Though the two never met, Katharine Lee Bates and Samuel A. Ward composed the anthem “America the Beautiful.” The song was written by Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College, while its music was composed by choirmaster and organist Ward from the Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey in 1895.
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Originally written as a poem and called “Pikes Peak,” what would become “American the Beautiful” was published in the 1895 Fourth of July edition of the church periodical, The Congregationalist, and renamed “America.”
Inspired by a train trip to teach in Colorado in 1893, Bates recounted all the sights she saw along the way in her poem—the view of the plain from Pikes Peak in the Colorado Rocky Mountains and the wheat fields she saw across Kansas.
Oh beautiful, for spacious skies
For amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain
Ward, who died in 1903, years before “America the Beautiful” reached the pinnacle of its fame as a national anthem, was also inspired by a trip on the Staten Island Ferry back to New York City and worked off the Hebrew hymn “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem.” Eventually, his music was combined with Bates’ poem, and the song was published in 1910 and re-titled “America the Beautiful.”
Here are eight live versions of the patriotic classic interpreted by artists across several genres performed on the Fourth of July and other days of patriotism and celebration.
Alan Jackson, PBS Special ‘A Capitol Fourth’ (2021)
In 2021, the annual PBS Fourth of July concert special, A Capitol Fourth, featured performers Mickey Guyton, Jimmie Allen, and Jennifer Nettles, in addition to Alan Jackson, who performed his 2002 song “Drive,” a tribute to his late father Eugene Jackson and “America the Beautiful.”
Mariah Carey, NBA Finals (1990)
Still topped with a head of curls and fresh off her self-titled debut, Mariah Carey was just about to become a major superstar when she made her television debut with a moving performance “America the Beautiful” during Game 1 of the NBA Finals in 1990. A few weeks later, Carey’s single “Vision of Love” topped the charts.
John Legend, ‘CBS Sunday Morning’ (2015)
Though John Legend has performed “America the Beautiful” on more than one occasion—even during WrestleMania XXIV in 2015 at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando, FL—the artist shared this more tender rendition on a 2015 episode of CBS Sunday Morning.
Kelly Clarkson, Kellyoke (2020)
On Nov. 11, 2020, Kelly Clarkson honored those who have served our country on Veterans Day with a soulful version of Ray Charles’ rendition of “America the Beautiful” on the Kellyoke segment of her TV talk show The Kelly Clarkson Show. Accompanied by guitar and piano, Clarkson’s voice soared over all the intricate notes of the song, leaving many fans with chills.
Garth Brooks, Points of Light Tribute (2011)
Garth Brooks went to church—backed by a gospel choir—with his rendition of “America the Beautiful” during the Points of Light Tribute event on March 21, 2011, in Washington, D.C., before moving into a choir-filled performance of Bill Withers’ 1972 classic “Lean On Me.” In 2019, Brooks was presented with the inaugural George H.W. Bush Points of Light Award for Caring and Compassion. Founded by the late 41st president George H.W. Bush, the award comes from the nonprofit organization Points of Light, which is dedicated to creating a global culture of volunteering.
Willie Nelson, 9/11 Benefit Concert (2001)
In the wake of 9/11 in 2001, Willie Nelson went on television to perform “America the Beautiful” with an ensemble for America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon. The benefit concert was recorded in Los Angeles on September 21, 2001, and featured additional performances by Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, U2, Faith Hill, Enrique Iglesias, Neil Young, Alicia Keys, Billy Joel, The Chicks, Dave Matthews, Mariah Carey, Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow, Sting, Eddie Vedder, Paul Simon, and Céline Dion.
“When our country was mourning after 9/11, you gave me the opportunity to do my part for the live concert ‘America: A Tribute To Heroes,’ said Nelson. “That inspiring event had one of the largest audiences in television history. I followed a string of great artists—Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Alicia Keys, and many more. Then I got to lead everyone in an inspiring rendition of your beautiful song, ‘America the Beautiful.’ As we sang on stage that evening, I felt that I could hear the television audience singing, too, a nationwide chorus raising our voices from sea to shining sea.”
Aretha Franklin, WrestleMania III (1993)
The queen of soul has sung “America the Beautiful” on several occasions, but her 1993 performance of the anthem during WrestleMania III was a homecoming for the artist, and one of her most stirring renditions. Perched at a beautiful grand piano on a platform deep at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, Franklin performed the song in front of her home state fans.
Ray Charles (1976)
Perhaps one of the most recognizable renditions of the anthem in music history, Ray Charles’ gospel-influenced version of “America the Beautiful” was originally released on his 1972 album A Message from the People. Charles’ soulful recording of the patriotic hymn hit the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in 1976 and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2005.
Photo: Atlantic Records