You must know the song. You’ll hear it a lot this Fourth of July. 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. Here’s how Kate introduced the song on that first broadcast:
“It has been my privilege to be on the air on Armistice Day for the past eight years. This year, with the war clouds of Europe so lately threatening the peace of the entire world, I felt I wanted to do something special — something that would not only be a memorial to our soldiers, but would also emphasize just how much America means to each and every one of us. I wanted a new hymn of praise and love and allegiance to America. So, several weeks ago, I went to a man I have known and admired for many years — the top-ranking composer in the music field today. I explained as well as I could what I was striving for. He said, ‘Kate, you want something more than a popular song. I’m not sure, but I will try.’ He worked day after day, night after night, until at last his task was completed. The other day he sent me his masterpiece, and along with it, this little note: ‘Dear Kate — Here it is. I did the best I could, and it expresses the way I feel.’ The song is called ‘God Bless America’; the composer, Mr. Irving Berlin.
“When I first tried it, I felt, ‘Here is a song that will be timeless — it will never die — others will thrill to its beauty long after we are gone.’ In my humble estimate, this is the greatest song Irving Berlin has ever composed. It shall be my happy privilege to introduce that song on my program this evening, dedicating it to our American heroes of the World War. As I stand before the microphone and sing it with all my heart, I’ll be thinking of our veterans, and I’ll be praying with every breath I take that we shall never have another world war.”
“God Bless America” was an overnight hit, (only 20 years in the making!) The song proved so popular that Smith featured it week after week on her show, eventually reprising it in the film This Is The Army. However, her wish that “we shall never have another world war” was not to be, since the United States was soon immersed in World War II. Kate’s efforts throughout the war were untiring: in addition to her broadcasts, and numerous gratis public appearances performing her signature song, she led the celebrity pack in the sale of War Bonds. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared, upon introducing her to the King and Queen of England, “This is Kate Smith. This is America”. That statement is now engraved in Kate Smith’s mausoleum.
For “God Bless America’s” composer, patriotism played an equally important role. Irving Berlin had arrived from Russia in 1893, with nothing; for him, the United States truly proved the land of opportunity. Thanks to talent, hard work, and an eagerness to embrace every possibility presented, Berlin carved out a legendary career.
Irving 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 and “Angels of Mercy” for the American Red Cross. There were all-American Broadway shows such as Miss Liberty (with “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor”), and his last, Mr. President, (with “This Is a Great Country”). There were songs dedicated to specific branches of the armed forces: “This Is the Army, Mr. Jones”; “Gee, I Wish I Was Back In the Army”; “There Are No Wings On A Fox-Hole” (“Dedicated to the Infantrymen of the United States Army”); “Arms For The Love Of America” (“The Army Ordnance Song”); and (not to be left out), “How About A Cheer For The Navy” and “American Eagles.” Patriotic themes also surge through the lyrics of such Berlin offerings as “The Freedom Train,” “Song Of Freedom,” “The President’s Birthday Ball,” and “I Left My Heart At the Stage Door Canteen.” And, of course, there was “God Bless America.” Since its creation, all the song’s revenues have benefited the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.
Irving Berlin died in 1989, at the age of 101, far outlasting his song-writing contemporaries. He lived to see his particular brand of popular music fall out of fashion (or out of copyright, like his 1911 smash, Alexander’s Ragtime Band). For a time, it seemed as if the only “new” acclaim for a Berlin song came through re-imaginings, such as 1982’s eerie disco version of “Puttin’ On The Ritz.” Following the lukewarm reception for his 1962 musical Mr. President, and aborted plans for an all-star movie musical, Say It With Music, Irving Berlin elected to retreat from public life, emerging only for the infrequent tribute appearance, and then, after 1973, not emerging at all.
But sometimes Fate takes a hand. And, thanks to Fate, I once had the great good fortune to meet this reclusive legend. Well, sort of.
Long before the internet, finding out-of-print sheet music meant wheedling it out of the publisher. For a vaudeville-themed show I was creating, I had in mind an old Irving Berlin novelty number. So, I called Irving Berlin Music, still at the same NYC number as in the early 1900s. Answering the phone: an elderly lady with a high-pitched voice.
“I’m looking for ‘Snookey Ookums’,” I said. “That’s not much of a song,” she replied. “Try ‘You’d Be Surprised’ instead.” Around and around we went, debating the merits of each. Finally, “the voice” agreed to send me “Snookey Ookums” — plus “You’d Be Surprised.” Both soon arrived, accompanied by a carefully hand-written receipt.
Shortly after Berlin died, I interviewed ragtime pianist Max Morath, a friend of his. I told him about the opinionated ‘little old lady’ at Berlin Music. Max was quite amused: “That was no little old lady — that was Irving!” Although he’d retired from public life, Berlin, said Morath, still spent several days a week at his publishing house, answering the phone. He liked to gauge which of his songs were still popular, never hesitating to steer folks to (or away from) particular ones.
Because of Berlin’s very distinctive, high-pitched voice, Morath said I wasn’t the first to think I was talking to a little old lady. Irving always got a chuckle out of conversing with fans who were completely unaware that they were actually talking with the composer. Like me.
And the hand-written receipt? That was from Mr. B. too. It’s safely stashed away someplace. Now, if I could just remember where …
Thanks to Irving Berlin’s longevity, astonishing musical output, and a renewed appreciation for “the great American songbook,” his songs are a cross-collectible on many levels. Some collectors only want his patriotic pieces. Others focus on movie music, Broadway numbers, or vaudeville novelty tunes. There are those who specialize in LP recordings or original sheet music. To sub-categorize even further, there are even collectors only interested in Berlin melodies popularized by such stars as Bing Crosby or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; they clamor for sheet music featuring images of their favorites.
Fortunately, because Irving Berlin was so prolific, his work remains both readily available and affordable. Except in the rarest cases, today’s collectors can afford to hold out for a piece of vintage Berlin sheet music in untattered condition, or a still-playable original recording. And, due to his ongoing popularity, many of Berlin’s compositions (not just the best-known, but such long-forgotten gems as “I’ll See You In C-U-B-A,” “That International Rag,” and — yes — even “Snookey Ookums”) have been re-released; that’s a boon for those who just want to try them out on their piano.
Irving Berlin’s last public appearance came in 1973, at the White House. For an audience of former Vietnam POWs, 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.
A Happy Fourth of July to all!
*“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.
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on mid-20th century design. His latest is Postwar Pop: Memorabilia of the Mid-20th Century.
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