A sweeping patriotic anthem, this song was written by Irving Berlin, who came to America at age 5 when his family immigrated from Siberia. The song reflects his love for his adopted country.
Irving Berlin wrote this in 1918 for the musical Yip, Yip, Yaphank while serving in the Army at Camp Upton near Yaphank, Long Island. After writing it, Berlin felt it didn't fit the tone of the musical, which was a comedy, and decided not to use it. In 1938, with war looming in Europe, Berlin updated the lyrics for the purpose of writing a "peace" song.
Berlin re-wrote this song for Kate Smith, who was looking for something patriotic to sing on her November 10, 1938 radio variety show
, which took place on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. She introduced it by saying, "I feel it's one of the most beautiful compositions ever written, a song that will never die."
Her performance got a tremendous response from listeners, leading to its release as a single. The song rose up the charts to #10 and sold lots of sheet music, becoming an alternate national anthem of sorts. It also became Smith's signature song.
According to the Philip Furia book Irving Berlin, A Life In Song, it was Irving Berlin's mother who introduced him to the phrase "God Bless America." Although poor, she was grateful for the opportunity and freedom found in America compared with her life in Russia. When she spoke the words, it was with total sincerity and often great emotion. Berlin's song popularized the phrase.
Berlin donated the royalties from this song, which were considerable, to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America. He established the God Bless America Fund for this purpose.
In 1940, Irving Berlin said in the New York Times, "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."
Berlin's original 1918 lyric read:
Stand beside her
And guide her
To the right with a light from above
Make her victorious
On land and foam
He changed it in 1938 to take away the military ("victorious) and political ("right") implications, amending it to:
Stand beside her
And guide her
Through the night with the light from above
From the mountains
To the prairies
To the ocean white with foam
A few years after this song was released, Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land
" as a parody. The songs are very different musically, but share similar sentiments, as they see America as a welcoming place with vast opportunity.
The song is commonly used to celebrate America, often at holidays, but also at sporting events. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the New York Yankees began playing the song at every home game during the seventh inning stretch. In Philadelphia, Smith's rendition of "God Bless America" was so popular among fans of the Flyers hockey team that a statue of her was erected outside the stadium in 1987. They started playing the song in 1969 in place of "The Star-Spangled Banner
" before select games and tended to win when it was played. In 1973 she performed it live at their home opener and the team went on to win the Stanley Cup, with Smith singing it again during a playoff game.
Berlin wrote this song during World War I and revived it in the buildup to World War II. By the time he re-worked it in 1938, Nazi Germany had invaded Austria. This was horrifying to Berlin, a Jewish immigrant. Americans were divided on whether or not to accept refugees from Europe, with isolationists trying to keep them out. In "God Bless America," Berlin makes a case for welcoming these refugees as he and his family were welcomed.
During WWII, Berlin wrote some songs in support of America's war effort, including an anti-Hitler tune called "When That Man Is Dead And Gone."
Berlin, who died in 1989, wouldn't be surprised that the grieving nation turned to his anthem in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. "There is a cynicism about patriotism and flagwaving," he said, "until something happens. 'God Bless America,' for instance. It is simple, honest - a patriotic statement. It's an emotion, not just words and music."
When he revamped this song in 1938, Irving Berlin added an introductory verse that Kate Smith sang in its debut, but was rarely heard in subsequent performances:
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
Celine Dion performed this on the post-9/11 TV special America: A Tribute to Heroes, and it was featured on the accompanying album God Bless America, which debuted at #1 (the first charity album to reach the summit since USA for Africa's We Are The World in 1985). Dion's cover also landed at #14 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
Kate Smith sang this in the 1943 wartime musical comedy This Is the Army, adapted from Berlin's 1942 Broadway musical of the same name. The film also features future US President Ronald Reagan, who would bestow Smith with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1982.
Connie Francis reached #36 on the Hot 100 with her pop version in 1959.
Berlin, a Republican, tweaked the lyrics during the Vietnam War to rankle his Democrat pal (and "Over The Rainbow
" lyricist) Yip Harburg:God bless America
Land I enjoy
No discussions with Russians
Till they stop sending arms to Hanoi
Kate Smith was one of the most popular entertainers of her time, beloved for her voice and for her contributions to the war effort - her likeness and appeals helped sell lots of War Bonds during World War II, and she often performed for troops. But Smith also sang some songs that history revealed to be offensively racist, notably "Pickaninny Heaven
" and "That's Why Darkies Were Born." Sample lyrics:
"Pickaninny Heaven" (1933)Great big watermelons roll around and get in your way
In the pickaninny heaven
"That's Why Darkies Were Born" (1931)Someone had to pick the cotton,
Someone had to pick the corn,
Someone had to slave and be able to sing,
That's why darkies were born
This didn't come to light in the mainstream media until April 19, 2019, when the New York Yankees stopped playing her version of "God Bless America" after a fan alerted them about these songs. The Philadelphia Flyers followed suit, pulling her version of the song and also covering up her statue outside the stadium.
It's worth noting that the men who wrote these songs ("Pickaninny Heaven" - Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow; "That's Why Darkies Were Born" - Ray Henderson and Lew Brown) were all inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.