I write today’s article with the awareness this song is not technically considered a hymn of the Church. When it debuted on November 11, 1938, singer Kate Smith’s rendition was deemed “the best thing thus far on the air this year.”1 One of America’s most iconic and prolific songwriters, Jewish Russian immigrant Irving Berlin, first penned a song entitled “God Bless America” while serving at Camp Upton during World War I.
The original lyric was different: “Make her victorious on land and foam, God Bless America…”, written for a light-hearted military revue called Yip Yip Yaphank (Yaphank being the nearby Long Island town name). Twenty years later as events in Europe were pointing to yet another war, Berlin decided to write what he called a “peace song”, although he admitted it would be difficult to dramatize peace. For a time he worked on a song entitled “Thanks America” and then another called “Let’s Talk About Liberty”, but neither struck just the right tone.
Then, he recalled the song he’d penned twenty years earlier, “God Bless America”. Berlin had a habit of working on songs, then tucking them away for later use. He “went to the trunk” and reworked the lyrics a bit and re-wrote the melody. One line which received attention was originally: “Stand beside her and guide her to the right with a light from above.” He changed it to: “Through the night with a light from above.”
Having re-worked the song, Berlin searched for a singer to introduce it on Armistice Day of 1938. Former vaudeville singer Kate Smith fit the bill perfectly. At the age of eight she had entertained World War I troops and then later hosted her own radio show on CBS. With an audience in the millions, the song would be broadcast far and wide across the country.
With the world again on the brink of war and uncertainty, the song stirred the nation’s patriotic fervor and became a prayer for a nation reluctant to become involved in another global conflict. The song had debuted on the evening following Kristallnacht, or “night of broken glass” when Nazis attacked and destroyed Jewish communities.
Some called for the song to become the new national anthem as it was sung at events around the country, including the Republican and Democratic national conventions of 1940. As some editorialists pointed out, the lyric and tune were much easier to sing than the official national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”:
Our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”, is much tougher going. The words are not as easily remembered and the tempo is slower. Anybody can keep on the pace with “God Bless America”, but with “The Star Spangled Banner” a sucker singer is either always showing too much speed or lagging back in the ruck. 2
With the song’s popularity quickly soaring, one can imagine it would make Irving Berlin a rich man. However, that wasn’t the case because Berlin never intended the song to be commercialized. In December of 1938 Kate Smith related in an interview how “Berlin wrote the song with the express provision that it not be used commercially, preferring to have it become a national anthem which would be sung by the youth of America in classrooms.”3 Furthermore, Berlin established the God Bless America Fund in 1940 with royalties directed to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.
The widely acclaimed song was not without its critics, however. In April of 1939 newspaper editors were rebuffing anti-Semitic critics who objected to Berlin’s authorship. Another Jewish lyricist, Rupert Huges, had written a patriotic song and submitted it for publication. It was refused because “he was non-Aryan”4. That seemed “yappy” and editors shrugged, “Sowot?”
Berlin was undeterred by critics as he and actor Rudy Vallee belted out the melody at a Hollywood American Legion rally, “pitching their voices for patriotism”. Editorialists again voiced their support the following year by rebuffing Dr. Edgar Franklin Romig of the West End Collegiate Reformed Church of New York. Romig denounced the sentiment of Berlin’s popular song as “mawkish”, the lyric “contemporary doggerel”. Some of his remarks included:
Mingled with much that is good in the spiritual composition of our people, there is a strange and specious substitute for religion held by many in times of crisis like the present. It is compounded of excessive emotion, wishful thinking, and a facile evading of the rudimentary disciplines essential to the building of individual and social well-being, and finds its expression in the mawkish iteration of snatches of song like “God Bless America.”
The great national anthems that have survived, and that will outlive most contemporary doggerel, came out of the hearts of men who knew what it was to sacrifice to America.5
Was the last statement a reflection of Romig’s own anti-Semitism? Perhaps he wasn’t aware that Irving Berlin had served his adopted country. Were his views shared by citizens across the country? It doesn’t appear to be the case, as editorialists defended the song:
Well, the doctor is away out of line here. We are not saying that “God Bless America” or any of the other popular patriotic songs of the day display titanic genius of composition, and probably the authors make no such claim.
But we certainly do not think that the singing of these songs is an expression of anything other than patriotic sentiment which the songs happen to state in language more understandable to most of us than, say the tri-syllablers of the doctor’s.6
American Nazi-affiliated organizations like the German American Bund and the Klu Klux Klan boycotted the song, believing it to be a conspiratorial anthem advocating Jewish control. Interestingly, Berlin’s song inspired another one written by Woody Guthrie, “This Land Is Our Land”.
Guthrie wrote his song as an angry response to the simplicity of Berlin’s, believing it glossed over the lingering problems America was still dealing with following the Great Depression. Guthrie’s first rendition of the lyric included the words “God blessed America for me”, later changed to “this land was made for you and me”.
One editorialist went a bit further and expressed even stronger sentiments in 1940:
We are a simple little people – we, the millions who are singing “God Bless America,” the top song of the type at the moment. It is a simple little song with simple little words which are a simple little statement of a feeling we might not otherwise know just how to express. In our opinion the song no more represents a too-ready use of God’s name than our nightly prayers for God to bless all else we hold dear. When we sing “God Bless America” we devoutly hope the Deity will hear.
As a matter of fact, Dr. Romig ought to find satisfaction in anything that brings God’s name, in reference, to the minds and lips of the people in this day and age. Only too many have not been giving him the thought they should. It ought to make any champion of decency, which the doctor must be, feel pretty good to hear the entire nation for once singing a nice clean song instead of one that calls for a little fumigation.7
Now for a bit of editorializing of my own, something I don’t often indulge in on the pages of this blog. America is not a perfect nation. While in so many ways we have evolved to become a world-class country, we have progressively and sadly devolved to a nation who has forgotten its spiritual foundations. I agree with the 1940 editorial opinion above, and today I plead not just “God Bless America” but “God Have Mercy on America”. Turn our hearts toward the Almighty and make us great again.
GOD BLESS AMERICA
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.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.
- Ironwood Times (MI), 02 Dec 1838, p. 4
- The Evening Review (East Liverpool, Ohio), 05 Aug 1940, p. 4
- The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 13 Dec 1938, p. 22
- Bradford Evening Daily Record, 26 Apr 1939, p. 7
- The Decatur Herald, 01 Aug 1940, p. 4
- The Indiana Gazette, 31 Jul 1940, p. 9
- The Evening Review, 05 Aug 1940, p. 4