“I’d like to write a great peace song,” Irving Berlin told a journalist in 1938, “but it’s hard to do because you have trouble dramatizing peace.”
Years before John Lennon or Bob Dylan were even born, Berlin took up the
challenge of penning an anthem that would inspire his fellow men to live in harmony. As America’s most successful songwriter, the 50-year-old Berlin had already lived through one world war, and with the rise of Nazi Germany, he knew a second was brewing.
He recalled, “I worked for a while on a song called ‘Thanks America,’ but I didn’t like it. I tried again with a song called ‘Let’s Talk About Liberty,’ but I didn’t get very far. It was too much like making a speech to music. It then occurred to me to reexamine an old song of mine, ‘God Bless America.’”
Berlin’s practice of “going to the trunk,” where he squirreled away every verse, chorus and half-finished idea he ever wrote, often got him out of songwriting jams. He’d come up with “God Bless America” in 1918, while serving in the Army at Camp Upton in Yaphank, N.Y. It was intended for a military revue called Yip Yip Yaphank.
His musical secretary Harry Ruby remembered, “There were so many patriotic songs coming out at the time. Every songwriter was pouring them out. I said, ‘Geez, another one?’”
Berlin decided Ruby was right, calling the song “just a little sticky.” He cut it from the score, stashing it away in his trunk.
Two decades later, Berlin saw new hope in the old tune. “I had to make one or two changes in the lyrics, and they, in turn, led me to a slight change and improvement in the melody, one line in particular. The original ran: ‘Stand beside her and guide her to the right with a light from above.’ In 1918, the phrase ‘to the right’ had no political significance, as it has now. So for obvious reasons, I changed the phrase to ‘Through the night with a light from above.’”
Pleased with the revamped song—he packed a lot into its compact five-line frame—Irving searched for the right singer to introduce it.
Kate Smith was 200 pounds of wholesome country girl goodness, a vaudeville singer who’d entertained WWI troops when she was 8 years old and gone on to host her own CBS radio show, with millions of devoted listeners. On Nov. 11, 1938, Smith sang “God Bless America” as part of her Armistice Day broadcast (anniversary of the end of WWI). You can see Ronald Reagan at the 4:20 mark.
The song tapped into the national psyche, offering a kind of collective prayer for the unease over the impending war. Within days, it was being hailed as the new national anthem. Sheet music flew off the shelves. Smith was booked for personal appearances, including major league baseball games and the 1939 World’s Fair. School bands played the song relentlessly. Without any hype or plugging, Berlin’s anthem became a sensation.
In 1940, both the Republican and Democratic parties adopted the song as their theme. Realizing that it would look improper to collect royalties on a patriotic ode, Berlin established a trust, the God Bless America Fund, which distributed all proceeds to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.
The song wasn’t without its critics. Certain Democrats called the song jingoistic, questioning why God should bless America and no other country, and what about separation of church and state? Others griped about Berlin’s pedigree. As a Russian Jew who immigrated to the U.S. in 1893, why should he speak for America? A prominent pastor in New York, Edgar Franklin Romig, grabbed headlines by calling the song a “specious substitute for religion.”
One songwriter who didn’t like Berlin’s anthem was Woody Guthrie. It’s said that he got so fed up with hearing Kate Smith on the radio, he wrote a rebuttal in “This Land Is Your Land.” In the original version of Guthrie’s classic, he painted pictures of a desolate, corrupt country, ending each verse with “God blessed America for you and me.”
In the wake of 9/11, the song took on a new life, once again signaling renewed patriotism and pride. Celine Dion performed it on the TV special A Tribute to Heroes and her version climbed into the Top 40.
As for Irving Berlin, he lived to the ripe old age of 101, passing away in 1989. Though his incredible legacy of songs ranges from the glitzy (“Putting On the Ritz”) to the sentimental (“Always”) to the seasonal (“White Christmas”), “God Bless America” remains one of his most personal achievements.
As his daughter Mary Ellin Barrett said, “I came to understand that it wasn’t ‘God Bless America, land that we love.’ It was ‘God bless America, land that I love.’ It was an incredibly personal statement that my father was making, that anybody singing that song makes as they sing it. And I understood that that song was his ‘thank you’ to the country that had taken him in. It was the song of the immigrant boy who made good.”
— By Bill DeMain
— Photo © Bettmann/Corbis