One of the earliest memories of school I have is singing patriotic hymns during music class. It was in music class that I learned to sing the popular hymn “America” – or as it was known to us “My Counrty, ‘Tis of Thee.” The driving march of its melody made it an easy song for a young boy to get in to.
While the tune of the song came from the UK’s national anthem – “God Save the Queen” – the lyrics were written in 1831 by a seminary student named Samuel Smith. It took him all of thirty minutes to compose three stanzas and then fifty-eight years before he wrote the fourth.
Smith’s Harvard roommate, Oliver Wendell Holmes, apparently tried to gain Smith some recognition for his lyric – he wrote over 150 other less well known hymns – by recommending him for an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Harvard in 1893. But Harvard president Charles William Eliot thought that ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’ was more known for its tune that for the lyrics. Holmes, however, was of the opinion that it would continue to be sung even “when most of us and our pipings are forgotten.”
It appears as though Holmes was right, at least as far as Charles William Eliot’s pipings are concerned. Holmes said of Smith and his song:
And there’s a nice youngster of excellent pith,-
Fate tried to conceal him by naming him Smith;
But he shouted a song for the brave and the free,-
Just read on his medal, “My Country, of thee!”