Song Story: God Bless America

Irving BerlinIrving Berlin’s patriotic love song to his adopted homeland was hidden away for over twenty years before being publicly made known.

Irving Berlin was a Russian immigrant living in New York City.  Growing up, Berlin often heard his mother say “God Bless America.” Berlin later said about his mother, “without America, her family would have had no place to go.

Berlin’s 1911 hit, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, put him on the world stage.

In 1918, WWI was raging, and Sergeant Irving Berlin was serving the U.S. Army at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York.  Berlin wrote some lyrics for a Ziegfeld style revue called Yip Yip Yaphank.  Some of these lyrics included “Make her victorious on land and foam, God bless America…” and “Stand beside her and guide her to the right with the light from above”.

Harry Ruby, Berlin’s musical secretary, later remembered “There were so many patriotic songs coming out at the time. Every songwriter was pouring them out. I said, ‘Geez, another one?’”  Berlin eventually agreed with Harry Ruby.

While working on the military revue, Berlin decided the solemn lyrics did not fit the comedic show and set the lyrics aside.  The revue was to raise money for a new building that was to be built on the base. The revue produced one of WWI and Berlin’s hits, “Oh! How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning.”

Kate Smith

Kate Smith

Fast forward twenty years to 1938 and war was again looming in Europe.  Singer Kate Smith wanted something fresh for her radio show to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Armistice Day, the end of the Great War {now known as WWI}.  Her manager, Ted Collins, approached Irving Berlin and asked for a patriotic song to introduce on her radio program. He explained that Kate Smith wanted a song that made that made Americans feel good again.

Kate Smith was the number one popular songstress in America in 1938. She was what one person described as “200 pounds of wholesome country girl goodness.” She began in vaudeville and entertained WWI troops at the age of 8 years.   She was the largest entertainer of her day, when radio dominated the airwaves.  She had a weekly radio program that was heard by millions.  Her voice was as large as her heart was.  She was deeply patriotic and her heart hurt to see Americans depressed as they struggled to survive the Great Depression.  She believed in her country and her fellowman and had hope that things would get better.

Berlin felt the urgency to deliver after returning from a trip to Europe and the conflict that was brewing.  He wanted to create a song that celebrated America as a place to live. After several futile attempts to write a song, {He later offered the following titles for his failed attempts, Thanks America and Let’s Talk About Liberty} he remembered a song he had drafted years earlier and asked his secretary to find it in an old trunk.  He often squirreled away partially written songs and lyrics and referred to them much later when they fit his need.  He dusted the manuscript off and took the challenge to rewrite it into a song that would inspire his fellow American to live in harmony.

Berlin began rewriting the song, including the lyrics “To the right with the light from above.” “In 1918, the song had no political connotation but twenty years later referred to the conservative political groups.  His first proof copy is dated October 31, 1938 and the earliest final version of the manuscript is dated just two days later. we can do it

Berlin wanted a song that “brought America together.”  He told journalists in 1938, “I’d like to write a great peace song… but it’s hard to do, because you have trouble dramatizing peace.” Berlin said in a 1940 interview, “but an expression of gratitude for what this country has done for its citizens, of what home really means.”

Kate Smith premiered the song on her November 11, 1938 CBS Radio Program. The song spoke to the American psyche, “offering a kind of collective prayer for the unease over impending war.”  Many considered the song to be the new national anthem.

Irving Berlin was invited to attend Kate Smith’s show, but declined.  He preferred to listen to the song in the privacy of his office with a few close friends.  Kate Smith closed her radio program with the Patriotic song.  As soon as the program was over, Irving Berlin’s phone began to ring asking “Where can we get the song Kate Smith just sung?”

Berlin was so touched by the outpouring of interest in those calls that he decided to attend the live rebroadcast made for the West Coast just three hours later.  At the end of the show, Kate Smith called Berlin to the stage where she swept him off his feet with a bear hug.

The sheet music for God Bless America was first published in March 1939.  God Bless America reminded American’s what they were fighting for, not against.

God Bless America became Kate Smith’s signature song.  After premiering the song she was booked for numerous appearances to perform her new hit.  She included the song in every performance of her weekly radio show from that first performance onward.  For a while Kate Smith had exclusive performing rights.

While the Patriotic song swept the country, there were those that did not like the song.  Woody Guthrie criticized the song as “unrealistic and complacent”.  He wrote This Land Is Your Land to counter God Bless America.

Kate Smith added a short poem to the beginning of what Berlin had written.   These words are occasionally sung, but not always.  They do appear in the printed versions of the song:

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free,
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in solemn prayer.

God Bless America has been described as taking “the form of prayer…for God’s blessing and peace for the nation.”

President Franklin Roosevelt

President Franklin Roosevelt

Both the 1940 Democratic and Republican National Conventions sung the song.  God Bless America was the official campaign song in 1940 for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Berlin considered the song to be the most important manuscript he had ever written.  He understood how valuable the song was and decided he never wanted to make a penny from it.  He wanted all royalties to be a gift to his adopted country.  He instructed his lawyers to draw up papers that “would help to make the country’s future brighter and stronger.” In 1940, Irving Berlin established the God Bless America foundation.  All of the royalties from its performances were established to go to the Boy scouts of America and Girl Scouts of America.  That arrangement still exists to this day. More than $10 million have been distributed to the Scouts, with royalties still pouring in.

There was a movement to make God Bless America the national anthem.  Kate Smith appeared before congress and argued that The Star-Spangled Banner was written by Francis Scott Key during a battle {War of 1812} and should be the national anthem.  She recorded her signature song on March 21, 1939 on a recording of the flip side of the national anthem. This is the Army

During WWII, Irving Berlin toured his show “This is the Army” to raise money for the US war effort. God Bless America and Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning were two of the featured songs.   In 1943, Warner Brother’s made the movie “This is the Army.”  Irving Berlin, who also appeared in the film, insisted on a scene in which Kate Smith re-created her radio introduction of God Bless America.  She sang the song with the seldom heard verse.

The original manuscripts of God Bless America were presented to the Library of Congress in 1992 by Berlin’s three daughters.

Kate Smith died on June 17, 1986 at the age of 79.  After her death, clips from her performance in “This is the Army” were shown.

Irving Berlin died on September 22, 1989 at the ripe age of 101.  Reports claim that even in the end, he was comforted in knowing that the young people of America would benefit from his favorite song. In addition to God Bless America, he left such hits as White Christmas,” “Blue Skies,” “Always,” “Puttin on the Ritz,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Heat Wave,” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.”God Bless America

Irving Berlin’s daughter Mary Ellin Barrett said, “I came to understand that it wasn’t ‘God Bless America, land that we love.’ It was ‘God bless America, land that I love.’ It was an incredibly personal statement that my father was making, that anybody singing that song makes as they sing it. And I understood that that song was his ‘thank you’ to the country that had taken him in. It was the song of the immigrant boy who made good.”

Many have considered God Bless America as the unofficial national anthem. Over the years God Bless America has ebbed and flowed in the American psyche.  The song can be found at sporting events, in church hymnals, in numerous movies, performances by a number of recording artists, and at celebrations and demonstrations.  After the terrorists events of September 11, 2001 the song found a renewal of interest.  On July 21, 2011 Kate Smith’s version was played into the space shuttle Atlantis for their final wake up call.

How has God Bless America touched you?

God Bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her
And guide her
To the right with the light from above
Make her victorious on land and foam
God Bless America, my home sweet home.

Tweetables:

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God Bless America in the American Psyche