Irving Berlin (1888–1989)
The life of Irving Berlin is a uniquely American success story. He was born Israel Baline in the Jewish village of Tyumen, in a harsh region of Russia known as Siberia. When he was about five, an anti-Jewish mob destroyed his family’s home, and the Balines set out for America. They settled on New York’s Lower East Side.
Irving Berlin had composer’s block. Kate Smith, one of the great singers of her day, had asked for a new number for her radio show. The year was 1938, and she was looking for something fresh to mark the 20th anniversary of the end of the Great War, what would later be called World War I.
Berlin felt the urgency to deliver. He had recently returned from Europe, where catastrophe was brewing. Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, was growing more powerful and aggressive and seemed to be preparing for war. But Berlin wasn’t focused on writing a get-America-ready-for-war song. He wanted to create something to celebrate America as a special place to live.
Then he remembered a song he had drafted years earlier. He pulled out an old trunk and dusted off the 20-year-old manuscript.
This is the story behind “God Bless America.” This simple one-verse song became an overnight hit, and a hopeful song as war threatened. “It’s not a patriotic song,” Berlin said in a 1940 interview, “but an expression of gratitude for what this country has done for its citizens, of what home really means.” Today, many Americans consider “God Bless America” an unofficial national anthem of the United States.
A Forgotten Song
Irving Berlin's father died when he was eight, and “Izzy” went to work selling newspapers to help support his family. As a young teen, he began singing in saloons and at some point taught himself piano. He began copying the musical styles of the day, and developed an incredible instinct for creating popular tunes that people loved to sing. A printing error on a published piece of sheet music left him with the name Irving Berlin, and that was the name he carried as he wrote song after song. In 1911, he wrote his first huge dance hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
After that, Berlin’s career took off like a rocket. He wrote stage musicals and film scores, and produced hit after hit. Many are still sung today, including: “White Christmas,” “Blue Skies,” “Always,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Heat Wave,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,”—and “God Bless America.”
When describing his goal as a songwriter, Berlin said: “My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American…that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country….My public is the real people.”
Reviving and Revising a Forgotten Song
In 1918, Sergeant Irving Berlin was stationed at Camp Upton in Yaphank, on Long Island, New York. Berlin was already a successful songwriter, now a draftee, and his commanding officer enlisted him to write a musical revue to help raise money for a new building. The result was Yip, Yip, Yaphank, a light-hearted musical revue about army life featuring music, skits, and military drills. The show produced one of the hits of World War I, “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” a comic song about a soldier’s reluctance to answer reveille, the army’s early AM alarm clock played on a bugle.
Berlin had written another song for the revue, but had cut it from the show. He thought the lyrics were too sappy. So “God Bless America” waited in that trunk for two decades.
The God Bless America Foundation
When it came to “God Bless America,” Irving Berlin and Kate Smith put their money where their mouths were. They donated all the royalties from the hit song to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America through the God Bless America Foundation. That arrangement is still in effect today.
Then Kate Smith came calling. Now, Berlin looked over his earlier work and rapidly began rewriting and revising. He had less than two weeks to get it ready for her performance.
Here is how the 1918 version had read:
God Bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her
And guide her
To the right with the light from above
Make her victorious on land and foam
God Bless America, my home sweet home.
Berlin knew he had to change the line To the right with the light from above. “The Right” in politics had come to mean conservative political groups. He wanted a song that brought Americans together, not set Americans apart. And he changed Make her victorious…since it suggested military conquest, rather than the “peace song” he was shooting for.
The result was the song most American school kids have learned by heart ever since.
God bless America, land that I love
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
God bless America,
My home sweet home.
Smith sang the song as the show closer on her live national broadcast that night. Berlin’s phone immediately began ringing off the hook. Everyone wanted to know where they could get the music.
After that, Smith almost always included the song in her weekly show, and it became her trademark during a career that spanned five decades. She also added a short poem-prelude that Berlin had written:
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.
The Coming War
During World War II, Berlin toured with his show This is the Army to raise money for the U.S. war effort. “God Bless America” was one of the featured songs.
Storm clouds were indeed gathering over Europe. Less than a year after the debut of “God Bless America,” Germany’s war machine rolled into Poland, igniting World War II in Europe. (The Japanese had already invaded China two years earlier, beginning the war in Asia.) The United States would not officially join the war until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But as “God Bless America” grew in popularity, most Americans already feared that it was just a matter of time before the U.S. would be called to fight.
Other wartime songs would remind Americans what they were fighting against. Berlin’s “God Bless America” reminded them what they were fighting for.