Story of American Patriotic Songs

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Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
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.'

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.

She and her husband, Massachusetts Gov. Samuel Gridley Howe, were invited to Washington, D.C., in 1861 for a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln. In the company of the Rev. James Freeman Clark, they heard the song ‘John Brown’s Body.’

Julia Ward Howe said that the words were inadequate for the majestic tune, and Clark suggested she write new words for it. By the next morning, she had written new lyrics.

Arriving back in Boston, she showed those words to James T. Field, editor of Atlantic Monthly. He suggested a title for them – ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ – and published the lyrics in the February 1862 issue of the magazine.

The song was not immediately popular. But Chaplain C.C. McCabe taught it to the soldiers of his 122nd Ohio Volunteer regiment, and after that, the song spread through the entire Northern army.

Two years later, Lincoln was in the gallery of Congress when the song was sung there for the first time. Applauding exuberantly, the entire body rose to its feet. Lincoln’s voice could be heard above all others. ‘Sing it again,’ he said.

‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ is but one of many patriotic songs that have emerged during wartime. Our country’s national anthem has its roots in the War of 1812, a war between our nation and Great Britain that ended in 1815.

In September 1814, the British were planning a surprise attack on Baltimore. Captured before the attack was Dr. William Beanes, who was the personal physician to Gen. George Washington during the American Revolution.

His friend, attorney Francis Scott Key, went to President James Madison to try to get permission to negotiate his release. Winning his approval, Key set out in a small boat for the ship where the British were holding Beanes.

After much haggling, the British agreed to let Beanes go. Yet they would not allow Beanes and Key to leave until the attack on Baltimore had been carried out. The British bombs flew through the sky bombarding Fort McHenry.

All through the night, Beanes and Key waited in their little boat, wondering whose flag would be flying over the fort in the morning. When dawn arrived, the two men looked into the sky, and there they saw the stars and stripes of  ‘Old Glory’ flying.

Filled with a surge of patriotism, Key wrote a poem on the back of an old letter. Returning to his hotel room that evening, Key made a clean copy of it. He arranged the poem to fit a well-known patriotic tune, ‘To Anacreon in Heaven.’ The song became popular instantly, but it was not until March 3, 1931, 117 years later, that ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ became the national anthem by an act of Congress.