Our Daily Sykes #65 – Purple Mountain's Majesty

There is something “purple” about the phrase “purple mountain’s majesty” and purple hegemony from sea to shining sea runs through the poem “America” by Katharine Lee Bates, a Wellesley College English teacher who found the poem’s landscape on a summer train trip to Colorado Springs in 1895.  The first lines came to her at the top of Pikes Peak.  She was not looking west then into the endless ridges of the Rockies but east from whence she and Manifest Destiny had come.  She looked to the fruited plains that were taking shape like a checkerboard with farms keeping to section lines set down by federal surveyors years earlier.   The poem’s clean-and-gleam urban visions came from recollections of the teacher’s visit to the “white city” of the Columbia Exposition in Chicago two years earlier.   “Thine alabaster cities gleam / Undimmed by human tears! / America! America!”  (Obese on hogs and steers.) A century ago, this year, after many composing contenders her poem met the by now accepted music for it, and it is still preferred  by many to the official national anthem about bombs exploding and rockets flaring.  Samuel A. Ward, a choirmaster-organist did the composing, and with sheet music soon published – and 78 rpm recordings available too – America the Beautiful became a patriotic hit, concluding with lines that had forgotten the then still fresh slaughter of the “Americans” who had lived here for a few thousand years before it was possible to take a train to Pikes Peak and more easily shoot at them, the buffalo and later the Burma Shave signs.  “America! America! God shed his grace on three / And crown they good with brotherhood / From sea to shining sea!”  I loved singing about “purple mountains majesty” as a child, and always thought that it was much the better song – over the “Oh Say Can You See” anthem.  We also played lots of Cowboys and Indians, admired the Lone Ranger’s Tonto and the special skill required to ride bare-back, and knew nothing about the Native American genocide at the hands of both uniformed regulars and settlers.

Typically with Horace Sykes he leaves no hint where we will find these purple mountains.

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