Thursday, July 1, 2010

Our Other Anthem

This essay by Mary Ann O'Roark appeared in Guideposts magazine.

Assigned to the 20th Infantry unit based in Yaphank, Long Island, Irving Berlin responded to the shock of reveille with "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning!" Then he pestered the camp's commander to let him produce a musical revue called Yip! Yip! Yaphank! For it, he wrote an anthem that pulled out all the patriotic stops. But Berlin, a notorious perfectionist, had second thoughts about the song—he "couldn't imagine soldiers marching to it"—so he filed it away.

And there "God Bless America" might have stayed. But two decades later, as another world war loomed on the horizon, he took the song out of its dusty file, changed a few words, then offered it to Kate Smith for her popular radio show. She sang it on Armistice Day in 1938, and it was an immediate hit.

Of course, it had its critics. Some claimed the piece was not dignified enough. Others felt it was too jingoistic. Berlin was not so much stung by the criticism as perplexed. To him the lyrics didn't mean God's blessing was exclusive to America. "God Bless America" was a song of heartfelt gratitude from a poor Russian Jewish immigrant. It was his prayer that the country that had been so good to him continue to be blessed.

Irving Berlin went on to pen hundreds more songs for Broadway, films and television. But as far as he was concerned, "God Bless America" was the most important song that he had ever written. His daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, can still recall him singing it at a Boy Scout rally with a conviction that no celebrity could ever match, not even the mighty vibrato of Kate Smith. "He meant every word of it," she says.

It was Berlin's wish that others benefit from his labor of love. In 1940 he set up the "God Bless America Fund" to ensure that all the song's royalties would go to America's youth, primarily the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Over $7 million have been collected—and donated. America put a song in the immigrant composer's heart—and he gratefully gave it back.

Irving Berlin died in 1989 at the age of 101. But the song that he had once put away in a drawer continued to live on and to inspire. In the days after September 11, as our nation grieved and prayed, we also sang. One evening I joined a group of New Yorkers gathered before the fountains at Lincoln Center. Some held candles, some clutched flags. In the dusk, strangers linked arms just as we'd done when I was a Girl Scout. As lights flickered in the fountains mist and fighter planes patrolled above, we sang Irving Berlin's national anthem, "God Bless America." There could be no more fitting prayer for our home sweet home.

1 comment:

Lauren Yarger said...

I remember when "God Bless America" became a tradition at the Philadelphia Flyers hockey games. They would sing that at the start of the match, rather than the National Anthem. One year, I think when they were in the Stanley Cup playoffs, they had Smith herself come sing it.