Of Thee I Sing

Linda Burton posting from Olympia, Washington – “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrims’ pride, from every mountain side, let freedom ring” (Samuel Francis Smith, author, 1831). It may be Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner that gets us standing and saluting at baseball games, but nobody can deny that Samuel Francis Smith’s America is a more user-friendly tune. Who can hit that ultra-high Anthem note right there at the end? It has challenged (and embarrassed) a number of high-voltage music stars, and puzzled many a kid who hasn’t studied US history yet. Bombs bursting in air? Does that mean fireworks Dad? It’s the 4th of July today; a federally recognized holiday; and many celebrations do include fireworks – Washington DC with the national capitol in the background; the Navy Pier on Lake Michigan in Chicago; Macy’s in New York; San Diego, Seattle, Tampa; big city blasts and small town set offs; or maybe just a back yard barbecue with a few illegal poppers to make noise and sparklers for the kids to wave around. Maybe the family has started vacation already, celebrating in a National Park; fanfare and awesomeness. It was quiet today in Olympia, and I went exploring to get pictures of the American flag.

I found a flag attached to every lamp post; they lined the downtown streets and the curving drive that leads up to the capitol. I set the tripod up and posed. And for some mysterious reason I hummed America. The sky was really blue today; no wind; the lawn was tended green. Just around a curve, if I knew which curve to look around, I could see Mt Rainier, an ice-cream cone of 14,000 feet and close; but I focused on the flag today. And, America. The head cold that gripped me since Honolulu lightened up a bit; I’m feeling better as I look around. I get a hot dog at the Dairy Queen, now that’s a treat; remembering my 50’s town; my first soft-ice-cream-cone; the corner Dairy Queen just down the hill from where I lived. Nostalgia mixed with patriotism; that’s what this day is all about. I’m still humming America when I get back to my room.

What was going on with Mr Smith when he wrote that song? Some Google time, and this is what I learned. He was a student at Andover Theological Seminary in Andover, Massachusetts, about 23 years old, when a friend asked him to translate some German lyrics from a songbook. A melody in Muzio Clementi’s Symphony No 3 caught his attention. But instead of translating, he wrote his own lyrics in about 30 minutes. Smith gave his friend the lyrics and the song was first performed in public on July 4, 1831, at a children’s Independence Day celebration at Park Street Church in Boston. July 4! How about that!

Samuel Smith graduated in 1834 and was ordained as a Baptist minister in Maine. He was Professor of Modern Languages at Waterville College until 1842, when he went to Newton, Massachusetts. He continued his ministry there, as pastor of the First Baptist Church and editor of the Christian Review and other publications of the Baptist Missionary Union. He made many trips to Europe, Turkey, the Indian Empire, Ceylon, and Burma to visit missionary outposts. He also married Mary White Smith, had six children, and wrote more than 150 more hymns.

In 1893 Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr recommended Smith as a potential candidate for an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Harvard University, but Harvard President Charles Eliot declined, stating that My Country Tis of Thee was better known for its tune than its lyrics. Holmes disagreed, noting that “his song will be sung centuries from now, when most of us and our pipings are forgotten.”

America was one of the songs sung at Samuel Francis Smith’s funeral in 1895. He was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1970. Notable performances of America include Marian Anderson’s at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939; Martin Luther King Jr’s recitation of the first verse toward the end of his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963; Crosby, Stills & Nash’s performance of the song on the first episode of The Tonight Show after the September 11 attacks in 2001; Aretha Franklin’s performance on January 20, 2009 at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. And me, humming and singing on July 4, 2012, on the capitol grounds in Olympia, Washington, 181 years after America was first performed. Let’s face it, Mr Eliot, it’s America’s song.

Let music swell the breeze, and ring from all the trees, sweet freedom’s song. Let mortal tongues awake, let all that breathe partake, let rocks their silence break, the sound prolong.