In her new book, God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song, music scholar Sheryl Kaskowitz reveals fascinating, little-known facts about this patriotic tune. Below, she shares six things Americans may not know about the “other national anthem.”
If you grew up in the United States, chances are you can sing “God Bless America.” You might not remember exactly where you learned it, but you probably know most of the words, and you may find yourself singing along with the simple melody.
Although it has become a part of our American consciousness, the history of “God Bless America” is more complex than it seems. Here are some things about the song that may surprise you:
1. It was written by the same composer who wrote “White Christmas.”
“God Bless America” has attained the “composerless” status of an anthem or a folk song, but it has roots in Tin Pan Alley. Irving Berlin—who would go on to write classics like “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade”—originally wrote the song in 1918 as the finale to an all-soldier revue called Yip, Yip, Yaphank, but he ultimately decided not to include it, tucking it away in his trunk of discarded songs.
2. When it was first performed by Kate Smith in 1938, it was considered a “peace song.”
Today, “God Bless America” is often used as a symbol of support for war, sung by soldiers in uniform at baseball games and other events. But when Irving Berlin rediscovered his old song in 1938, he had been looking for a “peace song” as a response to the escalating conflict in Europe. He made changes to it and gave it to radio star Kate Smith to perform on her radio show on the eve of the first official celebration of Armistice Day—a holiday originally conceived to commemorate world peace and honor veterans of the Great War. (The peace part would be dropped in 1954, when it became Veteran’s Day.) In announcing the song’s premiere on her daytime talk show, Kate Smith declared, “As I stand before the microphone and sing it with all my heart, I’ll be thinking of our veterans and I’ll be praying with every breath I draw that we shall never have another war.”
3. It was boycotted by the Ku Klux Klan.
Since Irving Berlin was a Jewish immigrant (born Israel Baline, the son of a Jewish cantor who fled persecution in Europe), there were some who questioned both his right to evoke God and to call the United States his “home sweet home.” In 1940, the song was boycotted by the KKK and the Nazi-affiliated German American Bund, and the newspaper of a domestic pro-Nazi organization printed a screed against the song, in which the author wrote, “[I do] not consider G-B-A a ‘patriotic’ song, in the sense of expressing the real American attitude toward his country, but consider that it smacks of the ‘How glad I am’ attitude of the refugee horde.”
4. It has a long connection with sporting events.
“God Bless America” was added to the seventh inning stretch after the September 11th attacks in 2001, but this was not the first time the song had become part of our national pastime or other sports. In 1940, it was played at every Brooklyn Dodgers home game, as well as during halftime at college football games. In 1966, the Chicago White Sox briefly replaced the national anthem with “God Bless America,” a song the team felt was easier for fans to sing, though Irving Berlin himself urged the team to return to the national anthem. In the 1970s, replacing the anthem with “God Bless America” became a good-luck charm for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team. In fact, the song and Kate Smith’s performance of it have taken on near-mythic status within the culture of the Flyers, who often invited the singer to perform it live and later erected a statue in Smith’s honor outside the stadium. Some even argue that the phrase “It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings” originates with Smith’s live performances of “God Bless America” at Flyers games.
5. It first appeared in film in This is the Army (1943), starring Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan is known as the first politician who made the intertwining of politics and religion a political imperative, and he made copious use of both the song and phrase “God Bless America” at campaign rallies and presidential events. So it is a satisfying and intriguing coincidence that Reagan, who would become so strongly associated with “God Bless America,” was the star of the 1943 film This is the Army, in which the song made its movie debut—in fact, Reagan first appears on screen while the song is playing, during a reenactment of Kate Smith’s premiere of the song on her radio show.
6. It is a source of revenue for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
Though embraced as an unofficial anthem, “God Bless America” has roots in the Tin Pan Alley music business, and has always had a hidden commercial side, with royalties collected for any performance in commercial contexts. But Irving Berlin himself has never made money on the song; in 1940, he created the God Bless America Fund, through which all royalties have been donated to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts (now focused on the scouts in the greater New York City area). The song will remain under copyright until the year 2034.
For more on the history of “God Bless America,” check out Sheryl Kaskowitz’s book.
Watch Kate Smith sing “God Bless America”: