God Bless America: An Immigrant’s Song

Irving Berlin - Sessions with the Songbook

Let’s be honest. The average human cannot sing the National Anthem. When you get to the part, “And the rocket’s red glare,” most people sound like they’re killing a cat.

But there are several songs that celebrate America which are far more accessible to the average voice. One of them is “God Bless America.”

Irving Berlin, a Jew who came to the United States from Russia, would go on to pen this anthem, along with a catalog of songs that were part of the American consciousness in the 20th Century. “White Christmas,” anyone?

Berlin was serving in the U.S. Army when he wrote the song in 1918. It was supposed to be part of a revue called Yip Yip Yaphank, but for whatever reasons, he decided it didn’t work for the show. So he shelved it.

But in 1938, with the threat of Hitler and World War II looming, he revived the song and finished it, changing some of his original lyrics. Singer, Kate Smith, introduced the song on Armistice Day that year on her radio show.

Not everyone loved the song.

It was criticized by songwriter, Woody Guthrie, who felt it was too complacent. Guthrie’s response to the song was his own song, “This Land is Your Land.” The Ku Klux Klan protested the song because Berlin was a Jew. Heaven forbid a Jew could love America (sigh).

The song was used in the Civil Rights Movement and at labor rallies in the sixties. But then the religious right used it as a statement to protest secular liberalism. As you can see, it spoke to a whole lot of people.

The song was the official campaign song for Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in his message, it was used to promote religious and cultural tolerance.

And sadly, the song was played as the final wakeup call  in 2011 for the space shuttle Atlantis, marking the end of the 30-year shuttle program.

Berlin never received royalties for this song. He set up a God Bless America Fund and all proceeds went to the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America.

As with many immigrants, Berlin was profoundly patriotic, serving in the U.S. military and a vocal opponent of fascism. His contributions to what we “hear” as America from the 20th Century are enormous. His name may not be recognizable to young people, but his songs are. They shaped America.

Imagine that. An immigrant who helped make America what it is today.

Here’s a clip of Celine Dion singing, Irving Berlin’s song:

Happy 4th of July!

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