Thursday, July 4, 2013

God bless America

Irving Berlin possibly plagiarized portions of this preeminent patriotic prayer which has earned millions for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.  Six years after his breakthrough success with 'Alexander's Ragtime Band'Russian emigrant Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Beilin) was drafted into the army at the onset of World War I.  By that time he had already written hundreds of songs.  He was stationed at Camp Upton in New York where his mission was to write patriotic tunes to inspire the troops.  His all military review  'Yip Yip Yaphank' became a Broadway hit.  One song he wrote for that review was 'God Bless America'; but he decided not to include it.  

Twenty years later, he dusted it off when singer Kate Smith wanted a song for her radio show to celebrate Armistice Day.  The song struck a chord with depression era Americans and very quickly became an unofficial national anthem.  Berlin would recount:    “It was the time of the Munich conference. Democracies were kowtowing to dictators, and one wondered when grasping hands would be stretched farther. When I got back, Kate Smith wanted a song that would sort of wake up America. I sat down and tried to write one. I made several efforts, but everything I wrote was too definite. I had been too close to what had happened, and concrete events are not what I wanted to sing about. Suddenly I remembered the song I had laid aside twenty years before. I got it out and went over it and made a few changes and found it hit the nail on the head. It’s not a patriotic song, but rather an expression of gratitude for what this country has done for its citizens, of what home really means.” 

In 1942, a performance of 'God Bless America' by Smith was featured in the patriotic film 'This is the Army' with Ronald Reagan.

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free,
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.
God bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home
God bless America, My home sweet home.

Berlin's melody has similarities with a novelty song 'When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band' that was popular in 1906 when an eighteen year old Israel Baline was working as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown taking familar tunes and reworking the lyrics to amuse the customers.  The lyrics of 'God Bless America' seem to echo those of an older tune 'God Bless America!' by Robert Montgomery Bird from 1834; but Berlin said that his mother would utter the words of the title quite often "not casually, but with emotion which was almost exaltation."

The song remains a resonant favorite all over the country.  It continues to be played at sporting events and whenever someone is feeling sentimental about their American homeland.  Due to his own fervent patriotism, Berlin refused to make a profit off of the song and transfered the royalties of the song to the God Bless America Fund for redistribution to the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the USA.  

After September 11, 2001; Celine Dion performed the song on the television special 'America:  A Tribute to Heroes'.  A month later, Dion's version of the song became the centerpiece of the 'God Bless America' charity album which became the first charity album since 'We Are The World' to make it to number one on the album charts.

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