Ironically 2018 marks the 100th birthday of the writing of an iconic patriotic American song. Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” was written in 1918 while Berlin was a soldier at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York.
Berlin who came to America at aged five with his family was newly naturalized in February 2018. Soon after, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Already a successful song writer, he wrote “God Bless America” for an Army show. The song did not appear in that show but as war loomed in Europe in 1938, Berlin revised the song and asked Kate Smith to sing it.
On November 10, 1938, the new “God Bless America” debuted on Kate Smith’s radio show on the eve of the first official celebration of Armistice Day marking the end of World War I on November 11. Armistice Day is now known as Veterans’ Day. Hear Smith’s sing the song so closely identified with her: First radio performance of God Bless America.
The song proved divisive. Some felt that Berlin as an immigrant had no right to compose such a song. Woody Guthrie thought that it was overly optimistic, overlooking the poverty that affected millions in the 1930s.
Over the years the song has been co-opted by racists and the militant right although it still has a place in the hearts of millions who are neither racist nor extremists. It was sung by civil rights activists and has been proposed as our national anthem as it is easy to sing and the lyrics are uncomplicated.
However one views the song, it began as a tribute to this country from a man not born here but who was given opportunity and used that opportunity to achieve great success. It’s Berlin’s” love song to this country from an immigrant grateful to have been given a chance at a new life.”(NYT, 7/2/18)
Berlin never made money from the song. He established the God Bless America Fund which assigned all profits to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. This arrangement continues today.
For further reading:
Barret, Irving Berlin: a daughter’s memoir looks back on growing up in a privileged household with a creative father.
Hamm, Irving Berlin: songs from the melting pot: the formative years, 1907-1914 is a detailed look at Berlin’s early years when he wrote such songs as” Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
Jablonski, Irving Berlin: American Troubadour is” a moving tribute to a streetwise Broadway bard who seemingly instinctively created great popular art”. Includes a listing of all Berlin’s songs and a discography.
For younger readers:
Berlin, God Bless America with illustrations by Lynn Munsinger shows a bear dad and two cubs travelling from the mountains to the prairies to New York City and then home. Includes a CD.
Kimmelman, Write On, Irving Berlin lets readers get to know the songwriter and what his music has meant to America.
Streissguth, Say It with Music: a story about Irving Berlin is both Berlin’s personal story and a story of the immigrant experience.