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America The Beautiful by Ray Charles
Album: A Message From the PeopleReleased: 1972
The lyrics were written sometime in the 1890's by a Wellesley College English professor named Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote it as a poem. In 1926, the poem was combined with the music of a hymn written by Samuel Ward called "Materna" for a contest by the National Federation of Music Clubs.
A lot of artists have recorded this, including Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, but Charles' version is the most famous.
Bates was inspired by the beauty of nature during a lecture tour in Colorado Springs. She recalled just before her death in 1929: "One day, some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there."
She continued: "We stood at last on that Gate-of-Heaven summit, hallowed by the worship of perished races, and gazed in wordless rapture over the far expanse... It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind."
The poem first appeared in a Boston church publication called The Congregationalist on July 4, 1895, with the editor's introductory note: "Miss Bates's poem has the true patriotic ring pertinent to Fourth of July."
The original poem described the skies as "halcyon" instead of spacious and the plain as "enameled" instead of fruited.
According to Mark Steyn's A Song for the Season, Samuel Ward wrote the music that would eventually accompany "America the Beautiful" after a particularly thrilling visit to Coney Island.