god bless america -- 3/25/22

Today's selection -- from Irving Berlin: New York Genius by James Kaplan. With the specter of war with Germany on the horizon, the Jewish immigrant Irving Berlin, who had become a star composer on Broadway, wrote a song called “God Bless America”:
"Irving Berlin had written [a] song at [Camp] Upton, [on the eve of World War II,] an unashamedly patriotic number intended to be the finale of Yip! Yip! Yaphank!
"'As you may remember,' the composer recalled in a 1954 letter to Abel Green, the editor of Variety,

The finale --the boys were alerted in the scene before that they were going overseas, and in overseas outfits, including helmets, they marched through the Theater ... boarded a transport, and as the lights lowered, the transport, on wheel[s], slowly moved off stage. It was a very touching and emotional scene ....

Having that finale in mind, it seemed painting the lily to have soldiers sing 'God Bless America' in that situation, so I didn't use it. 

"In fact, Berlin had misgivings about the song almost from the moment he wrote it. 'There were so many patriotic songs coming out everywhere at the time,' Harry Ruby remembered. 'Every songwriter was pouring them out. He'd already writ­ten several patriotic numbers for the show, and then, when he brought in "God Bless America," I took it down for him, and I said, "Geez, another one?"' ...

"'Just a little sticky' was Berlin's own verdict on the num­ber, which he relegated to his song trunk. It would stay there for twenty years.  

"A war with Germany seemed inevitable, yet there was a right and a left in America, and prominent isolationists -- including such vocal anti-Semites as Colonel Charles Lindbergh, the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain Joseph P. Kennedy, and the radio demagogue Father Charles Coughlin -- claimed that powerful Jewish interests in the United States were pushing for war mainly to protect their coreligionists in Europe. Kristallnacht, the November 9 pogrom in which thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses in Germany and Austria had their windows smashed or were burned to the ground, and dozens of Jews were murdered, and tens of thousands arrested, outraged many Americans, but the most hard-bitten isolationists remained un­moved.

Kate Smith, 1930s

"In early November, Ted Collins, the manager of the radio and recording star Kate Smith, the 'Songbird of the South,' had asked Irving Berlin if he had a patriotic tune for Smith to sing on her weekly broadcast. Berlin gave him 'God Bless America,' with its revised chorus and a new verse at the beginning:

While the storm clouds gather
Far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance
To a land that's free ...

"On the night of November 10, 1938, one day after Kristall­nacht and the eve of Armistice Day, Smith spoke the following words on her CBS broadcast:

'And now it's going to be my very great privilege to sing for you a song that's never been sung before by anybody .... 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. The author -- Mr. Irving Berlin. The title -- "God Bless America."'

"The reaction was swift and powerful: America loved 'God Bless America.' …
"[Soon enough, it was being considered as a national anthem.] A contemporary account noted: 'First number to be presented by the large chorus will be "God Bless America" by Irving Berlin. This number, to be offered with band accompaniment, ... has been frequently men­tioned as a likely candidate for a national anthem, because of its tunefulness, easy singing range and effectiveness.'

"It was an implicit poke at 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' which had been the official anthem only since 1931, and which, with its rangy tune and difficult lyrics, gave -- and still gives­ fits to patriotic Americans trying to sing their way through it. But Berlin would have none of it. 'A national anthem is some­thing that develops naturally through age, tradition, historic significance, and general recognition,' he said. 'We've got a good national anthem. You can't have two.'

"Yet almost as soon as 'God Bless America' was introduced, some Americans began taking pokes at Irving Berlin for his presumption, as an immigrant and a Jew, in having written it at all. '"America-first" patriots,' [a contemporary journalist wrote], 'rallied round "The Star-Spangled Banner" and began shouting down efforts to sing "God Bless America" at public gatherings.' At the West End Collegiate Reformed Church, right on Berlin's Manhattan home turf, one Rev. Dr. Edgar Franklin Romig deplored the song specifically in a Sunday-morning sermon. 'Mingled with much that is good in the spiritual composition of our people, there is a strange and specious substitute for religion held by many in times of crisis like the present,' he said.

It is compounded of excessive emotion, wishful thinking, and a facile evading of the rudimentary disciplines essential to the building of individual and social well-being, and finds its expression in the mawkish iteration of snatches of song like 'God Bless America.' 
The great national anthems that have survived, and that will outlive most contemporary doggerel, came out of the hearts of men who knew what it was to sacrifice for America.

"The language was coded but clear: our people. A strange and spe­cious substitute for religion. Excessive emotion. Even the sneering doggerel hinted at mongrel. The Reverend Doctor Romig might as well have put it in plain English: the nerve of this Jew song­writer!

"It was a frightening time. A time when -- again, right in Ber­lin's hometown -- Fritz Kuhn's German-American Bund could draw a crowd of twenty thousand homegrown Nazi sympathiz­ers to a rally in Madison Square Garden. A rally where, in be­tween 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and 'The Stars and Stripes Forever,' Kuhn blamed 'the Brandeises, the Baruchs and the Untermeyers' and 'Jewish financiers' for getting America into the Great War; where the Bund's national public-relations counsel, G. W Kunze, declaimed, 'If Franklin Rosenfeld takes the place of George Washington, so in the cultural life Bee­thoven is replaced by Irving Berlin and the like.'

"This was the fringe, but the fringe was scarily close to the main fabric of American life in those prewar years. It was a time when Jews, as Philip Roth wrote in his dystopian novel The Plot against America, were 'a small minority of citizens vastly outnumbered by our Christian countrymen, by and large obstructed by religious prejudice from attaining public power.' A time when Jews, even wealthy and famous Jews like Irving Berlin, had to watch their step -- and soon, worry about the times to come. …
"The frightening times were getting more frightening by the day: all at once, far across the sea didn't feel far enough. Years later, Barrett writes, her mother told her that she and Irving 'genuinely believed, in the summer and fall of 1940 and well into the next year, that the Germans would win .... Eventually, so went their worst imaginings, [Hitler] would conquer En­gland, then Canada, then "make an arrangement" with the United States that would amount to conquest. And if that happened, how would they protect their half-Jewish children? Flee to South America?'

"It is the precise scenario of The Plot against America. Only then it seemed all too real a possibility.

"'I think that "God Bless America" is the most important song I've ever written,' Berlin told a reporter that July, adding prophetically, 'I'll tell you more about it in five years.'

"He was speaking personally as well as artistically. It was a song he had written from the heart, one he felt intensely pro­tective about. As the tune's popularity skyrocketed, 'I was grate­ful beyond words that it had the quality it seemed to have,' Berlin said, 'but I wanted to make sure it kept that quality.' With the help of ASCAP, he barred the use of 'God Bless America' 'by all swing arrangers, by all cabarets and night clubs.' Only Kate Smith was allowed to sing it on the radio. (She also made a best-selling recording of the song, as did Bing Crosby.) On July 10 Berlin took his high-mindedness even far­ther, eschewing all profits from 'God Bless America' in per­petuity by establishing a trust fund for the distribution of the song's royalties -- $43,646.66 as of that date -- with the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America named as beneficiaries.

"That summer 'God Bless America' was performed, with its composer's evenhanded approval, at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Through the summer and fall Berlin and his wife campaigned hard for FDR; Irving sang 'God Bless America' at civic events around the country. Barrett recalled hearing her father perform his composition at a Boy Scout rally in the Catskills: 'No other singer, not Crosby, not Judy Garland, not Kate Smith herself, or a long procession of opera stars performing it on state occasions, could give it quite that conviction,' she writes. 'He meant every word .... It was the land he loved. It was his home sweet home. He, the immigrant who had made good, was saying thank you.'"

 | www.delanceyplace.com


James Kaplan


Irving Berlin: New York Genius


Yale University Press


Copyright 2019 by James Kaplan


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