Willoughby: It’s high time to reexamine our national anthem
Legends & Legacies
Do we have to keep singing the same song just because we always have?
Resigned to accept the status quo, we seldom wonder why things are the way they are. Rarely do we dream about what could have been. And when we consider the history we know, we usually resort to a deeply internalized version we learned in grammar school.
What started as a quiet, symbolic, knee-to-ground protest by one football player escalated through narcissistic tweets and onward to media mayhem. Tangentially, the debate needled one of my pet peeves: Why have we chosen a national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” that most Americans find difficult to sing? As a Colorado native I yearn for what could have been. “America The Beautiful” should be our national anthem.
We have had an official flag since 1777, but our national anthem did not become official until long after my parents graduated from high school. The public had favored several patriotic songs, including “America the Beautiful.” An act of Congress and Herbert Hoover’s signature in 1931 made it official.
Many Americans, even Coloradans, are not aware of the state’s connection to “America The Beautiful.” Just as “The Star Spangled Banner” was written first as a poem by Francis Scott Keys, “America The Beautiful” was created first as a poem titled “Pikes Peak,” by Katherine Lee Bates. The poem was printed in 1895 and gained popularity titled “America.” Musicians paired it with tunes numerous times in their attempts to turn the poem into a song. A hymn by Samuel Ward, published with the lyrics in 1910, established the version we sing today.
Bates worked as an English professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, an Eastern Seaboard state. She wrote the poem during the summer of 1893, when she traveled by train to Colorado Springs to teach a course at Colorado College.
A stop at the World’s Exposition in Chicago may have offered inspiration for the poem. Aspen had sent the Silver Queen statue to the event as a lobbying ploy to reinstate silver coinage. Many Aspen residents attended the exposition, one of the grandest ever, presented at a time of great technological advancement in which America led the way.
While in Colorado Springs, Bates — like thousands of easterners who summered in the Rockies — traveled to Pikes Peak on the cog railway. The 14,114-foot peak, first discovered in 1806 by Zebulon Pike, affords unobstructed views eastward. During the unpolluted days of the 1890s, spacious skies appeared to open far across the plains. Early settlers headed westward had relished the distant view of snow-covered Pikes Peak as their first glimpse of the Rockies. Bates had crossed those same plains by train, perhaps alongside miles of amber grain that waved in the wind. Likely Pike’s or Long’s Peak provided her first view of the purple, majestic Rockies.
If you have climbed any of Colorado’s fourteeners you understand the sensation she must have had, standing atop Pike’s Peak. We bill our state as colorful Colorado and there is no better view of it than from one of our peaks.
Next time you climb Castle or Pyramid peaks take along the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” and absorb them while you take in the view. The experience will give you a deeper feel for the song, which at one time contended to become our national anthem. In addition to our rejoicing in our country’s physical beauties, the full song lyrics recognize American ideals — brotherhood, freedom, self-control, law, mercy and nobleness. Perhaps the angst over current traditions associated with our national anthem would push us to examine the song itself. We may abandon the song about one of America’s most embarrassing wars, in which the British burned the White House. And we may institute a new anthem that celebrates the external and internal grandeur of our nation.
It would only take an act of Congress.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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