My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Thursday, July 1, 2021

July 1, 2021: Talking Of Thee I Sing: Mass Historical Society

[Over the last few months, I’ve had the chance to talk about my new book in a number of settings, and as always every such talk has led to distinct and interesting follow-up questions and ideas. So this week I’ll reflect on those continuing conversations, leading up to a special July 4th weekend post on the state of patriotism in 2021!]

On the inspiration for my book’s title.

As was the case with the Boston Athenaeum, I was highly disappointed to miss out on the chance for a second in-person talk at the Massachusetts Historical Society (for a recording of this second, virtual talk, see their YouTube link here!). But the wonderful MHS staff found ways to replicate a great deal of what makes talks at their institution so inspiring, including my favorite thing about my first talk there: the pre-talk cocktail hour featuring relevant items from their amazing collections. On the introductory/title slide that attendees of the virtual talk saw as they logged on, the MHS staff highlighted another such wonderful primary source: a portion of the original lyrics to “America,” the 1831 song that would become better known as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” At the end of my book’s Introduction I wrote a few concluding paragraphs on that song and its contexts, which I’ll share here:

Like many cultural works, the song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” took a long and winding road to becoming the popular schoolchildren’s song we know today. The melody seems to have originated as an 18th century English hymn and subsequently evolved into that nation’s “God Save the King”; before the 18th century was out it had likewise become the basis for national anthems in a number of other European nations, including Denmark’s “A Song to be Sung by the Danish Subjects at the Fete of their King, to the Melody of the English Hymn” and Prussia’s “Hail to Thee in the Victor’s Wreath.” The melody also made its way to the American colonies, and at George Wash­ington’s first presidential inauguration (in New York City in 1789) he was greeted with a version with new lyrics composed for the occasion, such as “Joy to our native land!/Let every heart expand/For Washington’s at hand.” 

In 1831, the renowned Massachusetts organist and composer Lowell Mason worked with Samuel Francis Smith, a young man studying for the ministry at the Andover Theological Seminary, to compose the adaptation that became “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” That version, also known simply as “America,” was first performed by a children’s choir at the July 4th cel­ebrations at Boston’s historic Park Street Church, where Mason was organist and choirmaster. Smith’s lyrics feature the celebratory and mythic forms of patriotism as clearly as do Katharine Lee Bates’, as in the lines “Sweet land of liberty” and “Land of the pilgrims’ pride.” But his most interesting line is “Of thee I sing,” a self-referential acknowledgment not only of the song’s existence as such, but also and most importantly of the role of such shared songs, of cultural works and their collective performances, in constructing both patriotism and through it the nation itself.

But there have always been competing visions of those constructions and of “My Country.” In the same decade as that first 1831 performance of the song, Boston would also be the site for numerous moments and expressions of active and critical patriotism: the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator was published in the city on January 1st, 1831; on January 25th, 1834 Garrison published an editorial in that paper expressing his support for the Mashpee Revolt, the Massachusetts rebel­lion through which the Cape Cod Native American community of Mashpee resisted white settler aggression and convinced the state legislature to name Mashpee a self-governing district; and on January 26th, 1836, one of the key figures in that successful Mashpee uprising, the Native American min­ister, orator, and author William Apess, delivered his fiery “Eulogy on King Philip” in Boston’s Odeon lecture hall, making the case for the 17th century Wampanoag chief as a revolutionary American ancestor akin to and as de­serving of commemoration as George Washington.

All these figures and communities likewise sang America, exemplifying active and critical perspectives on the work still to be done if that nation was to become a genuine land of liberty. As in 1830s Boston, every setting and period in American history has been defined by the presence of and conflicts between celebratory, mythic, active, and critical patriotisms. The history of competing American patriotisms is in many ways the history of America itself, a legacy that echoes ever more clearly and crucially into our own mo­ment’s debates and our shared future.”

Hopes and plans for what’s next tomorrow,


PS. Thoughts on this reflection? Ideas for other settings or audiences with whom I could share the book?

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