From 1961 comes the Columbia Masterworks record, America the Beautiful: The Heart of America in Poetry spoken by Vincent Price. Produced and directed by John Tobias, and written by Douglas Duer, this is a wonderful piece of Americana featuring Price at his most masterful, and is available to listen below, following the liner notes which have been reproduced here in full. (ML 5668 | Library of Congress R61-1207). Please note that the recording below is from the personal collection of Peter Fuller and is made available here for reference only (hence the odd scratch).
What is a nation’s pride? Its wealth, its power? What lasts is the contribution a nation makes to humanity, to the enjoyment of the citizens of that nation and the world… it is the national culture that indexes any country in the history of civilization.
Throughout our short history our poets have produced much what was and is tantalizingly new, advanced. They have always been aware of our past and present needs, cultural needs and national needs. They have beautifully reflected to the world America’s pride in its bigness of heart, its endless variety of landscape, its homeliness. America is still a soundly simple country, big, roomy and basically rural. It is quiet and loud, humble and brave, ready to be used and to serve or command those willing to share with it their best nature. It is fringed for sure by a certain city sophistication, but at heart it remains ‘country’.
Our greatest poets, today and yesterday, have always gone to this ‘country’ quality for their inspiration. It is not that they neglect our cities or find in them no source of inspiration, but rather that they see city life in America as the natural outgrowth of the life of the country. They seem to sense that the brain cannot exist without the stomach, the head does not so unless the legs are firmly planted on the earth… In short, that America is earthy, are country, and are people.
These poems have been selected because they so famously reflect this aspect of America. They are story poems, tying place facts about a plain people, their joys and sorrows, their love of the land they live in and on. They’re sophisticated in their simplicity. They have all been accepted as a part of our part of our pride in our simple openhearted heritage.
They are all familiar in our mouths as household words. But it has always fascinated me that a large percentage of the professed lovers of them who feel they know them in their hearts know so little of them by heart. They are too often first line quotable and too seldom understood or even know to the end. How few of us know completely our national anthem, that stirring poem of wonder at our survival… of what of those last lines of warning not to misuse our God-shed bounty in America the Beautiful… or the tongue in cheek denouement of the saga of Casey Jones.
Some have been chosen for their power, others for their serenity. Some we have tried to rescue from the inundation in music, which while it often adds charm to poetry, may as often subtract from its clarity as plain language. Several of them are included because they have retained their youthful freshness and remain childhood beloved poems of adult enjoyment forever. At least one we felt deserved to be heard again after being lost for so long in the limbo of the classroom and textbook.
So here they are, not all your favourites perhaps, but many are I hope, yours – and mine. For myself as a performer, and your reader here, they all represent the exciting challenge of trying to make them sound new and at the same time not tamper with their familiarity. I hope we may have discovered new meaning for the listener in some of them, or perhaps just achieved the ultimate satisfaction of presenting to you poems you have always loved for your enjoyment once again.
We have tried to tell America’s story in a language most of us understand and like to hear – the language of the popular poet. For me these poems do tell the story of a nation still aborning, growing, remembering its greatness or trying to forget its past mistakes in the promise of an even more fabulous future.
If they are not all of the American story they are at least accepted and beloved samples of our ability to laugh at ourselves, to take ourselves seriously, of our humanity as a people, of our energy as a nation and above al of our desire to share with the world our unique dream of liberty and belied in the dignity of the individual. Vincent Price (1961)
Introduction – Vincent Price (0:40)
The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers – Elizabeth Barrett Browning (2:28)
Thanksgiving Day – Lydia Maria Child (1:32)
Paul Revere’s Ride – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (6:40)
The Village Blacksmith – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (2:46)
The Star-Spangled Banner – Francis Scott Key (2:36)
The House by the Side of the Road – Sam Walter Foss (2:16)
Trees – Joyce Kilmer (1:12)
The Barefoot Boy – John Greenleaf Whittier (4:44)
Introduction to Christmas – Vincent Price (0:32)
A Visit from St Nicholas – Clement Clark Moore (3:54)
O Captain! My Captain! – Walt Whitman (2:24)
Jesse James (3:50)
Casey at the Bat – Ernest L Thayer (4:22)
Casey Jones – Wallace Saunders (2:20)
The New Colossus – Emma Lazarus (1:20)
Chicago – Carl Sandburg (2:20)
America For Me – Henry Van Dyke (2:26)
In Flanders Fields – John McCrea (1:12)
America the Beautiful – Katharine Lee Bates, 1911 (1:26)