Origins of Famous Songs: America
About the origin of the famous song America by Samuel Francis Smith, history and information of the patriotic song.
Stories behind Songs You Grew Up With
AMERICA Samuel Francis Smith 1831
This patriotic song has become a "semiofficial" national anthem, 2nd only to the official national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," in popularity.
Most Americans know at least this 1st verse, even if they falter on the other 3:
My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing:
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims' pride,
From every mountainside,
Let freedom ring.
As was true with "The Star-Spangled Banner," the words of "America" were set to the music of an older song. In 1831 some German songbooks were turned over to Samuel Francis Smith, a young Massachusetts clergyman, with the suggestion that Smith might find some music in them which could be used either by translating the German text or by substituting new words. Smith came upon a tune he liked and wrote the verses of "America" to fit it. One story states that he wrote them at a single sitting. At any rate the song was 1st sung publicly at a children's celebration of Independence Day at the Park Street Church, Boston, on July 4th in 1831.
Only later did Smith learn that the same tune was used for the British patriotic song "God Save the King." It is not known for sure who composed the music originally. There are many conflicting stories and traditions (including the tradition that it was a beer drinker's song), and it is true that the music has been used in many countries.
The composer may have been an Englishman named Henry Carey, who lived from 1685, or thereabouts, until 1743. He is best known as the composer of "Sally in Our Alley." It is recorded that he sang a song with the words "God Save Great George Our King" to the tune we associate with "God Save the King" (and "America") at a party celebrating a British victory, Admiral Vernon's capture of Portobelo. This celebration, in 1740, was held in a tavern in Cornhill, and it was reported that Carey announced that he had written both the music and the words. The song was published in a song collection titled Thesaurus Musicus in 1744, giving credit to Carey as author and composer.
As "America," this is one of the few patriotic songs that did not originate in a setting of war, and its celebration of liberty and freedom continues to stir the hearts of Americans.
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