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God Bless America

How did a World War I-era song, originally intended as the finale of a soldiers' musical revue, become America's 'shadow anthem'?

August 22, 2013

God Bless America By Sheryl Kaskowitz Oxford University Press 224 pp.

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Reviewed by Adam Kirsch for The Barnes and Noble Review

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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.

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