Patriotic Song for Mountain Dulcimer

Recently I took an auto trip down the East coast from Boston to Louisiana. The landscape was lush and it really was a beautiful drive through all the mountains and farmlands. I didn’t even mind driving along the interstates as tall, mature trees lined the highways making for a scenic drive. I thought of the patriotic song, “America the Beautiful, ” as we drove along. This is one of those tunes which makes us proud of our country through the visual images of the landscape. I arranged the tune for a mountain dulcimer in time to learn it for the Fourth of July. I used the DGD tuning since it is much easier to sing this song in the Key of G than the Key of D.

About “America the Beautiful

“America The Beautiful” was originally a poem entitled, “Pikes Peak.” It was written by Katharine Lee Bates, a professor of English literature at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She wrote the poem while visiting and teaching in Colorado. Bates was overwhelmed by the beauty of her surroundings while climbing Pikes Peak and returned to her hotel, quickly writing down her thoughts and images. This included her train trip across the country. She included visual images of her trip — the rolling sea close to her hometown of Boston, the wheat fields of Kansas, the Great Plains seen from Pikes Peak and the gleaming white buildings of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She published her poem in the Fourth of July 1895 edition of the church periodical, The Congregationalist

The poem quickly became very popular with the American public and it was set to a variety of melodies. Because of it’s regular cadence, the poem fits well with many melodies, including “Auld Lang Syne.” Eventually the poem was paired with melody,  “Materna,” composed in 1882 by Samuel A. Ward who was the the organist and choir director at Grace Church, Newark. He was inspired to write the tune one summer day while riding a ferryboat back from Coney Island to his home in New York City.

Bates tweaked the words to the poem several times. The poem and melody were published together in 1910 as “America the Beautiful.”

The poem was originally published as “America, A Poem for July 4.” When put to music, it has become one of our most popular and beloved patriotic songs. Over the years, there have been attempts to give “America the Beautiful” legal status either as a national hymn or as a national anthem equal to “The Star Spangle Banner.” The “America the Beautiful” song is melodic and easier to sing and for bands to play. However, so far none of these attempts have succeeded.

Playing “America the Beautiful” on Mountain Dulcimer

This dulcimer arrangement of the song is in the Key of G using the DGD tuning for a standard mountain dulcimer. It is much easier to sing the song in the Key of G than in the Key of D. While this means getting used to a different tuning (other than DAD), it is easier to incorporate open strums when tuned to the key that you are playing in. Plus, I found some pleasing chords and harmonies with this tuning for this arrangement.

To tune your dulcimer to DGD tuning, simply lower the middle string one note from “A” to “G.” It is easy to do this using a tuner. And remember that changing a string by only one pitch means that you only have to turn the turner about half a crank. Don’t over-do the tuning. It is so simple and easy to do! (Just make sure you are changing the middle string and have figured out which way to turn the tuner to lower the pitch — not raise the pitch.)

The melody to this tune has plenty of syncopation and dotted quarter notes. To help maintain a regular rhythm, I added “picked” notes on the bass string in the measures with dotted quarter notes. These tablature notes are simply to fill in some of the syncopated rhythm and can be played softly (or omitted entirely). In addition, I added several “fill in” notes at the end of each phrase to continue the regular rhythm of playing a note on each beat of the song.

This tune has one note, G#, in measure #7, which just isn’t found on the dulcimer in the DGD tuning. So, there are several approaches to playing this note. You can “bend” the 3rd fret on the melody string to play the G# note. However, this is difficult to accomplish. Alternately, you can simply omit this note and assume that those singing will “fill in” the G# note. Also, a dulcimer tuned to DAD does include the G# note on the middle string at the 6-1/2 fret. If you are playing as a group, dulcimer players whose dulcimers stayed in the DAD tuning can strum the chords to the song including the G# note in measure #7. (Play frets 5, 6-1/2, 5 for this chord which includes the G# note). At the best, this is one instance where you need to improvise as the standard diatonic mountain dulcimer just doesn’t have one note in this song.

Singing the Song

This is a great song for a sing-along. I included several simple chords/harmonies in the DGD tuning which can be used to strum or fingerpick as you sing the song. (And this arrangement is beautiful when the chords are fingerpicked.) These chords are written above the top staff with the chord name and fret numbers from bass string (top number) to melody string (bottom number). These chords follow along with the first note of each measure of the song which makes for a good reference and balance when singing the song.

Enjoy this arrangement of “America the Beautiful” for the dulcimer in DGD tuning. The song has a familiar melody and patriotic lyrics. Let’s appreciate this great land that we live in! Now that the “social distancing” restrictions of the pandemic are becoming less restrictive, it is time to play and share our dulcimer music again. And the DGD tuning has some interesting aspects. Give it a try!

Lyrics

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

Reference

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_the_Beautiful

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