By Sheryl Kaskowitz
Some of my friends hate “God Bless America.” They find it sentimental, old-fashioned, cheesy. They bristle at its over-the-top jingoism, at its exceptionalism that seems out of step with the globalism of the twenty-first century. They say it violates the separation of church and state. They associate it with Bush, or Reagan, or Nixon, with the boring, mainstream, un-groovy side of American culture.
You may feel this way, too. Or you may appreciate the song and its prayerful love of country, enjoy its unapologetic patriotism, revel in the nostalgia it evokes, be moved by its associations with 9/11. Or you may not ever have given the song much thought. No matter what you think of it, “God Bless America” is more than just a simple patriotic tune. Here are some things about the song’s early history that might surprise you:
It was written by Irving Berlin.
Like so many songs that have entered in American consciousness, “God Bless America” has attained the composerless status of an anthem or a folk song, but it has roots in Tin Pan Alley. Irving Berlin originally wrote it in 1918 as the finale to an all-soldier revue called Yip, Yip, Yaphank, but he ultimately decided not to include it, tucking it away in his trunk of discarded songs.
When it was first performed, it was considered a “peace song.”
Today, “God Bless America” is often used as a symbol of support for war, sung by soldiers in uniform at baseball games and other events. But when Irving Berlin rediscovered his old song in 1938, he had been looking for a “peace song” as a response to the escalating conflict in Europe. He made changes to it and gave it to radio star Kate Smith to perform on her radio show on the eve of the first official celebration of Armistice Day—a holiday originally conceived to commemorate world peace and honor veterans of the Great War (the peace part would be dropped in 1954, when it became Veteran’s Day). When Kate Smith first performed the song on 10 November 1938, the verse evoked the escalating tensions in Europe (“As the storm clouds gather far across the sea”), and included a line that reflected the public mood of non-interventionism in the conflict: “Let us all be grateful that we’re far from there.”
It premiered one day after Kristallnacht.
“God Bless America” didn’t remain a peace song for long. The song’s debut happened to coincide with a pivotal event in the history of World War II: Kristallnacht, the Nazi’s attacks on Jewish communities, which signaled a turning point for a growing American condemnation of Nazi Germany and a move away from isolationism. By the spring of 1939, the line in the verse had been changed to “Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,” and by 1940, the song was embraced as an interventionist anthem by those urging the United States to join the war.
It inspired the song “This Land Is Your Land.”
In 1940, Woody Guthrie wrote his own patriotic song as an angry response to “God Bless America,” which he felt glossed over the problems of a country still suffering from the Great Depression. Guthrie’s original refrain—“God blessed America for me”—was later changed to “this land was made for you and me.”
It sparked an anti-Semitic backlash.
Since Irving Berlin was a Jewish immigrant (born Israel Baline, the son of a Jewish cantor who fled persecution in Europe), there were some who questioned both his right to evoke God and to call the United States his “home sweet home.” In 1940, the song was boycotted by the KKK and the Nazi-affiliated German American Bund, and one leader of a domestic pro-Nazi group blasted the song as an anthem for a Jewish conspiracy for control.
It has always been under copyright.
Though embraced as an unofficial anthem, “God Bless America” has roots in the Tin Pan Alley music business, and has always had a hidden commercial side. But Irving Berlin himself has never made money on the song; in 1940, he created the God Bless America Fund, through which all royalties have been donated to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
Whatever you may think of “God Bless America,” the song serves as a reminder that a seemingly simple aspect of American culture can reveal fascinating aspects of our history. When you hear it this Fourth of July (as you inevitably will), you can use it as an opportunity to reflect on how its meaning has shifted in the 95 years since it was stashed away as a discarded pop song.
Sheryl Kaskowitz is the author of God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song. She is a scholar of American music who has most recently served as a lecturer in American Studies at Brandeis University.