Jim Adams has decreed this week’s Song Lyric Sunday theme is “American Music,” defined as “any song played by an American group.” While I could argue with that definition, I’ll let it pass. In any case, I don’t think anyone other than Americans sing my choice, “God Bless America,” written by quintessential American songwriter, Russian-born immigrant, Irving Berlin.
Born Israel Beilin in Russia on May 11, 1988, he became “Irving Berlin” when the sheet music for his first published song, “Marie from Sunny Italy,” credited “I. Berlin” as the lyricist for Mike Nicholson’s music. It was 1907, and they split a 75-cent royalty. Over the next several years, Berlin expanded his talents to include composing his own music for his lyrics, performing his music in vaudeville productions, and writing the music and lyrics for Broadway productions.
His creative spurt encompassed his growth as a businessman protecting his rights and royalties, as well as for others as a co-founder of The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). He also established the Irving Berlin Music, Inc. publishing house to maintain control of all his output.
After the United States entered into World War I in December 1917, he became an American citizen two months later and was drafted into the Army, where he managed to finagle an assignment writing a musical revue about Army life. Originally, Berlin wrote “God Bless America” for the finale of that 1918 revue but decided another number was a better fit. He filed the song away for 20 years, until a 1938 visit to London. During that visit, British Prime Minister Chamberlain met with Hitler, signing appeasements in an attempt to avoid the likelihood of war as Hitler aggressively annexed portions of other European countries.
Deeply affected by those political tensions, Berlin revised “God Bless America” from a 1918 war song to a peace song. American singer Kate Smith debuted it on her Armistice Day (November 10) 1938 radio show. Here are Berlin’s hand-written revised lyrics:
Berlin also wrote the following introductory prayer/poem that Smith always included whenever she sang the song.
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 solemn prayer.
Both Berlin and Smith assigned the royalties for “God Bless America” to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of American in perpetuity.
This is where you would think I’d post a video of Kate Smith, but I prefer to share Irving Berlin, himself, singing “God Bless America” on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1968. Enjoy!
Research sources include: IrvingBerlin.com (biography pages and “God Bless America” page); Wikipedia (Irving Berlin and “God Bless America” pages); the Library of Congress; The Kennedy Center; and History.com.