Story of American Patriotic Songs

The story of American patriotic songs involves rich history.

| June 2005

  • Julia Ward Howe
    LYRIC POET: Julia Ward Howe wrote the words to 'Battle Hymn of the Republic' after being dissatisfied with the lyrics to 'John Brown's Body.'
    Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

  • Julia Ward Howe

Overcome with patriotism and America's beauty, three Americans set poetry to music, creating songs that would continue to be sung for decades.

Katherine Lee Bates, a professor at Wellesley (Mass.) College, accepted an invitation to teach a summer class at Colorado College in 1893. On her cross-country journey, she stopped at the World's Fair in Chicago, where she saw its alabaster buildings - a sight that would cause her to write of her country's 'alabaster cities.'

After finishing the class, she rode to the top of Pike's Peak. Looking to the west, she saw the splendor of the 'purple mountain majesties' and, to the east, 'golden fields of grain.' All of this grandeur she recorded in her journal and set aside.

In 1895, Bates pulled out that journal and submitted a poem she wrote based on her impressions to a magazine, The Congregationalist. On July 4, 1895, 'America the Beautiful' appeared in print for the first time.

Bates was not prepared for its widespread popularity. In fact, hundreds of letters poured in asking that she set her words to music. Many melodies were tried - 64 in all - and finally Samuel Ward's 'Materna' was chosen. The song would earn him lifelong fame.

Bates isn't the only woman whose patriotic poetry, set to song, lives on today. Consider the enduring words of Julia Ward Howe.

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