Dear Commons Community,
As we get ready to celebrate America’s birthday tomorrow, we will hear many renditions of “God Bless America” which was written by Irving Berlin 100 years ago. The New York Times has an article this morning providing some of its history. The article is written by Sheryl Kaskowitz, the author of “‘God Bless America’: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song.” Below is an excerpt. Above is the first radio performance of the song by Kate Smith.
“[Irving Berlin fled Russia as a child.] The 5-year-old and his family had traveled thousands of miles to escape. When they finally arrived on American soil, free from the marauders who had burned their house to the ground, the boy was placed in a holding pen with his brother and sisters, while immigration officials decided their fate.
From this story, a classic piece of music emerged. The family, fleeing religious persecution in Russia in 1893, was soon reunited and allowed to enter the country. And that little boy, born Israel Beilin, would grow up to become Irving Berlin. Twenty-five years after emigrating, the same year he became an American citizen, he composed “God Bless America.”
The song, which rings out with special fervor each Fourth of July as a kind of unofficial national anthem, is turning 100 this year, and at a fraught moment in America’s relations with would-be immigrants, it is worth remembering its origins. Berlin said he first heard the title phrase from his mother, who frequently spoke the words with an emotion he later said “was almost exaltation,” despite their poverty. His daughter Mary Ellin Barrett later wrote that Berlin meant every word: “It was the land he loved. It was his home sweet home. He, the immigrant who had made good, was saying thank you.”
It was a desire to serve his adopted country during World War I that impelled the 30-year-old Berlin, already a successful songwriter, to be naturalized as a citizen in February 1918. That May, he began his military service as an army private at Camp Upton in Yaphank, N.Y., where he was asked to write a soldier show as a fund-raiser. “God Bless America” was originally conceived as the finale for the revue, “Yip, Yip, Yaphank,” but Berlin ultimately decided not to include it. It was shelved and forgotten for 20 years, until he rediscovered the song and provided a revised version to the radio star Kate Smith, who sang it on Nov. 10, 1938, and reprised it weekly.
Berlin’s immigrant success story connected the song, in the period just after its premiere, to a burgeoning public appeal for tolerance in the face of the rise of Nazism in Europe. The first reference to the song in The New York Times describes a performance at a dinner sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, where religious leaders repudiated the “doctrine of race and hate” in totalitarian Europe and urged Americans not to let it happen within their own communities. Three months later, Berlin led a crowd in “God Bless America” after a speech against bigotry by Eleanor Roosevelt, in which she warned, “Fear arising from intolerance and injustice constitutes the chief danger to our country.”
The song also inspired anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric aimed at Berlin, a Jew who dared to ask God to bless America. At a joint rally of the Ku Klux Klan and the pro-Nazi German American Bund in 1940, leaders called for a boycott of the song. A week later, an article mockingly titled “G-A-W-D Bless A-M-E-R-I-K-E-R!” appeared in the Bund’s newspaper; the author derided the song as reflecting the “attitude of the refugee horde.” Berlin faced fire on the left, as well: Woody Guthrie’s “God Blessed America For Me” was an angry protest against the complacency he found in Berlin’s lyrics. Guthrie soon changed the chorus to “This Land Is Your Land.”