Unofficial anthem asks us all to do better

Katherine Lee Bates, an English literature professor at Wellesley College, was inspired to write a poem she titled "Pikes Peak" after making a trip to Colorado in 1893. The stanzas describe the stunning landscape she saw both on her train trip west and from the 14,000-foot summit.

The poem first appeared in print July 4, 1895, in The Congregationalist, a weekly newspaper. Her work quickly gained in popularity. As was the custom at the time, people sang the words to "almost any popular air or folk tune with which the lyrics fit," according to the Library of Congress website. Today we sing the song known as "America the Beautiful" to a melody written in 1882 by church organist Samuel Augustus Ward.

Bates revised some of the lyrics in the early 1900s, and eventually gave permission for the song to appear for free in church hymnals, Sunday school song books, poetry readers, anthologies and countless periodicals.

"While Bates was initially surprised by the poem's success, she later reflected that its enduring 'hold as it has upon our people is clearly due to the fact that Americans are at heart idealists, with a fundamental faith in human brotherhood,' " according to an article on the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website.

"America the Beautiful" has been sung by Ray Charles, Mariah Carey, John Legend, Kelly Clarkson, Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson and Aretha Franklin. It has been performed at events ranging from the NBA Finals to WrestleMania to the SuperBowl. A group of American soldiers known as the Yankee Division also sang it as they walked out of the trenches in Verdun, France, on Armistice Day in 1918, according to an episode of "All of Things Considered."

That episode was part of NPR's "American Anthem" series on music that challenges, unites and celebrates. (The episode goes into greater detail about Bates' life and her trip to Colorado for those who are interested).

"If 'The Star-Spangled Banner' boldly proclaims the country's greatness as fact, 'America the Beautiful' is more aspirational," correspondent Eric Westevelt reported. "Bates is not asking whether the flag has survived an artillery strike. Rather, this young feminist poet, who had just emerged from a deep depression, is asking if the nation, and perhaps the world, can ever live up to its high ideals."

That question seems especially pertinent at this moment, as we mark the country's 248th birthday today and prepare for a presidential election in November.

There are some moments - perhaps while watching the Independence Day parade or enjoying the gathering at Burlington Park that follows - when we feel more connected to our neighbors and our country. The pride we have in our country swells and the future looks bright.

At other times the view is much dimmer.

As we celebrate today what is still the greatest experiment in democracy in the world, let us remember that our nation has a history of overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges. We fought for and won our freedom, we healed after a civil war and we've continued to make progress in granting rights once reserved for white male landowners to all citizens. And at one time, not too long ago, citizens and those who represented them in Washington were able to disagree without being disrespectful and to work with others who had different ideas to find the best solutions for the problems the nation faced.

We can lament that is no longer the case, but we cannot wait for others to model that behavior for us. We must take up the mantle ourselves and find a way to respect and even appreciate those who disagree with us. We must recognize that discussing our differences of opinion might lead us to a middle ground we all can support.

And maybe one day, in the not too distant future, the brotherhood Bates speaks of will extend from sea to shining sea.