’Tis of Thee: A history

Local author examines melodies of ‘America’

Like thousands of Americans, Spokane author Claire Rudolf Murphy tuned in to watch President Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009.

She enjoyed Aretha Franklin’s soul-stirring rendition of my “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” commonly known as “America,” but wondered why Franklin chose to sing that particular anthem on such a momentous occasion.

That question provided the prompt for Murphy’s 17th book, “My Country ’Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights.”

“I discovered there were all kinds of versions of this melody,” she said.

The song first appeared in England in the 1700s as “God Save the King.” During the Revolutionary War while British loyalists sang their version, colonists shouted their own verses; “God save the 13 states. Long rule the United States….”

Murphy said by the time of George Washington’s inauguration, “The song became embraced by a country desperate to celebrate its freedoms.”

The most familiar version, the one sung by Franklin at the inauguration, was written in 1831 by seminary student Samuel Francis Smith.

But what most intrigued Murphy was the way the melody was adapted by those yearning for freedom and equal rights.

“During the Civil War, both sides sang it,” she said.

Abolitionists wrote protest verses to the tune. “My country ’tis of thee, dark land of slavery, for thee I weep….”

Decades later labor activists sang their own verses, as did suffragettes. American Indians, who were not allowed to vote until 1926, also penned poignant verses to the familiar melody.

In 1939, opera star Marian Anderson wasn’t allowed to sing in Constitution Hall because of her race. Instead, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of 75,000 people, she lent her powerful voice to the familiar lyrics: “My country ’tis of thee, for thee we sing.”

Murphy said Anderson changed the word “of” to “for” because she wanted to sing for all her country’s people.

Martin Luther King Jr. heard her performance on the radio and later evoked it during his “I Have a Dream” speech. He said, “This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.’ ”

Murphy wrote her book for intermediate readers, grades 2 through 6. It’s illustrated by award-winning artist Bryan Collier.

But it’s not just the history of a famous song – the book ends with a call to action. Murphy writes, “Now it’s your turn. Write a verse for a cause you believe in. Help freedom ring.”

She’s launched a contest on her website and new verses are flooding in. Mary Ristau’s second-grade class at Moran Prairie Elementary sent this verse about bullying: “ Schools should be bully-free, Full of our honesty, Friends should be kind. Include us in your game, Please treat us all the same, Stop calling us those names, Friends should be kind.”

Area choirs have gotten involved as well. Both the Spokane Area Youth Choir and a choir from Eastern Washington University have recorded versions of the song that can be heard at Murphy’s website.

The project has combined Murphy’s love of music and her passion for children’s literature. She hopes teachers will embrace “My County ’Tis of Thee,” as a way to teach music and history.

And beyond that she hopes children and adults will find a cause that inspires them to write their own verses to the iconic melody.

“I’m a daughter of the ’60s,” she said. “I still feel like I don’t do enough. We all need something to stand up for – something to believe in.”

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