My Country ‘Tis of Thee: Matching Subject to Style
|Author Claire Rudolf Murphy|
Writing my new book My Country ‘Tis of Thee: How One Song Tells the Story of Civil Rights taught me a craft lesson that I am working to replicate again in other nonfiction projects, matching subject to style. When writing for young readers, it is a great challenge how to share one’s research in a style that connects with their lives and brings clarity and enjoyment to new, complex subjects. Stephen J. Pyne’s wonderful nonfiction craft book Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction discusses the importance of identifying a vision for one’s book and that finding the right style and structure to carry it out.
For many years I had been conducting research on civil rights activists throughout American history. I wanted to tell this larger story that began when the colonists first began protesting against the English taxes and continues today in areas like immigration and gay rights. But that is a great deal of material to cover in one book. As Pyne says, “If you’re lucky you have an epiphany (on what structure to use.) But if unlucky, your manuscript crawls and sprawls and never comes together.”
For many years I had been researching people of color and women who had fought for equal rights throughout our country’s history. I wanted to write a collection of stories about them. But editors kept saying the profiles were too dense, not riveting enough and wouldn’t connect enough with younger readers. For several years my project sprawled every which way, growing more unwieldy every week, with new activists and events I had uncovered, but no structure to carry the load.
Until I was knee deep into research on the women’s suffrage movement for my 2011 book Marching With Aunt Susan: Susan B. Anthony and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage. I ran across suffrage verses set to the song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Like many protest movements, the suffragists had written verses to well known tunes to support their cause and sing at meetings and rallies. I’ve long known that music can convince and connect with people in a way that words alone cannot.
When I found their verse (that ended up in Marching With Aunt Susan,) something clicked in me. I had that epiphany Pyne talks about. I wondered - did other movements use this same song to promote their cause? Some quick research uncovered several examples. I found more and more, until I found my climax with Martin Luther King, Jr. quoting the song in his “I Have a Dream” speech and the resolution of Aretha Franklin singing the song at President Obama’s first inauguration.
I knew immediately that all my years of research had brought me to this place where I could put this history together for young readers in a format that would connect with them in an inventive way because they already knew the melody. Everybody does. I knew immediately that I had finally discovered the structure I needed, possibly the best structure I’ve ever used in a nonfiction book. And it brought double pleasure because it also tied into my love of music. Because I had done all that research for so many years it allowed me to realize how this song truly did represent the history of civil rights in our country. I wouldn’t have realized how important these verses were if I didn’t already understand the power and depth and breadth of protest throughout our country’s two hundred plus years. Most of my research doesn’t appear in the book, but it holds up, gives gravitas to the verses I feature, even if the reader doesn’t fully understand it. They get it. And Bryan Collier’s stunning illustrations bring these protest verses to life in a new way, too, for readers to pore over.
I am delighted that I end the book with the line: “Now it’s your turn. Write a verse for a cause you believe in.” Because this invitation to young readers has become the focus of my promotion as I help launch this book. With the support of my publisher, I have started a contest, inviting students across the country to submit new verses. I have books and posters to send to the winners.
Second graders in Spokane wrote this verse:
Schools should be bully-free,
Full of our honesty,
Friends should be kind.
Include us in your game,
Please treat us all the same,
Stop calling us those names,
Friends should be kind.
A 5th/6th grade class wrote this one:
My country ‘tis of thee
So sad the poverty
God keep them in your sight
Help us relieve their plight
Shelter them for the night
New hope is found
My hope is that teachers will grab onto this way to teach history and music and use it as a writing activity in class. New verses can be submitted on my web site and musical recordings of the verses can be found there too.
Let freedom ring!