God Bless America

The Surprising History of an Iconic Song

by Sheryl Kaskowitz

God Bless America

Hardcover, 210 pages, Oxford Univ Pr, List Price: $29.95 | purchase

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God Bless America
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The Surprising History of an Iconic Song
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Sheryl Kaskowitz

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NPR Summary

Sheryl Kaskowitz begins her book with the composition of "God Bless America" by Irving Berlin in 1918 and its first performance by Kate Smith in 1938. Kaskowitz shows how the early popularity of the song reflected the anxiety of the pre-war period and sparked a surprising anti-Semitic and xenophobic backlash.

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NPR stories about God Bless America

American composer Irving Berlin sings his song "God Bless America" in front of Boy Scouts troop members and spectators gathered at a tent in Monticello, New York in 1940. Instead of collecting royalties from "God Bless America," Berlin created a fund that collected and distributed them to the Boy and Girl Scouts. Getty Images hide caption

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: God Bless America

Viewers of the World Series in 2011 may have noticed a trend in the nightly performances of "God Bless America" during the seventh inning stretch: at five of the seven games of the series, the song was performed by a soldier in uniform. But his is just the most recent incarnation of the song's long-time association with war. Irving Berlin originally wrote "God Bless America" as the finale to an all-soldier revue during World War I, but ultimately decided not to include it. After the song was premiered by radio star Kate Smith in 1938, it was embraced by the public as an interventionist anthem. Smith went on to become the quintessential voice of the home front during the war, mounting elaborate shows at North American military bases and holding several record-breaking war-bond drives on the radio. Smith's association with "God Bless America" reinforced her patriotic image, and her wartime use of the song in turn solidified the song's role as a signifier for home-front support for war, a connection that would continue into the twenty-first century.

But why did "God Bless America" take on this strong association with interventionism in the first place? There is no martial imagery in the lyrics of the song's familiar chorus specifically linking the song to war, no "bombs bursting in air" or "land where my fathers died" or "terrible swift swords." How did this patriotic song become the anthem of choice for military supporters, rather than another?

In fact, the early history of "God Bless America" reveals a shifting relationship with war. It was originally written in 1918 for soldiers to sing onstage but took on a very different meaning during the period directly before the US entry into World War II, when changes made by both Irving Berlin and Kate Smith first aligned it with isolationism before positioning it to become a song in support of the war. These changing associations reflect larger changes in public opinion about intervention in the war during the late 1930s and early 1940s.

When Irving Berlin recovered "God Bless America" from his trunk of rejected songs in September 1938, much had changed since he had first sketched his song in 1918. A wartime marked by the zeal of George M. Cohan's "Over There" had given way to an increasing mood of isolationism in response to a new, escalating conflict in Europe. In a 1936 poll, 95 percent of Americans were opposed to US participation in another European war. In her 1938 autobiography, Kate Smith articulated an unquestionably non-interventionist stance, writing, "I'm frank to say, if I had a son, I wouldn't want to send him off to battle in a strange land, to fight other nation's battles."6 Smith, who would later prove to be a huge supporter of the war effort, was expressing views that were widely shared by many Americans in early 1938. In fact, Armistice Day itself, the occasion for which "God Bless America" was first performed, was first made a legal holiday in May 1938, when an act of Congress declared it "a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace."

Returning from London in September 1938, as the Munich Pact precipitated the Nazi takeover of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, Irving Berlin told a reporter, "I'd like to write a great peace song, . . . a great marching song that would make people march toward peace." Kate Smith expressed similar sentiments on her talk show on the day of the song's premiere, saying: "As I stand before the microphone and sing it with all my heart, I'll be thinking of our veterans and I'll be praying with every breath I draw that we shall never have another war." Against this backdrop, "God Bless America" appears to have been positioned as an anthem for non-interventionism in the escalating war in Europe. Yet "God Bless America" was called a "peace song" only in advance press surrounding its debut. In later articles and interviews, such language was not used.

Although the premiere of "God Bless America" took place on the first official observance of Armistice Day, it also happened to coincide with a pivotal event in the history of World War II: Kristallnacht, the Nazi's calculated attacks on Jewish communities throughout Germany and its annexed territories, which began on 9 November 1938. According to many scholars of World War II, the brutality of Kristallnacht signaled a turning point for a growing American attitude of revulsion and condemnation of Nazi Germany, and a consequent move away from staunch isolationism. In an October 1937 survey, 62 percent of Americans reported feeling neutral toward Germany, whereas a post-Kristallnacht poll showed 61 percent in favor of a boycott of German goods. While a "peace song" may have suited the public mood in September 1938, as Kate Smith continued to perform the song in late 1938 and early 1939, a march toward peace was becoming less and less called for.

The lyrics of the song's verse reflect this shift in relation to war. Berlin added the introductory verse as he made other changes to the song in the fall of 1938, and his original lyrics included a direct reference to anti-interventionism:

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea

Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free

Let us all be grateful that we're far from there

As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer

The "storm clouds" in the first line are an obvious reference to the growing strife in Europe, and follow Tin Pan Alley conventions linking bad weather to troubled times. Berlin's use of the first-person plural ("let us swear allegiance," "let us all be grateful," and "as we raise our voices") positions the song as an anthem to be sung by a crowd, a subtle distinction from the singular "land that I love" of the chorus that follows. And the last line that labels the song "a solemn prayer" specifically frames the song as a hymn.

But most importantly, the line "let us all be grateful that we're far from there" strongly points to a non-interventionist position, one that may have been sympathetic to the suffering in Europe but that did not urge action to bring Americans into the fray. Kate Smith sang this verse in her earliest radio performances of "God Bless America," but by February 1939, when the printed sheet music was copyrighted, the storm clouds stayed, but Berlin changed the line to "Let us all be grateful for a land so fair."

Berlin's removal of the non-interventionist line in the verse was likely in response to his own changing views as much as to shifts in public opinion about intervention in the war. As a Jewish immigrant, Berlin showed growing concern about the events in Europe and began to give large donations to Jewish relief work during this period. In her memoir, Berlin's daughter Mary Ellin Barrett wrote that by 1940, "isolationists in our interventionist family became the enemy, or at best, if close friends, the misguided ones." A "peace song" was no longer necessary.

From God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song by Sheryl Kaskowitz. Copyright Oxford University Press 2013. Excerpted by permission of Oxford University Press 2013.

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