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Berlin's 'God Bless America' resonates anew

By Benjamin IvrySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 21, 2001



NEW YORK

After Broadway curtain calls, at the New York Stock Market, and all over the United States, one song is re-echoing consistently. Struck up in impromptu fashion by passersby in front of the damaged Pentagon, or more pointedly by US legislators in front of the Capitol, Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" seems more popular than ever before. When the baseball season resumed Monday, The Sporting News commented that " 'God Bless America' should pinch-hit for 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame.' "

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Why this strong pull toward a song that may have seemed corny to some in past years? A book scheduled for publication Oct. 16, "The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin" (Knopf), edited by Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet, helps to explain its extraordinary popularity.

Originally written in 1918 as a finale for his World War I musical "Yip, Yip, Yaphank," the song was shelved by Berlin, as he felt it was "painting the lily" after a poignant scene of soldiers departing for war. However, he dusted it off in 1938 in reaction to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's disastrous Munich Agreement with Hitler, which many saw as a cowardly attempt to deal with the devil.

It was introduced on the radio in November 1938 by the all-American singer Kate Smith. Berlin described it then as "a patriotic song written so it can be sung and understood by everyone. It is not a hymn or an anthem. It is just a song. What's wrong with a patriotic song?"

As originally belted out with supreme confidence by Smith and others, it could put off some listeners, as William McBrien, professor emeritus of English at Queens College in New York and an authority on American popular song, explains: "Depending on the context, I've been stirred by it, but I don't share its chauvinistic sentiments. I don't see why the Almighty should especially single out America."

Yet the professor classes "God Bless America" among Berlin's mysteriously powerful "love" songs, the object this time being his country: "He wasn't exactly an oracular poet. Where did it come from?"

Berlin's sensitivity to political currents may have begun as a New York immigrant. In 1940, he established the "God Bless America" trust that gave all income from the song to the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America. His last public appearance, at age 85, was at the White House, singing the song in honor of returning Vietnam War prisoners. On a new reissue, "Irving Sings Berlin" (Koch 3-7510-2), the composer's fragile, plaintive voice renders it poignantly, as a humble plea.

"The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin" establishes that Berlin was able to view the song in a detached manner, even writing a parody of the lyric in 1969 that began: "God Bless America/ Land I enjoy/ No discussions with Russians/ Till they stop sending arms to Hanoi...." Many of his last lyrics, now published for the first time, are fierce satires of hippies, Vietnam war protesters, and Russian politics. Some are too racy for a family audience.

But not even the rerelease of Whitney Houston's "Star Spangled Banner" for charity is likely to outdo the "romantic" fervor of Berlin's love song to America.

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