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SINGING THROUGH TEARS



Published: Fri, September 21, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Chicago Tribune: In 1893, the United States was a worried and weary nation. A worldwide economic depression began unfolding that spring and slowly rippled across America as foreign investors yanked out their money. President Grover Cleveland narrowly avoided an all-out financial panic; banks and railroads eventually failed by the hundreds. By winter, unemployment would total a then-staggering 2.5 million.

On July 22 of that year, a young Wellesley College professor of literature, Katharine Lee Bates, joined friends from summer school in Colorado on a sightseeing trip in a mule-drawn wagon. They rode to the top of Pike's Peak and briefly surveyed the scene, with mountains to the west and plains to the east. What Bates saw defied the perilous prospects her country faced. Before returning to New England, she wrote a poem that began, "O beautiful for halcyon skies, for amber waves of grain; For purple mountain majesties, above the enameled plain ... "

Different tunes: A Congregational church magazine published her poem two years later. Americans loved it so much that they set it to 60 different tunes. Not until the early 1900s, after Bates had simplified her first, stiffer lyrics, was it married to the melody that a New Jersey church organist, Samuel A. Ward, had written for an old hymn, "Materna," or "O Mother Dear, Jerusalem."

Bates' poem and Ward's music have been sources of solace for Americans ever since. Now many of us are turning to it again -- singing it in churches and schools, at memorial services and sporting events. Its stanzas offer something for almost every philosophy, from a stirring paean to war heroes to an admonition to "Confirm thy soul in self-control."

The most pertinent of Bates' lines were at least partly inspired by Chicago. Traveling from Massachusetts to Colorado, she stopped in the city to tour the World's Columbian Exposition, with its dazzling "White City" of Neoclassical buildings in Jackson Park. Bates' fourth stanza begins: "O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years, Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears ..."

In 1871, after its fire, Chicago lay in ruin. Its rapid rebirth, its growth, its ability to defeat other cities to win the right to stage the 1893 exposition, testified to more than a few patriot dreams.

Many people harbor similar dreams of rebirth today. What's more difficult, now that the gleams of New York and Washington have been tarnished by blood and dust, is to view those two cities -- or any other communities in this grieving land -- as undimmed by human tears.

And yet this one, serene song never fails to comfort our souls. Perhaps because we all have seen America the beautiful -- and the traits that Katharine Lee Bates enumerated so well.




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