The Shifting Identity Of 'God Bless America' In the new book God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song, author Sheryl Kaskowitz explores the lyrical evolution of Irving Berlin's enduring song and explains how its early popularity reflected the anxiety of the pre-war period and sparked a surprising anti-Semitic and xenophobic backlash.
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From Peace To Patriotism: The Shifting Identity Of 'God Bless America'

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From Peace To Patriotism: The Shifting Identity Of 'God Bless America'

From Peace To Patriotism: The Shifting Identity Of 'God Bless America'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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 10th, 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.


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.


SIEGEL: Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" has not only endured, it has become a statement of patriotism, of home front support for troops at war. In the Vietnam era, it was an anthem of counter-protest. 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.


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 that 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 this 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: In the original lyric, the singer beseeches God to stand beside her and guide her to the right with a light from above, not through the night with a light from above. That had changed by 1938.

KASKOWITZ: Yes, that's right. In 1938, that sense of something being guided to the right had an association with fascism.

SIEGEL: Give us some sense of how big a deal this was for Kate Smith on her radio show, to give the premiere performance of this patriotic hymn written by Irving Berlin.

KASKOWITZ: Well, at the time, it had a different meaning. This was the very first Armistice Day, on November 11th, and it was set aside as a day for world peace.

SIEGEL: You mean people were commemorating the end of the First World War, which had been 20 years earlier.

KASKOWITZ: Right, exactly. But 1938 was the first year that they did that. And, at the time, Irving Berlin had said he was looking for a peace song. Kate Smith, when she was talking about the song on her daytime radio show, she said that she would be thinking about the veterans and hoping with all her heart that there would never be another war. And against that backdrop, the song really had this meaning as the tensions in Europe were escalating.

In fact, in Irving Berlin's verse, his original verse had a line that was specifically an anti-interventionist line.


SIEGEL: That's thank God we're not in Europe where the Nazis have taken over, and are making all kinds of menacing noises and going for Czechoslovakia.

KASKOWITZ: And what was really interesting about the timing of the song's premiere was that the day before was Kristallnacht, the Nazi's attacks on Jewish communities in Europe. So, very quickly that peace song idea of "God Bless America," went away, really. And Irving Berlin changed the verse when he published the sheet music in March of 1939.

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 didn't realize that the song had actually drawn criticism. 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 described 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 antiwar 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. Counter protesters 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 a song that Americans agree on; at least their members of Congress agree on seeing this as they did very famously.



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.



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.

SIEGEL: Well, Sheryl Kaskowitz, thank you very much for talking to us about the song and its history.

KASKOWITZ: Thanks so much for having me.


SIEGEL: Irving Berlin performing his composition "God Bless America." We were talking with Sheryl Kaskowitz about her book of the same name, a history of the song.

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