Intro to America the Beautiful

Towards the end of this week’s torah study session, I casually asked the group if they can recommend an appropriate tune for the weekend of July 4th, to be shared during services tonight. It was then that Rabbi Lisa informed us that “America the Beautiful’’ – considered to be one of the most universally known, beloved tunes in the United States, was written by a lesbian poet. To quote Perry Eaton from the Boston Globe – ‘America the Beautiful’ was written by a gay feminist badass from Massachusets’. It was written, originally as a poem, by a Wellesley College professor named Katharine Lee Bates in 1893.

In the summer of 1893, Bates travelled to the West Coast to give a guest lecture at Colorado College. “This young girl, standing on Pike’s Peak in Colorado, looked out across the country and saw a vision,’’ The Boston Globe wrote in 1929.

That vision was turned into a poem titled “America the Beautiful.’’ The poem was given a tune around 1910 thanks to a melody previously written by organist Samuel Augustus Ward, despite Ward having passed away years before. This match of words and music turned into the popular patriotic song that many of us love and know so well.

Journalists of the era often dodged the terms “lover’’ or “couple’’ when referring to Bates’s relationship with Katharine Coman, instead often referred to their relationship as a “Boston Marriage,’’ but the two ended up staying together for more than 25 years.

“It is obvious from the yearning desire that glows throughout the poems in Yellow Clover, however, that the two women were more than just friends,’’ writes Judith Schwarz, an M.A. in Women’s History from San Jose State University. “Katharine Lee Bates and Katharine Coman were a devoted lesbian couple.’’

As a popular educator at Wellesley, Bates was also vocal about women’s rights, and she was instrumental in feminist initiatives of the era.
Peter Dreier of Huffington Post writes that Bates was “part of progressive reform circles in the Boston area, concerned about labor rights, urban slums and women’s suffrage.’’

Bates and Coman often volunteered at the Denison House, a settlement house for immigrant workers operated by fellow Wellesley professor Vida Scudder, who was also a feminist and lesbian.

“You are in the thick of the battle; I congratulate you because the struggle is difficult and the goal is great,’’ Bates told the National Council of Administrative Women in Education in 1928.

As a non-american I’m often quite self-conscious about singing songs of such patriotic nature and not only was I excited learning more about Katharine Lee Bates, but I was also impressed by the many different ways artists chose to reclaim that tune, by changing the meter and adjusting/updating some of the lyrics – I believe these changes were done with the recognition that this tune was not simply written out of a feeling of nationalism, but that it was crafted with a tone of progressiveness.

Just take a look at this lyric if you don’t think that there were some shades of protest in her words:
America! America! God shed his grace on thee. Till selfish gain no longer stain The banner of the free!

My colleague Cantor David Berger recently founded the Gay Cantor’s Group on Facebook – There I shared my findings and learned the following from a Wellesly Alum Cantor Alex Kurland – she writes: “I’ve loved this woman (Katherine Bates) for many years. She attended and taught at Wellesley College (my alma mater). She wrote Little Drummer Boy, and the royalties go to the Wellesley Music Dept. “America the Beautiful” is basically Wellesley’s unofficial anthem, and singing/screaming “sisterhood” instead of “brotherhood” (more often “siblinghood” now) is also part of the tradition.
The Jewish part of the story: my most recent student pulpit loved a patriotic tune on a holiday weekend, and “America” was a fan fave. I once asked about changing the words up, and was told I should “probably just leave it as written, thanks.” But on my last service as a student cantor, on Memorial Day weekend, I went rogue and “sisterhood”-ed.”

I hope you indulge me in following that trend – here’s America the Beautiful with ever so slightly updated lyrics and an ever so slightly changed time signature – may we live to see the values we hold dear strengthened and boldly be part of the elements of beauty of this country – We are in the thick of the battle; The struggle is difficult and the goal is great