Today we celebrate what America is all about: life, liberty and the pursuit of … great junk. Three weeks ago, a New York City man — who requests anonymity so as not to spoil his cover for future bargain hunting — perused a Manhattan flea market and paid $10 for an ugly print of a flower. A steal! He figured that nice, wood frame was worth the price and much more.
Then he got home and discovered two yellowed sheets of paper tucked behind the bad-art print. Scrawled in faded ink were the words, “My country, ‘tis of thee,/ Sweet land of liberty. …” His heart sang.
“I knew I had something,” he says. “I just didn’t know what.” Turns out that for 10 bucks, he had unwittingly purchased a lyric sheet handwritten by Samuel Francis Smith, the Massachusetts minister who penned the anthem “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” more than 175 years ago.
What might those four stanzas consisting of just 123 patriotic words sell for today? “Probably somewhere in the $100,000 range,” says Keya Morgan, president of Keya Gallery on Wall Street, who authenticated the find.
Mr. Morgan is a handwriting analyst who has lent his expertise to the White House, Smithsonian Institution and Library of Congress. He also owns a large collection of historic memorabilia — everything from rare Lincoln letters to Marilyn Monroe’s wristwatch — that he claims is valued at $150 million. He paid an undisclosed sum on the spot for that flea-market lyrics sheet.
“‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’ - I used to sing that when I was a kid in school,” Mr. Morgan recalls. “To have the actual manuscript that he entirely handwrote and touched and was in his possession? It doesn’t get any better than that.” Actually, it could be lots better, financially speaking. In Mr. Morgan’s estimation, a handwritten copy of the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key — which has never surfaced and is regarded as something of a Holy Grail among collectors — would be worth at least $10 million.
An original set of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” lyrics might command seven figures too, if not for the unfortunate fact that “nobody knows who Samuel Francis Smith is.” T’was not so back in the day.
Smith achieved celebrity status, and his song became — for a time — a de facto national anthem. He would dash off copies of the lyrics for friends and admirers, sort of long-form autographs. About half a dozen are known to exist.
A brush with fame was perhaps preordained. Smith was born in 1808, within the shadow of the Revolutionary War, which stretched across his Copp’s Hill neighborhood in Boston. Old North Church, where Paul Revere had been a bell ringer, was just a few streets away. Young Sam had a serious streak, preferring to read churchyard tombstones than play games. He also had a gift for words, cranking out his first poem, “Elegy on a Cat,” at age 8.
Smith, reportedly conversant in 13 languages, went on to Harvard, then Andover Theological Seminary in nearby Newton Centre, Mass. In February 1831, during his first year in seminary, a friend named Lowell Mason — the choirmaster at Park Street Church, which still sits on the fringe of Boston Common — paid a visit. He had a favor to ask: Would Smith translate some German hymns into English? Mason planned to teach them to his youth choir for that summer’s Fourth of July festivities.
Smith did a handful of transcriptions, but one particular melody caught his fancy. He later described being “pleased with its simple and easy movement.” It was a traditional hymn — by then well-traveled around Europe — most commonly called “God Save the King.” On one winter’s afternoon, Smith took pen in hand and a gush of words spilled out of him.
“My country ‘tis of thee,” he began. Within half an hour, he had written a complete set of alternative lyrics. He tucked them into the hymnal, then gave the book back to Mason, thinking nothing of it.
Flash forward to July 4, 1831. Smith is standing in a crowd of celebrants on Boston Common. The children’s choir at Park Street Church assembles outdoors and begins warbling, “My country, ‘tis of thee,/ Sweet land of liberty,/ Of thee I sing./ Land where my fathers died,/ Land of the pilgrims’ pride,/ From every mountainside/ Let freedom ring. …” You could’ve knocked him over with a quill pen.
“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” — formally titled simply “America” — quickly became part of the young country’s background music. Smith went on to a prestigious career as a minister and educator. However, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. — a longtime Smith friend and Harvard classmate, poet and father of the Supreme Court justice — harkened back to the song that defined his life, writing a commemorative poem to “him who touched the string that found its echoes in a nation’s heart.”
Oscar Brand is a New York-based folk singer and music historian. At 88, he has heard a lot of tunes come and go. “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” he says, enjoys unusual staying power. “It’s part of the American psyche,” says Mr. Brand. “It’s a straightforward song. I like it very much.”