Thursday, July 03, 2008

God Bless America

Toward the end of World War I, a 30-year-old Jewish immigrant songwriter from Belarus named Irving Berlin joined the Army. While serving, he put together a musical review that people at his camp would perform. For the review, he wrote a patriotic song called God Bless America (also see here and here). He felt that the song was inspired from a higher source, but somehow it didn’t quite fit with the rest of the program, so he shelved it.

20 years later, the world seemed to be spinning out of control. Europe appeared to be heading toward another major war and anti-Semitism was on the rise. What this would mean for the USA was anybody’s guess. On Oct. 31, 1938, Berlin dusted off the song and started to rework it as a peace song.

Precisely at that time, Berlin was approached by singing superstar Kate Smith, who was looking for a song that she could sing for her Armistice Day radio broadcast. Smith asked Berlin for a song that would “convince America that America's going to be okay,” even if war or invasion by Hitler were in the offing.

Berlin told Smith about God Bless America, but said that he was uncomfortable with it. Some of the wording seemed out of step with the times. Moreover, it was voiced as a prayer. Atheism had become fashionable in elite circles. The song might seem presumptuous.

When Kate Smith sight-read the song, she told Berlin that it was perfect. He said, “It's boastful. It assumes that America is blessed and that God continues to bless it.” Kate Smith looked at him and said, “Irving, it is, he does, I'm singing it.” So, Berlin finalized the song on Nov. 2, 1938 and Smith performed it on Nov. 11, broadcasting from the New York World’s Fair.

But Irving Berlin felt that he could accept no payment for the song. Kate Smith predicted that the song would be a big hit that would generate plenty of royalties. Faced with this, Berlin donated his royalties from the song in perpetuity to the Boy Scouts of America. Smith donated her royalties to the Girl Scouts of America.

Kate Smith was right. God Bless America was an immediate blockbuster hit. It was particularly popular during WWII. It has remained popular for seven decades. Thanks to the generosity of an immigrant and a singer that both loved America, every time you hear a commercial performance of the song, the coffers of the BSA and GSA — organizations dedicated to building character in young Americans — get a little boost.

Today we still sing God Bless America to reassure ourselves that whatever happens, America will be OK.
God bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans white with foam,
God bless America,
My home sweet home.
Have a happy Independence Day holiday.

1 comment:

Lucy Stern said...

I too love this song.....I also like the songs of George M. Cohen. I make it a habit to watch the movie, "Yankee Doodle Dandee" every year on the Fourth of July.