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Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”

| May 11, 2014 | 19 Comments

“I’d like to write a great peace song,” Irving Berlin told a journalist in 1938, “but it’s hard to do, because you have trouble dramatizing peace.”

Years before John Lennon or Bob Dylan were even born, Berlin took up the challenge of penning an anthem that would inspire his fellow men to live in harmony. As America’s most successful songwriter, the 50-year-old Berlin had already lived through one world war, and with the rise of Nazi Germany, he knew a second was brewing.

He recalled, “I worked for a while on a song called ‘Thanks America,’ but I didn’t like it. I tried again with a song called ‘Let’s Talk About Liberty,’ but I didn’t get very far. It was too much like making a speech to music. It then occurred to me to reexamine an old song of mine, ‘God Bless America.’”

Berlin’s practice of “going to the trunk,” where he squirreled away every verse, chorus and half-finished idea he ever wrote, often got him out of songwriting jams. He’d come up with “God Bless America” in 1918, while serving in the Army at Camp Upton in Yaphank, N.Y. It was intended for a military revue called Yip Yip Yaphank.

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

Berlin decided Ruby was right, calling the song “just a little sticky.” He cut it from the score, stashing it away in his trunk.

Two decades later, Berlin saw new hope in the old tune. “I had to make one or two changes in the lyrics, and they in turn led me to a slight change and improvement in the melody, one line in particular. The original ran: ‘Stand beside her and guide her to the right with a light from above.’ In 1918, the phrase ‘to the right’ had no political significance, as it has now. So for obvious reasons, I changed the phrase to ‘Through the night with a light from above.’”

Pleased with the revamped song—he packed a lot into its compact five-line frame—Irving searched for the right singer to introduce it.

Kate Smith was 200 pounds of wholesome country girl goodness, a vaudeville singer who’d entertained WWI troops when she was 8 years old and gone on to host her own CBS radio show, with millions of devoted listeners. On Nov. 11, 1938, Smith sang “God Bless America” as part of her Armistice Day broadcast (anniversary of the end of WWI).

The song tapped into the national psyche, offering a kind of collective prayer for the unease over impending war. Within days, it was being hailed as the new national anthem. Sheet music flew off the shelves. Smith was booked for personal appearances, including major league baseball games and the 1939 World’s Fair. School bands played the song relentlessly. Without any hype or plugging, Berlin’s anthem became a sensation.

In 1940, both the Republican and Democratic parties adopted the song as their theme. Realizing that it would look improper to collect royalties on a patriotic ode, Berlin established a trust, the God Bless America Fund, which distributed all proceeds to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.

The song wasn’t without its critics. Certain Democrats called the song jingoistic, questioning why God should bless America and no other country, and what about separation of church and state? Others griped about Berlin’s pedigree. As a Russian Jew who immigrated to the U.S. in 1893, why should he speak for America? A prominent pastor in New York, Edgar Franklin Romig, grabbed headlines by calling the song a “specious substitute for religion.”

One songwriter who didn’t like Berlin’s anthem was Woody Guthrie. It’s said that he got so fed up with hearing Kate Smith on the radio, he wrote a rebuttal in “This Land Is Your Land.” In the original version of Guthrie’s classic, he painted pictures of a desolate, corrupt country, ending each verse with “God blessed America for you and me.”

In the wake of 9/11, the song took on a new life, once again signalling renewed patriotism and pride. Celine Dion performed it on the TV special A Tribute to Heroes and her version climbed into the Top 40.

As for Irving Berlin, he lived to the ripe old age of 101, passing away in 1989. Though his incredible legacy of songs ranges from the glitzy (“Putting On the Ritz”) to the sentimental (“Always”) to the seasonal (“White Christmas”), “God Bless America” remains one of his most personal achievements.

As his 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.”

— By Bill DeMain

— Photo © Bettmann/Corbis

From Performing Songwriter Issue 106, December 2007

Category: Behind The Song

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  1. Elaine Loutzenheiser says:

    I’m old enough to remember Kate Smith and hearing her sing it. I’m with the man who said he still gets chills when he hears it sung. I personally believe it’s best sung with immigrant children who appreciate this free land which welcomes them. May we ever welcome the “tired, the poor, who long to be free.” They
    make our America a better place with their contributions.

  2. D. J. Monya says:

    God bless America anthem means so much to so many, it’s patriotism speaks to our very soles when we hear it. What does it say? What does it mean? It’s based on how a man felt about his life hear in the USA. And the opportunity he had been given. I’m a Black Native Indian and with all that has happened over 400 plus years I pray to this day that all Americans now, Native and immigrants can come together as one in forgiveness and love. Being American is about the people it always have been and it always will be!

  3. John Heiman says:

    Seems that people from all over the world come to retire in Plano, Texas. Our band plays at the Senior Center every Thursday, and we have closed with GBA every week for the last five years. It has been interesting to watch: in the beginning, they would stand around and sing. Now, it has turned into almost a production number with everyone holding hands and raising their locked arms together on the final “Home Sweet Home!” It is inspiring to see how much God really has blessed America. Wish Irving Berlin could see all the colors and nationalities singing joyously together about their home and adopted countries.

  4. tom Rosato says:

    How can you reply to what turned out to be a moment of American greatness. The songs writer(Irving Berlin), the singer (Kate Smith). I am a Viet Nam veteran, over 70 years old, and I still get a lump in my throat every time I hear it.

  5. Ron T says:

    “God Bless America” is one of the best songs EVER!!!! It’s a shame that so few youngsters don’t know it. It has been sung thousands o time, every time sung beautifully. But I feel that Celine Dion’s version ranks right up there with best of them. I’m a Vet and the first time I heard her sing that song, I cried.

  6. E. J. Woodward says:

    For a while, I thought that God Bless America was corny; I don’t any more. It is a wonderful song full of wonderful meaning, just like so many of Berlin’s songs are. AND Berlin wrote words and lyrics for most of his songs–AMAZING. Even George Gershwin relied on brother Ira for lyrics, many of those were truly corny. I didn’t realize that he wrote the words and music for his songs until I bought an Irving Berlin song book. Great song after great song–words AND music by Irving Berlin….Blue Skies, White Christmas, Easter Parade, Count your Blessings, et. al. I love Irving Berlin!

  7. Marc says:

    Its very hard to imagine there are some sick people who in this country that want to ban this song at public events because it may offend someone.

    This country is now in need of all the blessings we can get more than ever.

  8. my 4 yr. old greatgrandaughter sang every word for our family gathering—took some of the cards to her 1st summer bible school —- came home jumping & excited– grandma grandma i gave a card to my teacher & we all sang god bless america before we left today! the children will lead the way !!!! 92 yr. great great grandma etta.

  9. Warren Pugh says:

    Couple of items.
    A few nights ago a young man in uniform sang it during the 7th innings stretch.

    Other? God Bless America is more moving when it begins with, “When the storm clouds gather far across the sea . . . .”. Warren

  10. I remember hearing and singing “God Bless America” as a Seventh grade student in 1938..As a Christian Recording Artist, I recorded the song in 1980 on my “We Have This Moment, Today” album.

  11. Warren Pugh says:

    Neither Irving Berlin or Kate Smith committed any crime that I know of. I do know they have enriched us. If there is anything tragic it is that the evil receives more notoriety than the good. The press is keeping us on the proverbial slippery slide.
    Who needs them ? No TV here. Just great music. WASP

  12. Kenneth T. Tellis says:

    Ido not believe that Kate Smith was anti-semitic at all.

    Israel Baline (Irving Berlin)of course along with his wife Elin Mackay both became Protestants.

    • Larry Miller says:

      If I recall from childhood days, Kate Smith’s”announcer” was Dan Seymour, not unlikely a Jewish name. He went on to become a major ad agency top executive.

  13. Warren Pugh says:

    Thanks Richard. Stumbled across a flash mob of God Bless America being sung. They all looked like foreigners, whatever tat is, and they had the lyrics memorized.

    Have a memorable 4th. I’ll be SLC Utah where the choir celebrates the stars and stripes.


  14. Richard Gary says:

    Great song, and let us not forget that Kate Smith would have been the equivalent of a Tea Party member, who was infamously anti-Semetic. Ironically, of course, Berlin was Jewish.

  15. Warren Pugh says:

    Have sung this passionate patriotic song a thousand times or so from coast to coast before little and big crowds of very appreciative Americans AND Canadians. It is even more heartfelt when the verse is included. “When 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 blend our voices in a solemn prayer”.

    Happy 4th of July. Thanks to the Russian immigrant.

  16. Maretta Deiterman says:

    I am mentoring a fifth grade girl. We have an hour at lunch and sometimes she brings her friends. Last week I suggested we sing. First we sang familiar hymns and then I said “let’s sing GOD BLESS AMERICA”. They did not know it!, and they are bright girls. I said you will learn it. We sang the beginning. This week I am taking my ipad – they will hear Kate Smith and learn the history of my very favorite song.

  17. Marian Pedersen says:

    Fantastic Song…every grade school, junior high and high school student …every AMERICAN…should learn and appreciate this music and song….

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