America: A Hymnal is made up of 100 versions of My Country ’Tis of Thee from the 18th-20th c. While the differing lyrics remain legible, the hymnal’s unifying tune has been burned and etched away. Bound and executed in the likeness of a shape note hymnal, in its many lyrical variations, America: A Hymnal is a chronological retelling of American history, politics and culture through one song.
Written by the Rev. Samuel F. Smith in 1831, My Country ’Tis of Thee (also known as America) debuted on July 4, 1831 by a children’s choir at the Park Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts. Long before Smith’s lyrics were sung aloud, the tune for America served as the national anthem for at least six other countries, including the United Kingdom’s God Save the Queen. And since Smith’s writing, the lyrics of My Country ’Tis of Thee have been re-titled and re-written at least one hundred times.
Each re-writing in support of a passionately held cause—from temperance and suffrage to abolition and even the Confederacy—articulates an often contradictory proposition of what it means to be American. In 1839, the familiar lines of “My country ’tis of thee / Sweet land of liberty,” morphed into the mournful verse:
My country! ’tis of thee,
Stronghold of Slavery,
Of thee I sing:
Land where my fathers died,
Where men man’s rights deride,
From every mountainside,
Thy deeds shall ring.
America: A Hymnal by Bethany Collins, Published by Candor Arts & PATRON Gallery
First edition, number 17 of 25, Part of Milner Library’s Special Collections
Milner Library is pleased to present this exhibition in collaboration with University Galleries Director and Chief Curator Kendra Paitz.