Encore: For 'God Bless America,' A Long Gestation And Venomous Backlash A book about the song "God Bless America" shows how early popularity of the Irving Berlin song, which debuted in 1938, reflected pre-war anxiety and sparked an anti-Semitic and xenophobic backlash.
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Encore: For 'God Bless America,' A Long Gestation And Venomous Backlash

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Encore: For 'God Bless America,' A Long Gestation And Venomous Backlash

Encore: For 'God Bless America,' A Long Gestation And Venomous Backlash

Encore: For 'God Bless America,' A Long Gestation And Venomous Backlash

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/625980953/625980958" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This story was originally broadcast on All Things Considered, September 2, 2013.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On this patriotic day of stars and stripes and fireworks, we launch a new series called American Anthem. Over the next year, we're going to take a close look at songs that have roused hearts and minds around a common theme, whether it's civil rights, a favorite sports team or love of country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) God bless America, land that I love.

CHANG: Later this year, the song "God Bless America" will turn 100 years old. The now-retired host of this program, Robert Siegel, spoke with Sheryl Kaskowitz about her book "God Bless America" back in 2013. And he began the conversation by describing the moment of its premiere.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: In the fall of 1938, radio was huge. That Halloween, Orson Welles scared listeners out of their wits with his "War of the Worlds." And on November 10, 1938, on the eve of the holiday that was known then as Armistice Day, the popular singer Kate Smith made history on her radio show.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE KATE SMITH HOUR")

KATE SMITH: And now it's going to be my great, very great privilege to sing for you a song that's never been done before by anybody, one that was written especially for me by one of the greatest composers in the music field today.

SIEGEL: Irving Berlin. The song began with a verse about storm clouds gathering overseas - World War II was just a year off - and it summoned Americans to sing a song to their free country. Then came words and music that Americans have sung ever since.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE KATE SMITH HOUR")

SMITH: (Singing) God bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her and guide her through the night with a light from above.

SIEGEL: Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" has not only endured. It has become a statement of patriotism, of homefront support for troops at war. In the Vietnam era, it was an anthem of counterprotest. And while it has brought a lump to the throat of many an American, it has also annoyed many who hear it as a tune of syrupy nationalism and trivialized faith. One mark of its unusual status - Berlin took no royalties from it. He created a fund that collected them and distributed them to the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE KATE SMITH HOUR")

SMITH: (Singing) My home, sweet home.

SIEGEL: Sheryl Kaskowitz has written a book about this song. It's called "God Bless America: The Surprising History Of An Iconic Song." Welcome to the program.

SHERYL KASKOWITZ: Thanks so much.

SIEGEL: Something Kate Smith said - she said it's a song that Irving Berlin had written for her - just isn't true.

KASKOWITZ: Right. It was a little more complicated than that. He originally wrote the song in 1918. He put it in his trunk of songs. It stayed there until 1938, and that's when Kate Smith and her manager approached Irving Berlin, looking for a song to sing on their Armistice Day radio show. Irving Berlin remembered his own song and brought it out and made changes to it. He had a line in the original, from 1918, that was, make her victorious on land and foam. And he had a different melody line that had a lot more leaps in it that he smoothed out for the 1938 version.

SIEGEL: Irving Berlin was the Russian-Jewish immigrant kid who was writing a love song to his adoptive country. He also wrote the famous Christmas song "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade." He was a man who wrote all kinds of staple American songs. I knew it had drawn criticism from the likes of Woody Guthrie, who thought it was a whitewash of everything wrong in America. I didn't realize that from the right, there had been anti-Semitic complaints about "God Bless America." But you describe that there were.

KASKOWITZ: Yes, there was a backlash against it because Irving Berlin was a Jewish immigrant. And it was boycotted by the Ku Klux Klan and by some domestic Nazi groups.

SIEGEL: You traced the history of how people have sung "God Bless America" ever since 1940. I didn't know it had been used as the civil rights movement anthem at one point. During the Vietnam War, it became associated more with defenders of the policy who would break into songs of "God Bless America" in the face of anti-war protestors.

KASKOWITZ: If you think about the lyrics to "God Bless America," they're very vague. And Irving Berlin is the master of that. I found uses of it in labor rallies, union protests. Early on in the civil rights movement, it was often sung. And what I found was that it was really the Vietnam War that solidified its more conservative uses, as upholding the status quo. Counterprotesters at peace rallies would sing it to represent the administration and support for what they were doing.

SIEGEL: And then comes the great apotheosis of this song on 9/11, when somehow it's the song that Americans agree on - at least their members of Congress agree on - singing, as they did very famously.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CONGRESSPEOPLE: (Singing) God bless America, my home, sweet home.

SIEGEL: When we just think about this song, taking it out of its context, a couple of things are clear. Number one, it's easy to sing, unlike the national anthem. And unlike the national anthem, it doesn't require a small history lesson to figure out what the lyrics are about.

KASKOWITZ: It's very straightforward, modern language, very simple melody. And the other thing about it is that starting even in 1940, it began to be introduced in school. And so it was a song that a lot of people know.

SIEGEL: There is a website attached to your book "God Bless America," and one of the tracks is a recording of Irving Berlin himself singing "God Bless America." And I want you just to describe what the situation was.

KASKOWITZ: He was performing that at a dinner for a songwriters association in 1940. And it's just him at the piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IRVING BERLIN: (Singing, playing piano) God bless America...

(APPLAUSE)

BERLIN: (Singing, playing piano) ...Land that I love. Stand beside her and guide her through the night with the light from above.

KASKOWITZ: It really sounds like a ballad. The fanfares, the orchestration of Kate Smith's version are gone. He has a lovely, little bit crackly voice that to me reflects the way that he felt - that it was a love song to America.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERLIN: (Playing piano).

CHANG: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED host emeritus Robert Siegel, speaking with Sheryl Kaskowitz about her book "God Bless America: The Surprising History Of An Iconic Song" back in 2013. Later this year, the song turns 100.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERLIN: (Singing, playing piano) From the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam. God bless America, my home, sweet home.

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