Sunday, September 11, 2011

Alabaster City

The Hope of a Nation by J. M. Haines

In honor of the 10th anniversary of 9 / 11, here are the words to my favorite national song, including verses often omitted (or rearranged):

America the Beautiful
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassion'd stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.

America! America!
God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

O beautiful for heroes prov'd
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country lov'd,
And mercy more than life.

America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev'ry gain divine.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.

lyrics by Katharine Lee Bates (1859- 1929)
music by Samuel A. Ward (1847 - 1903)

On 17 September 2001, Dan Rather visited the David Letterman Show and talked to Dave about the terrorist attack of the previous week. Summarizing Dan's vist, reported that "Rather maintained his evenness until he told Letterman that a song Americans have sung since they were school kids, "America the Beautiful," will never sound quite the same to him: "Oh beautiful for patriot's dream/That echoes through the years/Thine alabaster cities gleam/Undimmed by human tears." His voice broke as he got to that last line."

The transcript reads:

"Dan: It's a new . . . It's a new place now, and we're headed to a new place, David. Time magazine had a wonderful essay this week, and said, you know, 'we're going now to a new place where, you know, even the songs we sing will have a completely different meaning.'

"For example, you know, 'America the Beautiful': Who can sing now, with the same meaning we had before, one stanza of that that goes 'O beautiful, for patriots' dream, that sees beyond the years, thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.' We can never sing that song . . . [Sobs] . . . Again that way.

Naturally there were those to criticize Rather's interpretation of the patriotic lyric, but I have to confess his words have remained in my mind for the past ten years, along with my collection of images for the "alabaster city" . . . whatever, wherever it may be: New York City in 2001, Chicago in 1893, or St. Charles County Missouri in 1970.

When I was in Junior High, I rode the bus very early to school each day, past some abandoned grain elevators and army buildings. We always seemed to round the curve just as the rising sun hit those whitewashed structures, turning them pink and golden. Without fail, the words of "America the Beautiful" would enter my mind, and I'd say to myself (though not to my seatmates), "Look! The alabaster cities!"

Previous thoughts on 9 / 11

Previous thoughts on "America the Beautiful"

Previous thoughts on "The Hope of a Nation"

Chicago, Summer 2011
Photograph by Ben McCartney

Chicago, Summer 2009
Photograph by Gerry McCartney

Suggested reading:
"The Decade of Magical Thinking
by Steve Almond

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