The answer is both simpler and more complicated than you might think—both more innocent and, to some, more embarrassing. When Samuel Francis Smith wrote the words for “My Country ‘tis of Thee” in 1831, he both was and was not bowing down before the foreign song. Smith was 23 years old and studying theology at Andover Seminary when a local choir director, Lowell Mason, asked him to translate some songs from a German songbook. Smith really liked one of the tunes and decided to write his own words to fit the music. The first verse became the song commonly sung today:
“My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims' pride,
From ev'ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!”
Smith later said that he was drawn to the tune because it sounded patriotic and that he had no idea that it was the British anthem. He said that he had never heard the tune before, and he had certainly never sung “God Save the Queen.”
If true, Smith didn’t get out much. “God Save the Queen/King” had been sung in Britain for almost a century by the time he wrote his lyrics. True, the musical origins of “God Save the Queen” are obscure. Some music scholars trace the song to various folk melodies from the early 1600s. Some find hints of the song in the work of late 17th-century British composer Henry Purcell. Still others argue that German composer George Frideric Handel first used the melody in his work. (The German songbook that Smith found the melody in may have included the version written by Handel, or it may have included a version written by Joseph Haydn for Emperor Franz of Austria, though Haydn first heard the tune himself on a trip to London.) All, however, agree that in 1744 “God Save the King” made its way into print and that in 1745, a performance of the song at the Drury Lane Theater rocked.
To be fair, it’s not like Smith would’ve heard the song on the radio back then, but still, it was a pretty well known song. Not only was “God Save the Queen/King” a patriotic crowd-pleaser in England by 1750, its melody would have crossed the Atlantic to Britain’s American colonies. The tune was used for a hymn included in American composer James Lyons’s collection of church music published in 1761. During the Revolution, American patriots turned “God Save the King” into “God Save the United States,” and when George Washington was inaugurated president in 1789, Americans sang:
“Hail, thou auspicious day!
For let America
Thy praise resound.
Joy to our native land!
Let every heart expand,
For Washington's at hand,
With glory crowned.”
In other words, the song and its melody were widely known in both Britain and America long before Samuel Smith wrote the lyrics for “My Country ‘tis of Thee.” Still, for the sake of argument, let’s take him at his word when he says he had no idea that he was copying the British anthem. (After all, the man did become a Baptist minister; maybe he was telling the truth.) Let’s also accept his argument that he was not trying to be ironic or sarcastic by imitating the British song, nor was he signaling some sort of cultural or political kinship with America’s former Empirical Overlord.
Yet even if we accept Smith’s innocent explanation, there was still more than a little cultural deference being extended by Smith. When he adopted the British tune, he may not have been kneeling before British tradition, but he was certainly joining an American movement dedicated to replacing American music with European. (Come on, he found the melody in a German songbook for Gott’s sake.)
The key figure in this story is really Lowell Mason, not Samuel Smith. Remember Mason? He was the choir director that initially asked Smith to translate some German songs. Mason was actually more than a choir director; he was a music educator. In fact, Mason is considered by many to be the “father” of American music education.
Mason was born in Massachusetts in 1792. He spent several years in Savannah, Georgia, but ultimately he returned to Boston, where he built a reputation as a choir director and hymn writer. By the time he was 40, he was directing three church choirs, was head of the Boston Hayden and Handel Society (huh, where have we heard those names before?), and had published a collection of hymns and two music books for children. In fact, providing children with a musical education had become his primary interest. He lobbied the Boston school board for years until finally, in 1838, they named him superintendent of music instruction for the city’s public schools.
Mason, however, was interested in more than just teaching kids how to sing; he believed that they needed instruction in the “better” forms of music. He was appalled by the “primitive” music being written in America. Mason was disturbed most by the simple songs being sung in America’s churches. For half a century, American songwriters like William Billings, Daniel Read, and Justin Morgan had helped define an authentically American form of religious music. Often rooted in the revivals and camp meetings of America’s small towns and frontier areas, this music was compositionally simple. It was heavy on rhythm and melodically simple; it used unconventional harmonies, and in many ways it was more dance-like than hymn-like.
Billings was the most prolific of these songwriters. He was born in Boston, and he was a colorful figure. Blind in one eye, with a pronounced limp and a handicapped arm, Billings hobbled around town snorting snuff by the fistful. He had no formal music training (he was a tanner by trade), but after spending some time as a singing teacher, he started collecting hymns and writing his own.
Many of Billings’s songs were transcribed into the shape-note hymnbooks that grew in popularity after 1800. Shape-notes were a simplified form of musical notation developed by American choir directors so that their untrained singers could sing their throats out at church service. The works of popular songwriters like Billings and the introduction of shape-note hymnals transformed the role of music in American worship. Prior to that point, church services relied exclusively on the spoken word; prayers were long, and they were only broken by sermons that could be even longer. Music started to become a central part of the service, though. Musically uncomplicated but rhythmic songs presented in a simple form of notation turned congregational singing into an energizing part of worship.
Today, the “American” church music constructed during these years is celebrated. It is recognized as an early attempt to define a distinct American culture that was compatible with the political and religious philosophies of the times. It was a music that was democratic and accessible to the untrained, a music for all people, regardless of their education and talent.
Yet for many musicians and music educators like Mason, this music was a source of shame. He believed it to be crude and primitive, a blemish on the cultural face of the young nation. He was particularly worried about the music’s effects on America’s children. Unless they were introduced to the “right” sort of music, their tastes would be irrevocably corrupted, and American music would never progress. He joined a group dedicated to elevating the musical tastes of Americans, starting with the children. His “Better Music Movement” sought to replace the popular homegrown styles with “better”—read: European—music.
When Mason asked Samuel Smith to translate some songs from a German songbook in 1832, he was looking for more than a few new tunes to teach his choirs. He was compiling books of “superior” foreign music to assist him in his “better” music work. When Smith decided to attach some new words to the attractive tune in front of him, he believed he was creating an appropriately elevated piece of patriotic music, one with American sentiments but a European melody.
So “My Country ‘tis of Thee” both was and was not written as an act of deference to Great Britain. Smith and Mason were not anglophiles—English wannabes bowing before British tradition—but they were not yet comfortably American either. Luckily, America isn’t referred to as a “melting pot” for no reason. American music and culture has evolved to where it is today through a generous mixing of original concepts and appropriated sounds and styles. Oh, sweet land of liberty!