Clover’s Literary Corner: Let Freedom Ring!

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By Clover Carroll

America
By Samuel Francis Smith

My country, ‘tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From ev’ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!

My native country, thee,
Land of the noble free,
Thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture thrills,
Like that above.

Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom’s song;
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.

Our fathers’ God, to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright,
With freedom’s holy light,
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God our King.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, creed, or national origin; the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I; and the 238th anniversary of United States independence. What better time to revisit our most well-known and well-beloved patriotic song, “America,” (more commonly known as “My Country, ’Tis of Thee”)?

Who among us cannot recite the first verse of this graceful and stirring hymn by heart? Familiar to every American since grade school, this patriotic bedrock served as our de facto national anthem for 100 years and enjoys unflagging (no pun intended) popularity. Its passionate and heartfelt lyrics evoke our country’s history, its beauty, and its noblest ideals to express intense love of country and patriotic pride.

Samuel Francis Smith (1808-1895) was only 24 years old, a student at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, when he ran across “God Bless Our Native Land” while translating a book of German songs. This shares a melody with “God Save the Queen/King,” the British national anthem and “royal anthem” of several of its Commonwealth territories such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

According to the Oxford Companion to Music, the slow, stately tune dates from around 1619, and may have originated in plainsong, a Scottish dance tune, or compositions by John Bull (1562-1598) or Henry Purcell (1659-1695).

Smith liked the tune so much that he decided to compose his own set of lyrics in praise of America, his own “native land,” which had gained independence only 50 years before. His eloquent composition was first performed on July 4, 1831 by a Boston children’s choir, and instantly became a popular favorite at patriotic events. Smith went on to write over 150 other hymns, and in 1970 was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.

No doubt wishing to clearly assert the cultural as well as political independence of the United States from our British forebears, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that a more unique, home-grown song be used as our national anthem in 1916, a decision ratified by Congress in 1931. More elegant and musically complex, “The Star Spangled Banner” can also be more challenging to sing.

Smith opens the song by using the poetic device of apostrophe to directly address his country as if it were a person, calling it “thee.” The somewhat circuitous syntax of the first few lines can be tricky to follow. “My country,” the poet avows, “it is of thee I sing;” or more simply put, “I sing of my country.” The appositive “sweet land of liberty” is inserted in the middle of this thought not only for poetic/musical effect, but also to introduce the song’s primary theme: liberty. This is what the pilgrims risked their lives for in making the dangerous ocean crossing, this is what our ancestors fought and died for in the War of Independence, and this is the sweet reward of all the pioneers’ toil and hardship: freedom from oppression and discrimination. With the implied comparison of freedom to a bell, the poet charges us to “let freedom ring” from every one of America’s many mountainsides—perhaps alluding to the ringing of the liberty bell after the reading of the Declaration of Independence.

The second stanza praises the natural beauty of our new country—a rill is a creek, by the way—while again celebrating the freedom of its inhabitants, even comparing it to heaven with “like that [rapture which will be experienced] above.” The poet adopts biblical language throughout the song to suggest the sacred nature of America as a blessed land, addressing it as “thee” and “thou” and referring to “templed hills” and “holy light.”

The third stanza, my favorite, charges all of nature—rocks, animals, trees, even the wind itself—to raise their voices in praise of America, as we do in singing this song! The repetition of the word “sweet” reminds us of the sense of peace that true freedom from oppression brings.

Finally, the poet addresses God himself, praying for protection and preservation of all these joys—life, freedom, and the land that sustains us.

The sing’s popularity and importance as a national symbol lives on. During the 1963 March on Washington—in which, at the tender age of 13, I was privileged to participate—Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted the entire first stanza of this hymn in the concluding portion of his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech. Repeating the theme “let freedom ring” no less than ten times, King linked the goals of the civil rights movement with our country’s founding principles of freedom and dignity for all people.

Marian Anderson, with the support of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, performed the song on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after being barred by the Daughters of the American Revolution from performing at Constitution Hall. The musical Of Thee I Sing, a political spoof with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1932.

I wish that we had the opportunity to sing our beautiful patriotic songs more often. They remind us of what we have in common and inspire us to live up to the noble ideals on which our country was founded. I hope you have a rousing and musical Independence Day!

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