God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song

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...

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God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song

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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.

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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

The Barnes & Noble Review

America has always had a national anthem problem. "The Star Spangled Banner" commemorates a battle no one remembers in stilted and uncolloquial language ("o'er," "ramparts"); worst of all, it has an almost unsingable tune, with octave leaps that few non-professionals can handle gracefully. (Oddly, the tune originally belonged to a drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven" — perhaps drunk people were undaunted by its challenges.) No wonder, then, that so many patriotic songs serve as alternative anthems, threatening to replace "The Star Spangled Banner" in our affections. "America the Beautiful," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "My Country 'Tis of Thee" — all of them have their place in the repertoire. But in the last century — and especially in the decade since the September 11th attacks — no patriotic song has been as popular as "God Bless America."

The association of "God Bless America" with 9/11 was cemented on the evening of that day, when a group of members of Congress, giving a press conference on the Capitol steps, spontaneously began to sing it. In God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song, Sheryl Kaskowitz does some detective work to try to figure out who started the singing and whether it was planned in advance. But even though a surprising number of politicians responded to her questionnaire on the subject, no one can say for sure how the singing began. "The original, spontaneous moment faded from memory," Kaskowitz writes, and what began as a touchingly authentic expression of solidarity became an annual ritual that smacks of politics.

But then, as Kaskowitz shows, questions of authenticity and meaning have always hovered around "God Bless America," in a way that they don't around other patriotic songs. That is partly because "God Bless America" is the most recent entry in the patriotic canon and the only one whose composer is still well known. Irving Berlin originally wrote the song in 1918, when he was wearing an army uniform during the First World War. He intended it as the finale for Yip, Yip, Yaphank, the soldiers' revue he was writing while stationed at Yaphank, New York. But while the show went on to be a Broadway smash, Berlin pulled "God Bless America" from the score. "Berlin himself felt that it was 'too obviously patriotic for soldiers to sing,' " Kaskowitz explains.

If "God Bless America" had come out during the First World War, would we still be singing it today, or would it now seem like something from a history museum, like George M. Cohan's "Over There"? It's impossible to say; what's certain is that when the song finally did emerge from Berlin's trunk, in the fall of 1938, it entered a very different historical and cultural moment. The Munich crisis had just passed in Europe, making clear that war with Nazi Germany was only a matter of time. The debate over whether America should engage with the European crisis or isolate itself was at fever pitch.

When the popular singer Kate Smith introduced the song to the world for the first time, in a radio broadcast on November 10, 1938, "God Bless America" seemed to wade directly into the politics of the moment. The tune we all sing today is actually just the chorus of the song; the verse has been all but purged from popular memory. But at the first performance, the national audience heard the verse first, which read:

While the storm clouds gather
Far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance
To a land that's free,
Let us all be grateful
That we're far from there,
As we raise our voices
In a solemn prayer.
Presented this way, "God Bless America" sounded like an isolationist plea. It could also be read as a testimony from Berlin, a "grateful" Russian-Jewish immigrant to the U.S., at a time when Jews in Europe were in extreme danger. (The night after the song premiered was Kristallnacht, the nationwide pogrom in Nazi Germany that was a prelude to the Holocaust.) Berlin was famous for giving America secular songs for traditionally Christian holidays — "White Christmas," "Easter Parade." Now he was taking a traditionally secular expression of patriotism and turning it into a "prayer," an invocation of an ecumenical, Judeo-Christian God.

"God Bless America" was an immediate hit. Smith, a big, homey, corny performer, introduced it as a major event: "It's something more than a song — I feel it's one of the most beautiful compositions ever written, a song that will never die," she announced. For the next several months, Smith had exclusive rights to perform the song, which she did every week on her show. To this day, there is a generation of Americans that associates "God Bless America" with Kate Smith's voice. (In a nice use of multimedia, Kaskowitz's book comes with the password for a website that includes clips of Smith's performances, as well as other significant recordings of the song.)

The song's immediate success, Kaskowitz shows, created a few problems for Berlin. He didn't like the way Smith kept expanding her own role in the song's creation myth; he had to keep reminding people that it was not composed as a personal gift to the singer. And while the nation soon took the song to its heart and began singing it at churches, schools, and public gatherings, it remained (and remains today) a copyrighted product. Generously, and with a good eye for public relations, Berlin donated all his profits from the song to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. But it still caused some ill will when people realized they might have to pay to perform what had effectively become a folk song.

Right from the beginning, Americans did battle over the political implications of "God Bless America." Berlin quickly dropped the isolationist verse from the song, and by 1941 he was a prominent interventionist, urging America to get involved in the Second World War. "God Bless America" became for a time an interventionist anthem, which led certain groups — America First, and the extreme anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi groups on its fringe — to attack both the song and its creator. Kaskowitz has unearthed some of the venomous anti-Semitic sermons and letters that were directed at Berlin's creation, though these remained very much minority voices. From the Left, meanwhile, Woody Guthrie criticized "God Bless America" for its complacent patriotism and piety. "This Land Is Your Land" was written as his rebuke to the song — its original title was "God Blessed America."

The ideological career of the song continued in the Vietnam era, when it became an unofficial anthem of the Right. As Kaskowitz discovers in the archives of The New York Times, it was frequently sung at pro-war rallies and anti-integration marches. The Left, put off by the song's religiosity, was happy to surrender it, preferring its own anthems, such as "We Shall Overcome." It was not until 9/11, Kaskowitz shows, that "God Bless America" became a kind of bipartisan symbol — and a regular feature of Major League Baseball games, to which she devotes her final chapter. God Bless America the book is a fascinating companion to "God Bless America" the song and proves that the biography of a song can be as historically revealing as the biography of a person.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Nextbook.org. He is the author of Why Trilling Matters, Benjamin Disraeli, and The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry.

Reviewer: Adam Kirsch

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199919772
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 7/4/2013
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 810,610
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

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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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Archival sources
About the companion website

Introduction: Something More than a Song
Chapter 1: As the Storm Clouds Gather: Origin Myths and Hidden Battles
Chapter 2: Grateful that We're Far from There: Irving Berlin, Kate Smith, and the Forging of an Interventionist Anthem
Chapter 3: Land that I Love: Early Embrace, Critique, and Backlash
Chapter 4: Through the Night (to the Right): The Evolution of a Conservative Anthem
Chapter 5: My Home Sweet Home: Commemoration, Coercion, and Commerce after 9/11
Chapter 6: My Home Sweet Home (Plate): Baseball and "God Bless America"
Coda: As We Raise Our Voices: The Place of Communal Singing

Notes
Bibliography
Discography
Credits

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