“Irving Berlin has no place in American music. Irving Berlin is American music.”
Composer Jerome Kern, 1925
You must know the song. You hear it on almost every occasion where patriotism and pride of country are the focus. Some folks like it better than our National Anthem. Some folks think it is our National Anthem. Most everyone agrees that it’s easier to sing. It’s Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Since its introduction on Armistice Day, 1938, this stirring patriotic hymn has captured America’s collective heart.
Although closely identified with World War II, “God Bless America” was partially written during an earlier conflict—World War I. Berlin intended it for Yip, Yip, Yaphank, his 1918 all-soldier revue. However, a glut of similarly-themed material led him to put “God Bless America” away for another day.
That day came in 1938, at the request of revered radio songstress Kate Smith. The “songbird of the South” asked Berlin if he might have a song suited to her November 10th broadcast. Among his “trunk songs” was one the composer thought might work: “God Bless America,” still patiently awaiting its debut.
As there was just a chorus with no verse, Berlin quickly wrote one. Although seldom sung today, those lines proved the ideal lead-in to the now-familiar refrain:
“While 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 raise our voices in a solemn prayer.
God Bless America, land that I love!
Stand beside her, and guide her,
Thru 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!”
Berlin also revised a portion of the existing lyrics, to reflect the passage of time. The march-like tempo, while ideal for a soldiers’ chorus, was modified to showcase Kate Smith’s warm, vibrant contralto.
Armistice Day arrived. Kate took her place at the radio mic, and “God Bless America” had its official premiere. The song was an overnight hit, (only twenty years in the making!) “God Bless America” proved so popular that Smith featured it week after week on her show, eventually reprising it in the film This Is The Army.
For Irving Berlin, America proved the land of opportunity. He’d arrived from Russia in 1893, with nothing. Thanks to talent, hard work, and an eagerness to embrace every possibility presented, Berlin carved out a legendary career that’s lasted well beyond his death in 1989, at the age of 101.
Berlin never forgot all that America had given him, and expressed his gratitude in the way he knew best: through words and music. There were the fund-raising, morale-boosting wartime revues, Yip, Yip, Yaphank and This Is The Army. Both featured Berlin himself piping out “Oh! How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning,” and every penny raised was donated to the war effort. (For This Is The Army, that amounted to 10 million dollars.)
There were songs specifically written to benefit national groups and causes: (“Any Bonds Today?” for the Treasury; “Angels of Mercy” for the American Red Cross; “Arms For The Love Of America” for Army Ordnance.) There were all-American Broadway shows such as Miss Liberty (with “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor”), and his last, Mr. President. And, there was “God Bless America”. Since its creation, all the song’s revenues have benefited the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.
Irving Berlin’s last public appearance came in 1973, at the White House. For an audience of former Vietnam POW’s, he sang—what else?—“God Bless America.” And, on September 11, 2001, when members of Congress assembled outside the U.S. Capitol Building, the strains of “God Bless America” filled the air. Once again, America’s “unofficial National Anthem” brought patriotic pride, renewed determination—and comfort—to its citizens. As it always will.
“God Bless America” copyright 1938, 1939 by Irving Berlin. Copyright Renewed 1965, 1966 by Irving Berlin. Copyright Assigned to Joe DiMaggio, Anne Phipps Sidamon-Eristoff and Theodore R. Jackson as Trustees of God Bless America Fund.
Photo Associate: Hank Kuhlmann. World War I sheet music courtesy of Michael Deatz
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop”, a collection of his columns. He once had the opportunity to talk (briefly) with Irving Berlin by phone, while hunting down the music for an old Berlin novelty number, “Snookey Ookums.” “That’s not much of a song,” said Mr. Berlin. “Why not try ‘You’d Be Surprised’ instead?” He did. Please address inquiries to: email@example.com