Berlin: God Bless America

Written by Laura Lee Everett

OPERA America

In category: Song of the Day

Published July 5, 2016

Kate Smith on her CBS Radio Show The Kate Smith Hour

Kate Smith on her CBS Radio Show The Kate Smith Hour

Speaking of anthems, patriotic songs and sports events, there has recently been a bit of upheaval in the sports reporting world about the singing of “God Bless America” (or the playing of it, at least) during the 7th Inning stretch at baseball games. Major League Baseball suggested every team play the song during the stretch after 9/11 to help with healing and national unity. There are some who now feel it is a bit of overkill at this point, as it is not the official National Anthem. I would argue, we are always in need of some healing these days.

The thing is, it is a much more singable tune with descriptions of the whole, wide ranging and diverse country. It was written by Irving Berlin, a man who could write a tune. And even though he didn’t think it was his best work (Berlin was quoted as saying he thought the song was maudlin and depressing), when Kate Smith asked him to write something for her radio show, something patriotic as war loomed large on the horizon of 1938, he dusted this one off and gave it to her. The rest, as they say, is history.

Irving Berlin at his piano

Irving Berlin at his piano

Here’s a fact I’ll bet you didn’t know: Irving Berlin never made a dime off that song, which says something for one of the most prolific writers of the time in the commercial music biz. In 1940, Berlin created the God Bless America Fund and all royalties have gone to the fund to support the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America (things you learn being a Girl Scout for 13 years). The song remains under copyright until 2034, though I believe is now more focused on the New York City scout services.

In researching this week’s posts, I was just going to mention the Banner (see July 4 post) but I spoke with a number of folks while taking a very unofficial Laura Lee Survey. This is where I randomly ask various smart and unique people what they think. From the lady at the Performing Arts library at the NYPL, to my server at Pig ‘n’ Whistle, from the halal cart guy in my neighborhood, to Sandy the Coffee Cart man at my office, when I asked what is the most patriotic song for them, without hesitation, they all said “God Bless America”. And when I asked why, for many of them, it had to do with asking for a blessing on the place where they live, their home. They all just assume the God you are talking to in that song is their God, whatever faith they may be, which I think is cool.

LLEWell, Mr. Berlin, you may not have thought it your best work, but it sure has resonance for the rest of the country. And it must have started to feel good to him – watch this version of Berlin himself, on the Ed Sullivan show in 1968. It is charming, and heartfelt from this 80- year old Russian Jewish immigrant, who grew up on the Lower East Side and gave us so many of the songs creating backbone of the Great American Songbook.

For those of you who may not have seen or heard the great Kate Smith version (interlaced with images of This is the Army, a 1943 film starring Ronald Reagan), here it is and is also well worth watching.

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Laura Lee Everett is the Director of Artistic Services at OPERA America. She’s had a long and varied career in opera—stage managing, mentoring young artists, facilitating the creation of new works, and more—at companies all across the U.S., from Alaska to Virginia. 

1 Comment

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    Gersh Kuntzman in the Daily News (here) has a different take. Here’s a sample: He [Berlin] pulled out “God Bless America” and changed one lame line — “the gold fields up in Nome” — to an even lamer line — “oceans white with foam.” .


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