By Steve Schuch
Oh beautiful when children sing,
free from hate and fear.
Now hear their laughter pure and sweet,
young voices ringing clear.
Our featured video this week is a performance of “America the Dream” (arr. © 2021 Steve Schuch/Night Heron Music). Scores for the piece are available free for non-commercial use. Visit the AmericaTheDream.org website for those, as well as additional resources and ideas for using the piece in school and community settings.
The Power of Music
Singing was an integral part of the Civil Rights era. Now at a time when our country feels increasingly fractured, group singing can help bring us together. As we listen to each other’s voices, we learn to blend our sound. Songs can also remind us of the dreams we share in common: the promise of a community or nation that is more than any one of us alone.
This past year, for our Dr. Martin Luther King Day celebration, I was selecting music for our children’s choir to perform. I started wondering, what if we had an updated anthem everyone could sing together? A song for all ages, colors, religions, and beliefs. What if we could weave together the opening lines of “America the Beautiful” with Dr. King’s dream for all America?
Evolution of a Song
Looking back, creating “America the Dream” might seem obvious. However, working with an anthem as beloved as “America the Beautiful” and trying to merge it with the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—that is not so easy. It’s akin to the hurdles updating traditional hymns and liturgy to be more inclusive. One challenge is finding the balance in language and tone between the old and the new. Another challenge is honoring a familiar melody while making it fresh, especially for more advanced versions. Hence the new music for the intro and bridge sections.
For a song that became so popular, it’s remarkable that “America the Beautiful” does not have an actual chorus. This might explain why many people end up just repeating the first verse a couple of times. In recent years, the later verses are rarely sung. Language changes with time. So does awareness of inclusion and diversity.
In working on a chorus for “America the Dream,” my co-writer Mike Bradley and I sought input from other songwriters, poets, school teachers, and choir directors across the country. If possible, we wanted to find just the right language, at a time people are quick to judge and divide over even well-intentioned phrases. In the end, we opted for a “primary chorus” using the phrase “God grant that we may see… true brotherhood and sisterhood.” This feels closer to the older language that both Katharine Lee Bates and Dr. King would have recognized. The scores also offer a more modern sounding alternate chorus that some groups might prefer.
Using This Song in the Classroom
“America the Dream” can serve as a springboard for further classroom discussion, creative writing, books, and related art projects—maybe even a school-wide mural! Consider creating a rainbow arc of handprints, and each week displaying different students’ “wishes and dreams” underneath the arc.
Here are a few ideas for group discussion, or individual projects.
- What is your (my or our) dream for America?
- If you had a pen pal in another country who asked you what it means to be an American, what would you tell them?
- If you could make a wish for your community, or school, or country, what would it be? What’s another verse we could write for this song?
For more ideas, see “Lyrics in the Classroom” in the Resources section of our website (AmericaTheDream.org). You’ll also find more history behind the original “America the Beautiful,” along with suggested books.
Sharing the Dream
Many hands have contributed to this project. Thanks to all of them and for your interest too. Besides Martin Luther King Day and Black History month, “America the Dream” is ideal for any concert or time when an anthem of unity is desired. All the scores include a separate page of just lyrics, making it easy to include them in a program, or project them on a large screen. Consider inviting an audience to join in singing the chorus!
“America the Beautiful” lyrics by Katharine Lee Bates • Melody by Samuel A. Ward. New lyrics by Steve Schuch and Mike Bradley • Arr. © 2021 Steve Schuch / Night Heron Music (ASCAP).
Steve Schuch has delighted audiences of all ages across the U.S. and Europe. Classically trained on violin, he is an award-winning composer, singer/songwriter, author, and storyteller. Credits include a Grammy nomination, PBS soundtracks, and a Parents’ Choice Gold Award for his children’s recording, Trees of Life. His musical story, A Symphony of Whales, received five national book awards and was featured on National Public Radio’s “Performance Today.” Steve first fell in love with whales while studying biology and music at Oberlin College. A former Audubon naturalist and Peace Corps volunteer, he lives with his wife and various creatures in the wilds of New Hampshire.