Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Song And The Freedoms It Fueled

We know words are powerful whether written or spoken.  Dictionary definitions, the context in which they are used, the emotion in the voice of the speaker, shared and individual experiences all contribute to their potential effect.  When a melody is attached their capacity to bring about change, champion a cause, or unify a nation knows no limits.

Unless you were alive in 1831 it's probably hard to pinpoint when America, words penned by Samuel Francis Smith, was assimilated into your mind's cultural repertoire.  It stands to reason it was probably first heard in an elementary school music class.  For other individual groups throughout history it gave voice to their beliefs.  My Country 'Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights (Henry Holt and Company) written by Claire Rudolf Murphy with illustrations by Bryan Collier explores the value of a single song; its place on the timeline of change in the United States.

More than any other, one song traces America's history of patriotism and protest.

On the other side of the Atlantic, another set of words was assigned to the tune of God Save The King back when men were fighting to acquire supreme power in Britain.  Verses were added to reflect the victories in these battles.  As British colonists settled in America, the song followed.

A brave preacher, George Whitefield, spoke of freedom for all men.  Revolutionaries sang out a call to arms and a wish for victory.  On Inauguration Day in 1780 for George Washington words proclaimed praise, joy, and glory.

Despite calling for inclusion women did not share in the same freedoms as some men; an unnamed female author penned a verse of objection.  Fourth of July celebrations came and went but our nation had no anthem.  Samuel Francis Smith wrote four verses to be sung in 1831 by a church choir in Boston.  Regardless of his efforts, America was not chosen based on the tune's historical origins.

Slaves sang their own words.  Union soldiers sang their own words.  Confederate soldiers sang their own words.  Verses of jubilation shook the leaves on the trees when the Civil War ended.  

Conditions for workers needed to improve, immigrants were required to learn the patriotic words of the Smith song, women sought the right to vote, and a Native American poet challenged their disassociation as alterations were made and added citing the disparity in the original song's lines.  The Lincoln Memorial provided the backdrop for Marian Anderson's important modifications to the song in 1939 and again in 1963 when Martin Luther King delivered his I Have A Dream speech using a portion of the verses.  Yes...this song is a true reflection of all people seeking the same freedoms especially on the day Aretha Franklin sang it out loud and clear at President Barack Obama's inauguration.

Readers will be interested in the factual presentation of information meticulously researched and available to read in this title.  For each two pages Claire Rudolf Murphy includes a brief explanatory paragraph, the lines of the changed verse and a concluding commentary sentence.  What she chooses to include makes you unable to put the book down until you've read it cover to cover.  This is no dry display of facts but the careful peeling back of layers covering the true significance of this song.

Rendered in watercolor and collage Bryan Collier's illustrations lift each and every event from the annals of history into the present day.  Enhancing two pages of the dust jacket fireworks, the moving flag, a silhouette of a ship moving through clouds, President George Washington and thumbnails of portions of illustrations from within the title proclaim the book's contents.  The exquisite artwork portraying Aretha Franklin singing in front of an American flag graces the book case.  Collier uses people from the crowd among the white stripes. Opening and closing endpapers showcase four verses of the Samuel Francis Smith song in two different visuals.

Each picture radiantly portrays the text elevating it to the point readers feel as though they can step into each scene.  It's like walking through a museum of paintings with carefully placed pieces; each element of the design is critical to the overall effect.  Small oval portraits of King George and Prince Charles are placed over a large antique clock face, an anonymous woman is superimposed on a recreation of the signers of the Constitution, real photographs of girl's faces appear in two different illustrations, and protest signs are mixed in with rows of crops being worked by laborers. 

One of my favorite illustrations is of the depiction of the verses sung by the Union and Confederate soldiers.  A tent stretches out from the gutter.  On the inside folds we see soldiers from both sides fighting.  Worded documents appear on the underside of the folds along the bottom.  Off to the left slaves toil in the cotton fields. 

Not only is My Country 'Tis of Thee:  How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights written by Claire Rudolf Murphy with illustrations by Bryan Collier a stunning picture book title for younger readers but any reader.  I would not hesitate to recommend this book for any person to read.  I guarantee everyone will learn something new.  Source notes, a bibliography, and further resources are included at the back of the book.

For more information about Claire Rudolf Murphy and Bryan Collier please follow the links embedded in their names above to access their websites.  Claire Rudolf Murphy is challenging readers to submit new verses in a contest.  Here is a link to the publisher's website to view images from the book.  This links to an interview of Claire Rudolf Murphy in the The Spokesman-Review.  TeachingBooks.net has additional resources on both Murphy and Collier.  Reading Rockets has a video interview of Bryan Collier.

Please follow this link to Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by Alyson Beecher to see what other titles bloggers have listed as they participate in the 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.


  1. Wow! This book looks so interesting. I really should find this for my class.

    1. Gigi:
      Truthfully I can believe how much I learned about all kinds of struggles for freedom using this song as a means of protest along with pride in the United States. Let me know if you can't locate a copy.

  2. This will probably be really good to use when the 4th graders study the Revolutionary War! Perfect!

    1. It would be good for that Michele but it covers an entire spectrum of people seeking to have the freedom described in the song. It contains quite a bit of information.

  3. Sounds perfect, especially given the fact that it was just Independence day last week. Thanks for sharing this.