• Exploring American History

God blessed America with Irving Berlin

The year was 1918 when Irving Berlin, while wearing his composer hat, penned the song, God Bless America. Berlin was on active duty with the U.S. Army at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York when he originally composed the tune. He chose to set it aside at the time though, believing it was not suited to that day’s Yip Yip Yaphank review.

Within the lyrics were the phrases “Make her victorious on land and foam, God bless America . . .” and “Stand beside her and guide her to the right with the light from above.”

Within the melody of God Bless America is a six-note fragment from a Jewish novelty song entitled “When Moses with His Nose Leads the Band.” Berlin, whose birth name was Israel Baline, had written a number of Jewish-themed novelty tunes in the past and periodically would add bits of songs he halfway remembered to the tunes he later wrote.

With the rise of Adolf Hitler in 1938, Berlin, a first-generation Russian immigrant, now believed it was time to revive his song. In the process, Berlin made a few changes to the lyrics. He felt “to the right” could be thought by some to reference the political right, so he changed the words to “through the night” instead. He also included an introduction, which is seldom heard anymore, but was included when Kate Smith sang the song:

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.

When Kate sang the song, she sang “that we’re far from there” rather than “for a land so fair”. The words were changed when Berlin published the sheet music in March 1939.

Though well-received by the vast majority of Americans, there were also naysayers in the group. Woody Guthrie considered the lyrics to be complacent and unrealistic. Shortly thereafter he wrote This Land is Your Land. Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan opposed the song; due to the fact a Jewish immigrant was responsible for composing it.

After the song’s release, Berlin donated the royalties he received from it to the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the USA.

God Bless America later played a role in the Civil Rights Movement and was used by Christian conservatives to indicate their opposition to secular liberalism, as well as in their attempts to silence dissenters who spoke out in favor of communism.

Kate Smith’s version was resurrected on December 11, 1969, and played throughout the early 1970s before home games for the Philadelphia Flyers of the National Hockey League. During the 1974 Stanley Cup Finals on May 19th, Kate Smith performed the song at the invitation of the Flyers. (The Flyers won the game and the Cup.)

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