This became a patriotic anthem in America during World War II. The lyrics describe the wonderful things about the country, with images of the era like the grocer, the butcher, and the churchyard. The "house" is a metaphor for the country.
The song was written in 1943 with lyrics by Abel Meeropol and music by Earl Robinson. Meeropol, who wrote it under the pen name Lewis Allan, had very liberal views and mixed feelings about America. He loved the constitutional rights and freedoms that America was based on, but he hated the way people of other races, religions, and political views were often treated. His lyrics do not reflect the way he thought America was but what it had the potential to be. With the country under attack, he wanted to express why it was worth fighting for.
Meeropol was dogged by the government for his liberal (some would say communist) views. He took a particular interest in the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were accused of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union and executed in 1953. Meeropol felt they were wrongly accused, and he and his wife adopted their two sons when they were put to death. The sons, Michael and Robert, took Meeropol's last name (it was easier to be a Meeropol than a Rosenberg at the time) and have spent their adult lives trying to clear their birth parents' names.
Meeropol wrote a lot of songs, including "Strange Fruit
," which was about the horrors of lynchings and became Billie Holiday's signature song. Many songs he wrote were parodies of America, with commentary on racism and political oppression. He wrote several versions of this, including one for children and one that expanded the "house" to mean the whole world, not just America. He also wrote a scathing version about things he felt were bad in the US. The idyllic images were replaced with lines like "The cruelty and murder that brings our country shame."
Earl Robinson, who wrote the music, also had very liberal views. During the McCarthy era, he was hounded for being a communist and blacklisted from Hollywood, making it hard for him to find work. Before his death in 1991, he wrote presidential campaign songs for FDR (1944), Henry Wallace (1948), and Jesse Jackson (1984).
This has been recorded by a slew of artists, including Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robeson, Sonny Rollins, and Josh White. Sinatra's version is the most famous, as it was used in a short film he starred in with the same name in 1945. When Meeropol saw the film, he became enraged when he learned they deleted the second stanza of his song, which he felt was crucial to the meaning. He had to be removed from the theater. With its message of racial harmony, the second stanza was deemed too controversial for the film.
Sinatra loved this song and performed it many times, even as his political views moved from left to right as he got older. As an Italian-American, Sinatra experienced bigotry growing up, but he also loved the United States. He sang this at an inaugural he produced for John F. Kennedy, and again in the Nixon White House, and performed it for Ronald Reagan at the re-dedication of the Statue Of Liberty in 1986.
Charles Pignone, Vice President of Frank Sinatra Enterprises, also remembers watching him perform this in the '90s during the First Gulf War. "He would sing that every decade of his career," Pignone said in a Songfacts interview. "And that was another song that just stayed with him throughout his life." He added: "I remember sometimes he would tear up after 'The House I Live In."
This regained popularity among Americans in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. A lot of people found it comforting at a difficult time.
In 2002, comedian Bill Cosby opened some of his shows with this playing while a light shined on an empty chair. The song had meaning for Cosby not only because of September 11, but also because of his son, who was murdered in 1997 at age 27 when he pulled over to fix a flat tire.
Sinatra appeared in a 10-minute short for RKO, also titled The House I Live In, where he lectured a group of boys on racial and religious tolerance. Written by Albert Maltz, produced by Frank Ross and directed by Mervyn LeRoy, the film won a special Honorary Academy Award in 1946.
Here's Sinatra's introduction to this song, live at Madison Square Garden in 1974: "It's a song about this great, big, wonderful, imperfect country. I say imperfect because if it were perfect it wouldn't be any fun trying to fix it, trying to make it work better, trying to make sure that everybody gets a fair shake and then some. My country is personal to me because my father, who wasn't born here, rest his soul, he made sure that I was born here. And he used to tell me when I was a kid that America was a land of dreams and a dreamland, well I don't know if our country fulfilled all of his dreams while he was alive, but tonight with all of us together for this hour, it sure fulfills my dreams. And to all of you in the country and all of you watching tonight, here's a song about a place we call home, probably the greatest nation ever put on this earth."