Segment from City Upon a Hill

For Purple Mountain Tragedy? 

Brian talks with musicologist Katherine Meizel about the song “America the Beautiful” and its unsung verses.

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BRIAN: American exceptionalism may be most obvious when talking politics. But you’ve probably heard more than a little exceptionalism in American music.


BRIAN: “America the Beautiful” was originally written as a poem in 1893 by Kathy Lee Bates. She was traveling from Massachusetts to Colorado and was inspired by America’s exceptional landscape.

PETER: The poem has gone through three revisions in all, the one we sing today being the third version. And it’s been so popular throughout the 20th century that, to this day, lots of people want it to be our national anthem.

BRIAN: On the surface, it’s a song about American beauty. But underneath that surface, if you listen carefully, it’s a far more complicated story. All three versions, the original poem, it’s revision, and the song we know today, have verses critiquing the American way of life.

Kathy Mizell is a professor of ethnomusicology at Bowling Green State University and a writer for Slate. She studied these lesser-known versus and is here to walk us through some of them. Kathy, welcome to the show.

KATHY MEIZEL: Thank you.

BRIAN: Well, let’s just jump right into it. What are some of the lyrics that we don’t sing today?

KATHY MEIZEL: Well, my favorite verse that we don’t sing today is from the first version. And this is the third verse, and it ends with the words, “America, America, God shed his grace on thee til selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free.”

BRIAN: [LAUGHING] So, yeah. You don’t hear many anthems talking about selfish gain. What is that all about?

KATHY MEIZEL: Well, in 1893, when Katharine Lee Bates wrote these words, the country was in the middle– or at the beginning, I guess– of a very serious financial crisis that is now known as the Panic of 1893. And it’s considered to have been caused largely by the over-extension of the railroad industry and over-spending. And so many people look at this verse as a critique of robber barons and irresponsible uncharitable spending. So like many of our most famous patriotic songs, this poem contained a bit of a criticism.

BRIAN: Yeah. I think I’ve spotted another criticism. You tell me. “Oh beautiful, for glory-tale of liberating strife, when once or twice for man’s avail, men lavished precious life.”

KATHY MEIZEL: In 1893, you’re talking about 30 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. You’re talking about a little over 50 years since the Trail of Tears. And you know, Lynn Sherr, who has written a really wonderful book about “America the Beautiful”, she suggests that on her way out to Colorado, Katharine Lee Bates was made more aware of the way that Native American communities and peoples had been decimated and abused throughout US history.

BRIAN: So obviously the original poem contained quite a bit of criticism of the United States, yet “America the Beautiful” really has become an anthem for American exceptionalism.

KATHY MEIZEL: Yes. It’s happened over and over again. This is not the only song where we see this history. Maybe the most famous one is “This Land is Your Land”, which was written by Woody Guthrie in 1940 as a socialist’s critique of capitalist America. And it actually became an anthem for American exceptionalism around the same time that “America the Beautiful” did in the ’80s, . And it became a part of Republican campaign stops, actually. I think it became part of Reagan’s campaign, and George Bush Senior’s campaign.


KATHY MEIZEL: Actually, and it’s a little bit similar to “America the Beautiful”, too, that kind of proclaimed the beauty of geography, of American geography. And that’s really interesting, too.

BRIAN: So Geography is nonpartisan.

KATHY MEIZEL: Geography is nonpartisan, exactly. And it’s part of what makes nationalism, because you have to define your country geographically to make it a nation, right?


KATHY MEIZEL: I think the best exceptionalist songs have this balance of praise for the nation and critique of the nation because if you go back to what scholars often pinpoint as the rhetorical beginning of American exceptionalism– although, it could be, of course, argued– which is John Winthrop’s city on a hill speech.

That speech was not only positioning the new colony as a beacon of freedom, a role model for the rest of the world, but it also was a warning. It was, we have a covenant with God, and if we don’t make good on that covenant, God will punish us. It will give God a bad name, and no one will want to have a covenant with God. So it’s actually a big, big responsibility.

BRIAN: It is. And it’s a critique at the same time, right? It’s be good. It’s not about how wonderful we are. That, to me, is absolutely primary in our understanding of Americaness, and we get that in spades in this song.


BRIAN: Kathy Meizel is a professor of musicology at Bowling Green State University. She’s the author of the book, “Idealized– Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol”. Kathy, thanks so much for joining us today.

KATHY MEIZEL: Thank you.

BRIAN: And that is all the time we’ve got for today. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on today’s show. You can post a comment at There you’ll find plenty of background reading on the history of exceptionalism. You can also find links to our past shows and subscribe to our free podcast.

PETER: Again, that’s We’re also on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Don’t be a stranger.