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God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song
     

God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song

by Sheryl Kaskowitz
 

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"God Bless America" is a song most Americans know well. It is taught in American schools and regularly performed at sporting events. After the attacks on September 11th, it was sung on the steps of the Capitol, at spontaneous memorial sites, and during the seventh inning stretch at baseball games, becoming even more deeply embedded in America's collective

Overview

"God Bless America" is a song most Americans know well. It is taught in American schools and regularly performed at sporting events. After the attacks on September 11th, it was sung on the steps of the Capitol, at spontaneous memorial sites, and during the seventh inning stretch at baseball games, becoming even more deeply embedded in America's collective consciousness. In God Bless America, Sheryl Kaskowitz tells the fascinating story behind America's other national anthem. It begins with the song's composition by Irving Berlin in 1918 and first performance by Kate Smith in 1938, revealing an early struggle for control between composer and performer as well as the hidden economics behind the song's royalties. Kaskowitz shows how the early popularity of "God Bless America" reflected the anxiety of the pre-war period and sparked a surprising anti-Semitic and xenophobic backlash. She follows the song's rightward ideological trajectory from early associations with religious and ethnic tolerance to increasing uses as an anthem for the Christian Right, and considers the song's popularity directly after the September 11th attacks. The book concludes with a portrait of the song's post-9/11 function within professional baseball, illuminating the power of the song - and of communal singing itself - as a vehicle for both commemoration and coercion. A companion website offers streaming audio of recordings referenced in the book, links to videos of relevant performances, appendices of information, and an opportunity for readers to participate in the author's survey. Based on extensive archival research and fieldwork, God Bless America sheds new light on cultural tensions within the U.S., past and present, and offers a historical chronicle that is full of surprises and that will both edify and delight readers from all walks of life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Probing and insightful... illuminating and thoughtful... An engaging portrait of how the song infiltrated patriotism, business and sports." —The Washington Post

"Kaskowitz reveals that the seventh-inning stretch is far from the strangest occasion that 'God Bless America' has turned up on since its premiere in 1938." —Forward

"Shows how [patriotic songs] acquired their powerful symbolism and how they became ways of suppressing dissent... Clips of Smith, Berlin and even Richard Nixon singing the title song add another dimension to Kaskowitz's account of the song, and the way politicians and the American public have used it over the decades are also part of the story." —The Dallas Morning News

"A model of song biography. From the mountains to the prairies to the White House to the ballpark, Kaskowitz's 'surprising history' offers a compelling journey into the complicated and contradictory American soul." —Jeffrey Magee, author of Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater

"Who knew? God Bless America brims with surprises and insights. Irving Berlin's song has cut a complicated path through twentieth- and twenty-first-century U.S. history, evoking intense passions around questions of war and peace, tolerance and strife, patriotism and disaffection. In so skillfully mapping this song's career, Kaskowitz demonstrates the richness of 'culture' as an object of study, and also the nature of history itself as layered rather than merely sequential." —-Matthew Frye Jacobson, William Robertson Coe Professor of American Studies and History, Yale University

"Like me, some readers of this book may have felt themselves tortured in their childhood by televised renditions of Kate Smith singing 'God Bless America,' but that's even more reason to dive into Sheryl Kaskowitz's elegantly spun narrative of the history of this patriotic chestnut. And what a history it is: enduring conflict between Kate Smith's camp and Irving Berlin; lyric changes from isolationism to intervention at the dawn of WWII; anti-Semitic protests; Woody Guthrie's response song ('This Land Is Your Land'); and finally the song's triumphant re-emergence after 9/11 as a hymn of commemoration. Throughout, Kaskowitz reminds us of the power of song and of collective performance to both unite and coerce, and of our astonishing capacity to interpret and reinterpret songs over their lifetime, and then to argue over those interpretations." — Gage Averill, Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of British Columbia

"Kaskowitz's book is an important contribution to our understanding of how a 'simple' song can shift in meaning in our complex world." —ARSC Journal

"Suggests a promise for secular communal singing and shared civic experience." —Journal of American Culture

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780199339556
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Publication date:
07/10/2013
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Sales rank:
376,737
File size:
4 MB

Meet the Author

Sheryl Kaskowitz is a scholar of American music who has most recently served as a lecturer in American Studies at Brandeis University.

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