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Colorado’s most famous musical summit

M. John Fayhee

Few states have inspired more lyricists, songwriters and various and sundry melody makers than Colorado. That’s primarily because Colorado was one of those ground zero hippie states, and homegrown music was a huge part of the hippie lifestyle and consciousness. Sure, it would be hard to top California, New York and Texas for pure volume of produced musical material, but when it comes to the tuneful passion and inspiration associated with a given state, Colorado more than holds its own.

You’ll get little debate that the two best-known Colorado songs are “America the Beautiful,” by Katherine Lee Bates (which does not mention Colorado by name), and “Rocky Mountain High,” by Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., otherwise known by his nom de guerre, John Denver (which does). (I’ll talk more about Denver and “Rocky Mountain High” in a future column.)

Both of these songs have gained additional stature by their brushes with institutionalized officialdom.

It has often been suggested that “America the Beautiful,” which Bates penned in 1893 (with revisions in 1904 and 1913), replace the structural awkwardness of Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner” as our national anthem. Verily, in 1926, five years before Congress cast its lot with the “Star Spangled Banner,” there was a vociferous movement afoot to get “America the Beautiful” named the national anthem. (“The Star Spangled Banner” reportedly won out because of its undeniable venerability.)

Still, “America the Beautiful” is considered by many people to be the country’s unofficial second national anthem and, before sporting events, it often replaces Key’s tune, which, despite that aforementioned structural awkwardness and the fact that it requires a rarely successfully achieved vocal range of an octave-and-a-fifth, maybe gains some additional style points because it was set to the tune of a popular British drinking song, the “Anacreontic Song,” written by John Stafford Smith. (You’ve got to admire the chorus of the “Anacreontic Song”: “And besides I’ll instruct you like me to entwine/the Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s wine” ” which, translated, sounds very much like Jimmy Buffet’s “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw.”)

Bates (1859-1929) was a professor of English at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. In 1893, she came west to teach some summer courses at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. On July 22, she bagged her first and only Fourteener, the 14,110-foot Pikes Peak. Bates did not exactly don her La Sportivas and hike to the summit. She took a horse-drawn carriage most of the way before actually summiting on mule back, which may seem like cheating by today’s Fourteener-bagging standards, but, then again, few Fourteener-baggers today manage to pen a song for the ages while standing atop a mountain.

After that summit visit, Bates wrote, “An erect and decorous group, we stood at last on the Gate-of-Heaven summit … and gazed in wordless rapture over the far expanse of mountain ranges and sealike sweep of plain. Then and there the opening lines of ‘America the Beautiful’ spring into being … I wrote the entire song on my return that evening to Colorado Springs.”

When Bates said that she “wrote the entire song,” that’s not exactly correct. What she wrote was a poem that first appeared in the weekly journal, The Congregationalist (surely the Rolling Stone of the era), on July 4, 1895. It was first sung to the melody of “Materna,” which was written by Samuel A. Ward more than a decade before Bates stood atop Pikes Peak. For 15 years, the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” were applied to many different folk melodies, most notably “Auld Lang Syne,” which, you’ve got to admit, changes the overall tone significantly. Bates’ lyrics were not published with “Materna,” the melody we now think of as being as much a part of “America the Beautiful” as “amber waves of grain,” until 1910. Even after that, the tune part of “America the Beautiful” continued to be challenged. In 1926, the National Federation of Music Clubs held a contest in hopes of attaching Bates’ words to a more upbeat melody. But no other tune was deemed acceptable. Bates apparently never chose her favorite tune for her words before she passed on to the great fruited plain in the sky in 1929.

Despite the fact that it has never succeeded in displacing “The Stag Spangled Banner” as the official national anthem / Bacchus-based drinking song, it’s highly likely that more American’s can recite the entire first verse of “America the Beautiful” than its more officious patriotic counterpart. (Only 61 percent of Americans can sing “The Star Spangled Banner” all the way through the first verse.) What is equally likely is that most Americans could not make their way past the first verse of “America the Beautiful” if their lives depended on it.

Here, for instance, is Verse 2:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet

Whose stern impassioned stress

A thoroughfare of freedom beat

Across the wilderness!

America! America!

God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

You can see why we generally do not venture much past the first eight lines of Bates’ immortal patriotic ode.

In all likelihood, few people are going to be inclined to download “America the Beautiful,” as it’s just sort of out of vogue these days. But, if either your patriotism or your attachment to Colorado via her undeniably most-famous song overcomes your natural aversion to amber waves of grain, you can download a version of the state’s almost-national anthem by Neil Young, on his “Living with War” CD. Other artists who have covered “America the Beautiful” are: the immortal Ray Charles, who sang the song at Super Bowl 35 (Jan. 28, 2001, Baltimore Ravens 34, New York Giants 7), Elvis, Little Richard, Gladys Knight, Reba McIntyre and Boyz II Men.

M. John Fayhee is Editor-at-Large for the Mountain Gazette. His eighth book, “A Colorado Mountain Companion,” will be published by Westcliffe next year. Contact him with corrections, clarifications and observations at mjfayhee@yahoo.com.


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