In praise of America, productive and fertile "from sea to shining sea." God is begged to care for and improve the nation.
An article in the October 2004 issue of _American History_ magazine reveals a complex history for this song, with, in a sense, both the words and music coming first.
Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929) in 1893 was a professor of English heading for Colorado. She made several stops along the way: first at Niagara Falls, then at the World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago (where new shining-white buildings made her think of "alabaster cities"), then at Pikes Peak. She started on a rough draft then and there, and after polishing it a little, sent it to _The Congregationist_, which published the poem in its July 4, 1895 edition.
The result doesn't strike me as particularly good, even if you like the common version: "O beautiful for halcyon skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties Above the enameled plain! America! America! God shed his grace on thee Till souls wax fair as earth and air And music-hearted sea!"
Nonetheless, the poem was a hit, and reportedly inspired no fewer than 75 musical settings. But it wasn't until 1905 that Clarence A. Barbour managed to fit it to Samuel A. Ward's 1890 tune "Materna."
That process seemes to inspire Bates; she revised her poem once in 1904, and produced the final, quasi-canonical version in 1911. - RBW