
Bates traveled to Colorado in 1893 to teach at Colorado College. On a day trip to Pike’s Peak, the grandeur and natural beauty of the surroundings inspired her to compose the first draft of the poem that would later become “America the Beautiful.” The poem was first published in 1895 in a weekly magazine called ‘The Congregationalist.’
“It was very popular at the time for churches to take hymns and apply them to new works,” said retired English teacher Len Miele, author of a book about Katharine Lee Bates.
In 1904, Bates’ poem was paired with a tune called “Materna,” composed in 1882 by Samuel A. Ward, an organist and piano store owner from Newark, New Jersey. But Ward had died the year before, and never knew the success his composition would enjoy.
The music and lyrics were published together as “America the Beautiful” for the first time in 1910, rapidly gaining wide acclaim with the public.
Miele said Bates was never interested in making money from her unlikely success as a lyricist. “It’s been said the only money she ever got was the original five dollars when it appeared in ‘The Congregationalist,’ said Miele. “She never got royalties…ever.”
In 1926, a contest was held – with a $500 prize - to find an alternate piece of music for Bates’ words. But by then, “America the Beautiful” was entrenched in the public consciousness. After reviewing 930 submissions over three months, contest organizers decided to stick with ‘Materna.’
Katharine Lee Bates went on to enjoy a long and distinguished career as a teacher and author. She died in 1929.