This Land Is Our Land
Irving Berlin & “God Bless America”
"A patriotic song has to be good, or it's unworthy of publication. It can be simply a trick [...] patriotism can be the refuge of a scoundrel in the entertainment world as in other spheres" (Irving Berlin, quoted in Leopold, p. 142)
"God Bless America" was originally written by Irving Berlin in 1917 for his World War I show "Yip Yip Yaphank",
but he didn't use it at that time. It was revised and published only more than 20 years later in October/November 1938 after he had returned from a trip to England. Kate Smith performed it first on her Armistice Day broadcast on November 10th 1938. Berlin himself commented about the song's background in an interview with the New York Times in 1940:
“Two years ago I was in Europe. It was the time of the Munich conference. Democracies were kowtowing to dictators, and one wondered when grasping hands would be stretched farther. When I got back, Kate Smith wanted a song that would sort of wake up America. I sat down and tried to write one. I made several efforts, but everything I wrote was too definite. I had been too close to what had happened, and concrete events are not what I wanted to sing about. Suddenly I remembered the song I had laid aside twenty years before. I got it out and went over it and made a few changes and found it hit the nail on the head. 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” (NY Times, 28.7.1940).
The revisions were of prime importance. Berlin explained them in a letter in 1954:
"The original version was as follows:
God Bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her
And guide her
To the right with a light from above
Make her victorious on on land and foam
God Bless America ,my home sweet home
It is obvious that the word 'right' had to be changed [...] In 1938 there was a right and a left and it had a different significance. So in changing it the song was improved when I said 'stand beside her and guide her through the night with a light from above.'" (Kimball/Emmet, p. 322)
He also cut out the line “make her victorious...” because he wanted it to be a “peace song”, not a war song. The introductory verse was written in 1938 (see Barrett, p. 172). In find no reference that it had been part of the original 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 a solemn prayer.
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
A song “God Bless America” had been written by Robert Bird Montgomery in 1834:
God bless the land that gave us birth!
No pray'r but this know we.
God bless the land, of all the earth,
The happy and the free.
And where's the land like ours can brave
The splendor of the day.
And find no son of hers a slave?
God bless America!
God bless the land, the land beloved
Forever and for aye!
God bless the land that gave us birth.
God bless America!
Another precursor was “The Colored Volunteers” (ca. 1860s), a song about the black soldiers fighting for their freedom:
Give us a flag all free without a slave,
We will fight to defend it as our fathers did so brave
Onward boys, onward, it's the year of jubilee,
God bless America, the land of liberty.
But Berlin’s “God Bless America” had an even more important personal background.
“It’s title had been inspired by Berlin’s mother who, despite their poverty as Berlin was growing up, would frequently murmur, ‘God Bless America.’ ‘And not casually,’ Berlin recalled, ‘but with emotion which was almost exaltation’ (Furia, p. 192)
That is what the song is all about: gratitude for America as the country that gave a persecuted minority a new home. He is stating the difference between living in a "land that's free" - no matter how hard it is - and living under a despotic regime. His family had suffered from anti-Semite pogroms in Russia (NYT, 28.7.1940, see Jablonski, p. 3ff) and he “has never forgotten that he is the son of a poor rabbi [sic! i.e. cantor] who found a refuge for himself and his family in America” (NY Times, 20.8.1944). The words “God Bless America” won added poignancy in 1938 against the background of massive anti-Semitism in Germany. It had been only a couple of months since Hitler had overtaken Austria and started a new wave of pogroms that were widely reported in American newspapers (MacGregor Burns/Dunn, p. 407/8).
The modern use of the phrase “God Bless America” obviously started with Berlin’s song. Checking the archives of the New York Times I found only 18 records for the years from 1851 to 1937. Most of them were simple expressions of gratitude for America by non-Americans with no theological or nationalistic background and that’s exactly the way Mrs. Baline and then Irving Berlin himself used it. Only since November 1938 it occurs regularly, at first mostly referring to that song. So in some way everyone who says “God Bless America” today is - often unknowingly - using the words of an immigrant mother, one of those courageous women who with her husband and children made the long trip to America in search of a better future. Irving Berlin regularly built his songs about catchphrases from everyday speech and this is no exception.
“Home Sweet Home” refers to the most famous home song of the 19th century by John Howard Payne and Henry Bishop, a song especially popular during the Civil War. The line “be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home” was surely resonating in the background of “God Bless America” at that time.
Mid Pleasures and palaces though I may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home;
A charm from the sky seems to hallow us there,
Which, seek thro' the world, is ne'er met with elsewhere. Home.
Home! Sweet, sweet home!
There's no place like home.
There's no place like home.
“God Bless America” is a very personal and very political song by an immigrant who had fled from oppression and persecution in Europe, found a home in America and now, “deeply stirred by what he felt was our duty” (NY Times, 20.8.1944), called for solidarity and urged the Americans to stand together against European totalitarianism:
While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free.
It was a moment when - after Munich - the USA seemed to be the last strong democracy left and it was a skeptic answer to Chamberlain’s “peace for our time”. He would like to believe in peace but knew “that war was inevitable” (Furia/Lasser, p. 151). In fact Berlin with his reference to the “night” tells his listeners very clearly about the grim future that’s awaiting them, that the light are about to go out in Europe a second time.
Joe Klein, biographer of Woody Guthrie, dismisses “God Bless America” as a “patriotic pop tune” (p. 136 ). I think he - besides his deplorable lack of knowledge about Berlin and the song’s historical background - massively underestimates Berlin’s songwriting skills, his empathy for the people and his ability to be there a the right moment with the right song. For Berlin the songwriter was “not much more than a mirror which reflects” people’s feelings (Rosen, 2000) and here he managed to produce a song that “both registered Americans’ anxiety and provided a sense of reassurance and communal uplift” (dto.). But at the same time he was also way ahead of them.
In 1938 the USA was deeply divided into isolationists and internationalists. President Roosevelt, well aware of dangers arising from Hitler’s Germany, had to move with the utmost care. European refugees were often barred from America. Even the low quotas of the 1924 National Origins Act were - against Roosevelt’s wishes - not fulfilled because of public indifference, isolationist disinterest and bureaucratic restrictionism (Kennedy, p. 412f, 415) although the USA still took more refugees than any other country. Isolationism was partly linked with anti-Semitism - as was the case with Father Coughlin and Henry Ford -, historians James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn (p. 412) call it “a period of virulent anti-Semitism” and Jewish Americans were urged by well-meaning self-appointed advisors to stay in the background and “walk softly” (see for example NY Times, 31.10.1933). At this moment a patriotic song like “God Bless America” was “neither pro forma, sentimental, nor innocent” (Giddins, p. 553), especially if it was written by a Jewish songwriter with immigrant background. It was a statement with “political meaning beyond rote patriotism” (Giddins, p. 552).
First of all Berlin - who’s life history was well-known in the USA at that time - implicitly attacked American nativists, xenophobic nationalists and those who were still denying the immigrants - especially those from Eastern Europe - their place in America, and he challenged them on their home turf. “God Bless America” was his way of saying “this land is our land”. It has been stated that patriotism was Irving Berlin’s “true religion” (Bergreen, p. 382). By all accounts he had a deep belief in what historian David Kennedy describes as America’s “image of itself as a tolerantly inclusive, fair-minded, ‘melting pot’ society, an image long nurtured in national mythology” (Kennedy, p. 760). But for Berlin it was no mythology or ideology, it was something he had learned growing up in the ethnic melting pot of New York (see NY Times, 20.8.1944) and then in World War I:
America has opened up her heart
To ev’ry nationality,
And now she asks of ev’ry nation
It makes no difference now from where you came,
We are all the same
[”For Your Country And My Country” 1917]
This image of the Americans both “diverse and unified” and of “religious toleration as a distinguishing American trait” grew to new strength in the 1930s - see for example President Roosevelt’s 1936 Radio Adress on Brotherhood Day - with the rise of totalitarianism and was “powerfully reinforced by the conspicuously racialized conflict that was World War II” (Kennedy, p. 760/1). The democratic American patriotism based on ethnic and religious tolerance and multitude served as a counter-model especially to aggressive German racist nationalism. “God Bless America” was the most perfect and most concise expression of this patriotism.
In 1940 the I am An American Day was created as a platform for this American patriotism:
"More than two million young men and women in the United States each year reach the age of 21. We welcome them, as well as the thousands who by naturalization obtained he rights of citizenship [...] Democracy can be preserved only if every citizen recognizes that it is his duty to respect and maintain the civil and religious rights of all his fellow-citizens. It is only in that way that we can maintain the great brotherhood of American citizenship. The Congress of the United States this year designated the third Sunday of May as Citizenship Day, and the president issued a proclamation calling for an ‘I Am An American Day’” (Governor Herbert Lehman, New York, quoted in: NY Times, 16.5.1940)
“God Bless America” was among the songs performed on this celebrations and - to make the political context clear - in 1941 the I am An American Days were regularly turned into massive anti-Nazi and anti-isolationist rallies (see NY Times, 18./19.5.1941; see also Fried, p. 14ff).
The integrative patriotism of “God Bless America” implied an anti-racist stance. Irving Berlin had started out as a songwriter at a time when ethnic stereotypes, the Coon song and black face minstrelsy were extremely popular. He couldn’t escape this world at least until the 1940s and occasionally slipped into the old habits. But even his earliest songs never offered mean-spirited racism and later he occasionally changed or rewrote songs if necessary, as in 1942 when he stated publicly that “no song is important enough to offend a whole race” (Time, 23.11.1942; see Kimball/Emmet, p. 353).
But already with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911 Berlin had blown “the Coon song to tiny little bits” (Wondrich, p. 155) and stripped it off its demeaning racial stereotypes (Furia/Lasser, p. 2). That was a song about ragtime, calling everybody to come and listen to a black band ragging a Stephen Foster song. Here he had opened the world of African-American music for white listeners and provoked the ire of the usual suspects who feared the decline of culture and the contamination of the youth with black music. And he was very clearly proclaiming African-American culture as a part of American musical tradition (see Furia/Lasser, p. 3).
In this respect Berlin was way ahead of a lot of Folklore collectors of that era who had serious problems accepting black music and were maintaining the lily-white Anglo-Saxon roots of American music against the achievements of both immigrants and African-Americans (see Filene, p. 25) . Charles Hamm (p. 80) notes that he knows “of no contemporaneous songs by other writers in which the music of black performers is treated with such enthusiasm and professional respect and with such a complete absence of racial stereotyping and ‘comical’ demeaning”.
In 1933 Berlin wrote “Supper Time” for his topical revue “As Thousands Cheer”. It was the first song about lynching, some years before “Strange Fruit”. He got Ethel Waters to perform it on Broadway and she was deeply impressed:
"If one song can tell the whole tragic history of a race, 'Supper Time' was that song. In singing it I was telling my comfortable, well-fed, well-dressed listeners about my people" (Waters, p. 222).
Berlin and producer Sam Harris even sent the whole show including "Supper Time" and Ms. Waters on tour down south, "the first time a colored person had been co-starred with white players below the Mason-Dixon line" (Waters, p. 224). Obviously it was not pure coincidence that this song was written in 1933 and it may have been his answer to German anti-Semitism. Maybe Berlin was amongst those who understood that to be against what was happening in Germany also meant to fight against homegrown racism. This was discussed in the USA at that time. For example Jesuit priest John LaFarge, editor of the magazine America said at a seminar of the “National Conference Of Jews And Christians” in October 1933 - after “Supper Time” was written - that “the protests here against anti-Semitism in Germany would be more effective [...] if lynchings were curbed in this country” and the New York Times’ (31.10.1933) article about this seminar was headlined “Hitlerism likened to Lynch Law here”.
But “Supper Time” should also be regarded a companion piece to “God Bless America”, because here Berlin portrays the other side of America; it’s the song about those for whom the promise of America has not been fulfilled:
How I'll keep from cryin'
When I bring their supper on?
How can I remind them
To pray at their humble board?
How can I be thankful
When they start to thank the Lord?
Here he had already answered the criticism later aimed at “God Bless America”. With these two songs he painted the contradictory history of America en miniature: the poor immigrant who had fled to America to escape oppression and the African-American who suffers oppression in the land of liberty, “God bless America” and “How can I be thankful?”.
In 1942 Berlin wrote “This Is The Army”, a show for the benefit of the Army Emergency Relief Fund with the cast consisting completely of soldiers (see Anderson 2004). After a big success on Broadway the show went on tour through the USA and then until 1945 on an adventurous trip around the world to entertain servicemen and civilians everywhere. He included black performers in his cast and managed to create the first and only integrated unit of the Armed Forces during WW II, again way ahead of his time and six years before President Truman ordered the end of segregation in the Armed Forces in 1948.
"He displayed real daring, however, in his decision to include black performers [...] he was not blind to appearances; he knew his gesture would be progressive, at least, and probably controversial [...] black and white members of the This Is The Army unit lived as well as worked together. 'We had guys who were crackers when they came into the outfit,' said Alan Manson, one of the white actors who took the novel arrangement with entusiasm. 'But after two or three weeks of living together you couldn't say a word against a black man in our company. It really was an enormous experience. Berlin is a fairly conservative guy, but this meant a lot to him [...] 'We always insisted that the black guys stay with us,' said Alan Anderson. 'And if a place wouldn't take us, all three hundred of us would go where the black guys could go. We wouldn't play in a segregated theater - and that's that [...] " (Bergreen, p. 397/412)
Bergreen (p. 397) claims that "this extraordinary gesture derived not so much from Berlin's social beliefs as from his show business background and savvy [...] by integrating the revue, Berlin was simply importing familiar conventions into the army". I have serious doubts about this explanation and I tend to think that Berlin’s “social beliefs” had a lot to do with this anti-segregationist gesture . After the war in 1946 Berlin was for example one of those writers who agreed to a boycott of segregated theaters in Washington (NY Times, 24.11.1946) and in 1948 he was a founding member of the National Citizens Council On Civil Rights, an organization urging for “the establishment of a permanent governmental commission on civil rights” - it was shortly after President Truman’s Committee On Civil Rights had presented its report - and encouraging “local communities to conduct an appraisal of civil rights [...] and take steps to improve local conditions” (NY Times, 29.7.1948).
In the 30s and 40s Berlin was involved with the “National Conference Of Christians And Jews”. This organization had been established in 1928 to work for “justice, amity, understanding and cooperation among Protestants, Catholics and Jews" and against racism and religious intolerance (NYT, May 28, 1939). In 1939 he was present “on behalf of the New York Round Table of the National Conference of Christian and Jews” when actors Frederic March - like Berlin member of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (see NYT 18.8.1938) - and Florence Eldridge received the Conference’s Tolerance Badge and actress Helen Hayes bluntly stated that “there is no room in this country for race hatred and religious intolerance” (dto.). And in 1946 Berlin himself received this organization's Anti-Bias Award for his “contributions [...] in the theater world that have advanced the aim of the conference to eliminate religious and racial frictions” (NY Times, 13.12.1946).
One of the earliest performances of “God Bless America” was at a meeting of the Conference on November 28th in 1938 - it is the very first mention of this song in the New York Times; it is even claimed that “God Bless America” was written for this occasion -, where speakers urged “for a true brotherhood of man in the United States and a repudiation of the doctrines of race and hate”, condemned imported demagogue and notorious anti-Semite Charles Coughlin as a “menace not only to the American nation but to the religion which he [...] wrongs” and chairman Dr. Compton “declared that it was the duty of organizations such as the conference to ‘make America safe for differences’”:
"It is those in this room tonight [...], representative leaders in shaping attitudes, on whom a large share of the responsibility lies for creating the spirit of good-will throughout our nation. With wars and threats of wars about us, it is literally a matter of life and death that we make this spirit grow to fruition in a unified and cooperative citizenship [...] Let us work together for cooperation, lest freedom perish from the earth” (NY Times, 29.11.1938).
“God Bless America” stood for anti-totalitarianism as well as ethnic and religious tolerance and for solidarity with America in a time of crisis. This song doesn’t tell the people to lean back and let god in the “driver’s seat” (Klein, p. 136) do the work. In fact Berlin urged them to accept responsibility, it was a song to “wake up America”, as he himself said later (NY Times, 28.7.1940). In the political context of that time it was surely a song against isolationist complacency. Not by accident it was later regarded as an “interventionist song” (see NY Times, 24.5.1941; see Rosen, p. 127).
At this time Berlin was in the same boat as his president who “faced the task of educating Americans about the real and present danger they faced (Kennedy, p. 434). It was exactly the moment when Roosevelt began to “overhaul” his foreign policy (Kennedy, p. 419/20) and the tide very, very slowly began to turn against isolationism (MacGregor Burns/Dunn, p. 428/9). In some way Berlin anticipated the rhetoric and the sentiments of President Roosevelt’s Annual Message To Congress on January 4th 1939. His pathos is the very pathos of Roosevelt calling for a “strong and united nation” to face the “storms from abroad”:
"There comes a time in the affairs of men when they must prepare to defend, not their homes alone, but the tenets of faith and humanity on which their churches, their governments and their very civilization are founded [...] we must be able confidently to invoke [...] the underlying strength of citizenship--the self-confidence, the ability, the imagination and the devotion that give the staying power to see things through [...] In meeting the troubles of the world we must meet them as one people--with a unity born of the fact that for generations those who have come to our shores, representing many kindreds and tongues, have been welded by common opportunity into a united patriotism".
Kate Smith’s performance of “God Bless America” on November 11th 1938 happened to be immediately after Kristallnacht on November 9th, the most massive anti-Semite pogroms in Germany since Hitler’s Machtergreifung. I wonder if that had any influence on how the song was received by the Americans or if the symbolic value of that moment was seen. After this performance the song became immensely popular without any plugging or pushing. Many people were genuinely touched and it was sung nearly everywhere, especially by the “young [...] in public schools and Sunday schools” (NY Times, 11.7.1940).
The song had - in the words of conductor Leopold Stokowski - “dignity, simplicity and a wonderful sincerity” (Furia, p. 196). For a lot of Americans it became something like an unofficial second national anthem and it won wide-spread acceptance. Both Republicans and Democrats adopted the song for their conventions in 1940. Republican candidate Wendell Willkie - a liberal internationalist like the president - intended to use it as a campaign song (NY Times, 14.7.1940) and it was sung nearly everywhere President Roosevelt went (see f. ex. NY Times, 5.7.1940, 27.9.1940). Carl Sandburg witnessed the song’s power at a rally in Chicago 1941:
“The high spot of the evening for me was when a frail gal from Hollywood, li’l Judy Garland, stepped up to a mike and let her warm tremulous contralto go on the first line of ‘God Bless America.’ Before she had reached the second line, at least half the audience on the main floor rose from their seats and joined in the singing [...] Then the magnetic little Judy, beating time with the sway of her arrow-like figure, carried the song through to a massive choral effect” (Furia, p. 195/6)
Berlin himself performed “God Bless America” regularly in these years and received a tremendous response from his audiences, for example in San Francisco in September 1940
But the most rapturous applause is saved for Irving Berlin, who sings his own "God Bless America." Berlin's tenor voice is frail and has a limited range, but it is a moving performance. A very young Herb Caen, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, reviewed the concerts and describes audience members standing up-without prompting-and joining Berlin: "Hundreds started to sing with him. Then thousands. And when he came to the end of his song, 15,000 Americans were on their feet singing with him." ( D.A. Banks)
At this time he had already assigned the copyright of the song to a trust fund. The royalties were to be “used among the youth of America for patriotic purposes” . The beneficiaries were the Boy and Girl Scouts of America selected because of their “completely non-sectarian work” (NY Times, 11.7.1940) and because “Scout training” was widely regarded as a major contribution “toward fostering a loyalty toward democratic principles among the youth of all races” (NY Times, 22.1.1941). Berlin specifically asked for the support of children in “districts with [a] large low-income population” (NY Times, 9.3.1941, see also NY Times, 16.8.1944, 23.4.1955 & 14.10.2001). Here Berlin adressed - not by writing a useless song but by funding social work at a grass-roots level - explicitly the two problems regarded as the greatest danger for American democracy: poverty and bigotry.
His name and his money were used to teach the kids about tolerance, for example in 1944 when the “Irving Berlin district, Girl Scout Council of Greater New York” sponsored an “inter-religious and international friendship meeting” where a Rabbi told the girl scouts that “whenever hate and prejudice begin[s] to spread against any minority group, the whole world is in danger [...] ‘If you want to keep your own right to be different from others, you must protect others’ rights to be themselves’” (NY Times, 6.11.1944). In 1950 Herbert Bayard Swope, one of the chairmen of the God Bless America Fund - a friend of Berlin and an outstanding liberal journalist - described the scouts as “a leading factor in the fight to end race, color and religious discrimination” in the USA (NY Times, 11.10.1950).
In the late 30s and early 40s “God Bless America” was the song of the anti-totalitarian and democratic America, the song of those who were demanding stronger measures against Hitler’s Germany and more support for Britain, of those who stood for ethnic and religious tolerance, the America of the Roosevelts, New York mayor Fiorello la Guardia or writers like Dorothy Thompson and Robert Sherwood. “God Bless America” was in fact identified with the more left part of the political spectrum. For example one Judge Clare G. Fenerty from Philadelphia, at a convention of the catholic Newman Club Federation in 1940, warned with the typical rhetoric of the extreme right against “those pseudo-Americans who are now wrapping themselves in the flag, noisily singing ‘God Bless America’ [...] who only a short time ago were lauding the Soviet idea and lending support and encouragement to the Godhaters of the Loyalist Government in Spain” (NY Times, 8.7.1940).
Irving Berlin and his wife - “a couple with a mission” (Barrett, p. 186) - took a very pronounced political stand during these years although the situation was difficult. Actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. later remembered that the “American Jews [...] would, of course, risk beeing attacked as warmongers [...] if they supported anti-Nazi movements”. (Carr, p. 160). This was in fact not that unusual (see Mac Gregor Burns/Dunn, p. 348) and in September 1941 in his speech in Des Moines influential America First isolationist Charles Lindbergh would attack “the Jewish” - besides “the British [...] and the Roosevelt administration” as “war agitators” and part of a “small minority [...] pressing this country toward war” (Carr, p. 246). In 1940 former ambassador to Great Britain Joseph Kennedy urged Hollywood movie executives to “stop making anti-Nazi pictures or using the film medium to promote or show symphaty to the cause of the democracies versus the dictators” and to “get those Jewish names off the screen” (Giddins, p. 553; see also Carr, p. 159/160)
Berlin managed to keep his name on the “screen”. He had been a member of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (see NY Times, 18.8.1938; this was in fact a communist front-organisation that imploded because of the Hitler-Stalin pact in August 1939 ) and he was busy supporting European refugees (NY Times, 20.11.1938, 24.5.1939, 18.6.1939; Freedland, p. 144) , the War Relief Society (NY Times, 25.2.1940), the Committee To Defend America By Aiding The Allies (NY Times, 24.11.1940, 25.5.1941) and Fight For Freedom, Inc . In 1940 he and his wife “campaigned even more vigorously [...] than they had in 1936” (Barrett, p. 186) for President Roosevelt. Months before Pearl Harbour Berlin wrote songs in support of his government’s efforts for defense (“Any Bonds Today?”, “Arms For The Love Of America”) or to remind Americans of war-harassed Britain (“A Little Old Church In England”). In February 1941 he introduced his anti-Hitler song “When That Man Is Dead And Gone” on prime-time radio (NY Times, 2.2.1941; see also 22.2.1941) :
When that man is dead and gone
When that man is dead and gone
We’ll go dancing down the street
On the day we catch up with that one man spreading hate
His account is overdrawn.
All his chances are in pawn.
Some fine day the news will flash,
Satan with a small moustache
Is asleep beneath the lawn,
When that man his dead and gone
His wife Ellin - a novelist and writer in her own right - spoke on behalf of the Committee and FFF (see Barrett, p. 189). In a radio discussion in 1941 she harshly criticized Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her book “The Wave Of The Future” (NY Times, 6.1.1941):
“Noone can be blamed for being frightened, but it is heart-breaking to find an American woman burying democracy in quotation marks. She speaks of it [...] as though it were dead - drowned in that wave of tyranny against whose inevitability Mrs. Lindbergh refuses to fight. That is not true. Democracy is alive here - it is alive in England [...] I do not believe that democracy and liberty and the fellowship of men of good will must be overwhelmed by men of evil will. And that is what it is, this wave of future to which we are told to submit.[...] We must not romanticize the Nazis. They are not a wave; they are a group of unscrupulous militarists who mean to conquer the world”.
Berlin himself was not much of a speaker, but he “seemed to be spending all his time singing ‘God Bless America’ at civic events” (Barrett, p. 188). He was present for example at a New York Herald Tribune Forum about “America’s Second Fight For Freedom”, where Archibald MacLeish urged that “mobilization against the greatest danger that has ever threatened human freedom” must be designed “to create in America the thing so many man have dreamed of and have never seen - democracy itself - democracy in action’”and that “writers, artists and musicians must be part of such mobilization” and the daughter of Marie Curie via a broadcast from her exile in London called for support for conquered France (NY Times, 24.10.1940); at a massive “victory rally” for President Roosevelt where Mayor La Guardia compared the “inspiration that produced ‘God Bless America’ to that of Verdi and Beethoven” (NY Times, 5.11.1940); at a dinner “given by civic and labor groups” in honor of Eleanor Roosevelt where the President’s wife stated that “we can defend real democracy”:
“We can defend the country we love, just as long as the government and the people as a whole are working to make us a real democracy for every citizen. The reason we have something to defend is that we are not satisfied with ourselves That we do know our shortcomings. And because so many of us are on the way to that point, we know we have a nation worth defending” (NY Times, 25.1.1941)
Berlin also “played his hymn, ‘God Bless America’” at a big gala on the eve of President Roosevelt’s inauguaration on January 20th 1941 (New York Times, 20.1.1941). And as the last performer at the I am An American Day in New York on May 19th 1941 - the biggest patriotic rally of the year with 750000 in attendance - he sang it with a massive crowd led by mayor Fiorello La Guardia who had invited his fellow New Yorkers to show “the avowed enemies of every ideal we hold dear [that] that the people of this land of ours are ready to defend their heritage”:
“Join us tomorrow on Central Park Mall in person and in spirit to get this message across - not only to quell the bloodthirsty ambitions of dictators, but also to encourage those countries still resisting inhuman pressure to stand by democracy - the world’s light and hope”.
And in his speech on that day the mayor exclaimed that “we have demonstrated that a democracy can be strong [...] let me say now to Adolf, to Benito, and to Joe: ‘We are not afraid to defend our institutions” while Harold Ickes demanded more support for Britain and massively attacked the leading personnel of the America First movement (New York Times, 18./19.5.1941).
“God Bless America” was not that popular among the representatives of isolationist America. For example at a massive rally with Charles Lindbergh - who had returned from Europe in 1938 at around the same time as Berlin, not with the idea for a song but with a decoration from Hitler - in New York five days later the audience declined to sing this song (NY Times, 24.5.1941):
“During the musical program before the rally itself, Robert Crawford, song-leader, asked the audience if it wanted to sing ‘God Bless America’. He was drowned out by a chorus of ‘Nos’ and said ‘Let’s drop it’. A spokesman for anti-war groups said it was regarded as an interventionist song”
They were not the only ones unhappy with the song. In fact Berlin was confronted with heavy, often mean-spirited criticism not only from “the cracks of journalistic small fry” (Time, 30.9.1940) but from the extreme right and from parts of the conservative establishment, a sign that his message had been received in these quarters too. This attacks show very clearly what Berlin and his song were standing for. Some critics had serious problems with the Americans singing a patriotic song by a Jewish songwriter from “Tin Pan Alley”, not only a local Ku Klux Klan Leader who urged for a boycott of the song “because it’s author [...] is Jewish” (Furia, p. 195) or Coughlinites who regarded “the singing of ‘God Bless America’ [...] as a provocation to violence” (Jenkins, p. 173):
“Prominent clergymen attacked the song from the pulpit as ‘patriotic pretense’ and a ‘specious substitute for religion and patriotism’. Headlines like ‘G-A-W-D Bless A-M-E-R-I-K-E-R!’ decried the song as the slick, commercial product of Tin Pan Alley, and an editorial writer haughtily observed, ‘one does not ‘croon’ ‘The Star-Spangled Banner!’’. Behind this backlash was the smoldering anger of the WASP establishment over what Irving Berlin and other immmigrants had been doing to American popular culture since 1910. The editorial writer referred to Berlin as ‘nee-Izzy Balinsky, ex-Singing Waiter’ and denounced ‘God Bless America’ for failing to express ‘the real American attitude.’ Instead, he sneered, ‘it smacks of the ‘How glad I am’ of the refugee horde.” [...] Someone even concocted a parody lyric that indicted all the Jews who purportedly controlled America’s popular entertainments [...] it culminated in ‘God lives in Hollywood - and prays - to - Mayer’” (Furia, p. 195).
Time Magazine (30.9.1940) reported a “wave of snide anti-Semitism directed at Composer Berlin” and in 1941 Carl Sandburg got very upset about the “racists” booing the song at rallies and he called “God Bless America” “one of our national songs worth community singing no matter what the race of the author” (Furia, p. 196).
But there was also criticism from the left, but only a certain part of the left. Woody Guthrie didn’t like this song, he wrote an answer - unpublished at that time -, the very first version of “This Land is Your Land”:
“Just after New Year’s day of 1940, he drove the Plymouth to Konawa [...] Worse than the weather, though, was the fact that ‘God Bless America,’ Irving Berlin’s patriotic pop tune, seemed to be everywhere that winter. [...] No piece of music had bothered him so much since ‘The World Is Not My Home’ [...] ‘God Bless America,’indeed - it was just another of those songs that told people not to worry , that God was in the driver’s seat. Some sort of response obviously was called for [on February 23, 1940] he finally took it out on Irving Berlin, finally writing down the words that he’s been turning over in his mind for several weeks” (Klein, p. 136, 140/1).
Biographer Ed Cray describes the background thus:
“Guthrie had written [the song] while hitchhiking in the wintry February of 1940. For weeks the sometime dust bowl refugee and ever restless Okie had listened to the jukeboxes and Kate Smith booming the saccharine ‘God Bless America’. Maybe the almighty had or would sometime in the future, but He had missed the America Guthrie knew, the sharecroppers, the boomers, the kids living in ditches alongside California’s rural roads. There was something too pat, too smug about Irving Berlin’s patriotic plea” (Cray, p. xxii).
Obviously both writers have projected their personal opinions onto the singer. Not at least Cray’s remark about “kids living in ditches” is of intolerable arrogance in the light of the fact that Berlin has donated all the royalties earned from his song to the kids, especially the poor. The original lyrics of Guthrie’s song were these (quoted from: Klein, p. 141):
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the redwood forests, to the Gulf Stream waters
God Blessed America for me
As I went walking that ribbon of highway
And saw above me the endless skyway
And saw below me that golden valley, I said
God Blessed America for me
I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me, a voice was sounding:
God Blessed America for me
Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property.
But on the back side, it didn’t say nothing -
God Blessed America for me
When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In the wheat fields waving, and dust clouds rolling
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
God Blessed America for me.
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office I saw my people-
As they stood there hungry,
I stood there wondering if
God Blessed America for me
Sadly stories like those by Klein and Cray - and they are parroted until today - suffer from a serious lack of research into the background of Berlin and his song. It shouldn’t have been that difficult to check the archives about the historical and political context of “God Bless America”. He is systematically misrepresented as as an uncritical, flag-waving super-patriot far away from the “real” America. Behind that is the myth of Woody Guthrie, the realistic, critical Folk-singer who knew the “real” America angrily opposing the complacent millionaire’s “earnest, cloying” (Cray, p. 165) escapism.
First and foremost Berlin personally had every right and reason to say “God Bless America”. It’s not possible to understand this song without being aware of the fact the Berlin himself came to America from pogrom-ridden Russia and that he had revised and published it in face of massive anti-Semitism in Germany in the 1930s. Berlin’s vision of America as a land “fair” and “free” was true in a very elementary way, not only for those Americans who were aware of how dangerous Hitler’s Germany was but especially for those who had escaped oppression and persecution in Europe and for whom America was the last resort.
As late as 1946 a group of “800 victims of Nazism” on their arrival in New York “presented [...] a letter of appreciation addressed [sic] to ‘the late President, Mr. Roosevelt, and his worth successor, Mr. Truman’ [that] ended with ‘May God Bless America’” (NY Times, 12.5.1946). In 1948 “God Bless America” was sung by another group of “survivors of Hitler camps” from Europe when they were welcomed in New York (NY Times, 30.10.1948).
It is very dangerous and misleading to project today’s ideas of what is left or right or how to define patriotism back to the late 1930s. Actually in these years Woody Guthrie was in his Stalinist period with Uncle Joe in the driver’s seat. It was the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact when “in one of the strangest consequences of political opportunism, the far left [...] and he far right [...] snuggled together under the covers of isolationism” (Giddins, p. 552). While Berlin was supporting European refugees, relief work for war victims in Europe and organizations who worked against religious and racial intolerance Guthrie had laid his anti-fascism to rest and was busy fighting President Roosevelt’s pro-British (Cray, p. 215) and anti-Hitler policy and celebrating Stalin for freeing the Polish peasants (Klein, p. 131f). He and his friends would only jump on the patriotic bandwagon after Hitler had attacked the Soviet Union in 1941 when he said to Pete Seeger: “Well, I guess we’re not going to singing any more of them peace songs” (quoted in Cray, p. 215; see also Lieberman, p. 50ff).
In fact Woody Guthrie’s perspective was very different from Berlin’s. Guthrie wrote “You can only write what you see” underneath the original lyrics of his song and at that time he only saw - as in “Why Do You Stand There In The Rain”, his anti-Roosevelt song (Klein, p. 142; Cray, p. 167) -“the warlords” in Europe playing “their same old game again”. Berlin had a much clearer grasp of what was happening there and its consequences for the USA at that time. For him America was the refuge of democracy and religious tolerance, a “land that’s fair” and “free” in contrast to the empires of the European dictators. This was the anti-totalitarian message of “God Bless America” and I presume Woody Guthrie simply didn’t agree.
Joe Klein (p. 434) calls “This Land Is Your Land” the “Marxist response” to Berlin’s song. That’s correct. But it was not the response to a simple “patriotic pop tune” but to a song symbolizing a democratic, multi-ethnic “united patriotism” as well as religious and ethnic tolerance. And if Woody Guthrie really heard “uncritical jingoism” (as claimed by Rosen 2000) it may have been more a result of his “neutralist” (Cohen, p. 142) anti-Roosevelt stance at that time. Anyone who had celebrated Stalin for swallowing the other half of Poland and defended his attack against Finland (see Klein, p. 134 ) was surely no trustworthy critic in this respect. Today Berlin and his song are occasionally accused of “jingoism” (see f. ex. Jackson, p. 23) but that’s in fact an absurd and tasteless survival of isolationist propaganda against Roosevelt and his fellow internationalists and implicitly denounces the President and contemporary anti-Nazis like Berlin as “jingoists”.
Another question remains: why is Berlin’s song of gratitude, his anti-totalitarian vision of America, singled out for being uncritical, “too smug, too pat” (Cray, p. xii)? “God Bless America” was surely not intended as a simple-minded glorification. Berlin himself as well as those who sang it in the late 30s and early 40s were definitely no self-congratulatory jingoists indulging in patriotic escapism, but - to state it again - those who did care, who wanted the Americans to withstand the totalitarian challenge, who wanted to make the Americans “safe for differences”, who fought for religious and ethnic tolerance and against anti-Semitism and racism.
By all accounts Berlin had a deep and unshakable trust in America but he was of course aware of its problems and its darker side, much in accord for example with Eleanor Roosevelt when she said - with Berlin present - that “ we do know our shortcomings” (NY Times, 25.1.1941). In 1948 he gave another song called “Help Me To Help” to the National Conference Of Christians And Jews, maybe a minor work but with a very clear and outspoken message:
Help me to help my neighbour
The night is dark
And the way is long
On a road that has no end;
Berlin didn’t write a protest song every other day - his concept of songwriting was completely different from Guthrie’s - but his work had a political and social dimension, something many of his contemporaries obviously were aware of and that is forgotten today. In 1944 for example he received another of his many awards, this time the “medal for the promotion of better understanding between Christian and Jew in America” from the American Hebrew Magazine for “ his ‘tremendous theatrical contributions to the morale of the nation’ and because his songs have been ‘an expression of better understanding for all races, creeds and religions for over a quarter of a century’” (NY Times, 1.1.1944).
This is of course only the first part of a much longer and very complex story that demonstrates how songs can change their meaning and context, how they can be misunderstood and misused and that it is very dangerous to write something approaching a patriotic song. One should never underestimate intellectual analphabetism and lack of historical knowledge.
Berlin was a master of pointed minimalism, he was able to catch a moment and to sketch a mood or situation with a couple of words. “God Bless America” was a song that “was written so it can be [...] understood by everyone” (Berlin quoted in Kimball/Emmet, p. 322). But this minimalism is sometimes difficult to grasp today and that might be one of the reasons that the song has to suffer misinterpretations. That’s for example the case with the reference to “God” that happened to have another important connotation at the time of writing.
I presume Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side” was also intended as some kind of response to “God Bless America” by mocking those who claimed to have “God on their Side”. But that was not the problem in 1938. German anti-Semitism - and totalitarianism in general - was regarded as an attack on religion and religious freedom, an opinion shared for example by the Roosevelts. The President’s special reference to the “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way - everywhere in the world”in his Four Freedoms speech (1941) grew out of this concern. In this context “God Bless America” was not an arrogant claim that God is on America’s side but it bespoke the fear that - with three totalitarian dictators in Europe and the last democracies there under massive pressure - Americans could soon be the only ones to be on God’s side and stand for religious freedom.
Berlin was obviously an “agnostic”, but his family seems to have been something like a Conference of Christians and Jews en miniature, as his wife was catholic and his children grew up as Protestants. I presume he saw working for religious tolerance not at least as a remedy against anti-Semitism. In 1962 he was honored on the 25th anniversary of the Interfaith Movement with the Brotherhood Award among other recipients ranging from ex-President Eisenhower and Cardinal Cushing to labor leader David Dubinsky and singer Marian Anderson (NY Times, 22.9.1962). His merits in the fight for religious tolerance were obviously regarded as notable.
Woody Guthrie didn’t use his “critical answer” for some years and it was first recorded in a revised version in 1944. Later it grew - via American kindergartens (see Lunden, 2000) - to be one of most popular “patriotic” songs. And the idea that Guthrie wrote his song as a response to Berlin’s song - as if it was some heroic deed - has become something like a cliche belonging to “This Land Is Your Land” as if to excuse the song’s patriotic, celebratory sentiments.
The progressive, anti-totalitarian stance and the original context and background of “God Bless America” are sadly completely forgotten today. Berlin’s achievements have largely been written out of history. “God Bless America” was a very political and very personal song and it’s more than absurd that Berlin - who was the politically most active and most courageous popular songwriter during these years - is often enough denounced for having been on the right side as if to excuse those who by all accounts were somehow off the mark at that time.
When I started working on this article a while ago my initial aim was only to put together the story of "This Land Is Your Land" and this song's relationship to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America". Much to my surprise I ended up writing the story of Berlin’s song. Reading newspaper articles from that era and correlating them with his ethnic background and the political situation of that years offered a perspective on “God Bless America” and the songwriter himself that is very different from what I can read in most of the literature available today. It strikes me as very odd that the points raised here aren't discussed. All these sources are freely available.
To understand the song and its tremendous impact on the people it is really necessary to take into account the historical context, first and foremost the ethnic aspect - that seems to be lost today - with all its implications, the debates between internationalists and isolationists in the late 30s and early 40s, the struggle for religious and ethnic tolerance - at a time when demagogues like Charles Coughlin were still on the airwaves -, the songwriter's political affiliations and the "state of world affairs" (Berlin quoted in NYT 11.7.1940) at that time. Today's critics often enough indulge in a kind of retroactive historiography and fall into the trap of applying the old isolationist viewpoint. Berlin's point of reference wasn't Oklahoma or the economic situation at home, it was clearly the political situation in Europe. The song is - and this is even outlined in the introductory verse - as much about European dictatorships (especially Nazi Germany) as about America.
To state it again: Berlin’s idea of America as a "land that's free" was true in a very elementary way, especially for those who had to flee from Europe - both in the 19th century and then again in the 1930s - and for whom America - in spite of all problems they encountered in their new homeland - was in fact the last resort. It is surprising for me that this background is not seen by today's critics of Berlin and his song. As a postscript to the main text I have singled out some important aspects and try to discuss them more systematically.
First there is the question if Berlin really was a "conservative". This is for example claimed by Bergreen (see for ex. p. 383) in his influential biography. But he is wrong, he simply didn't dig deep enough and he didn't check enough contemporary sources and more or less transferred his image of the old Berlin back to the 30s and 40s. It is important to correct this legend to understand the political background. Irving Berlin was a Democrat until at least the late 40s or early 50s (in ‘52 and ‘56 he campaigned for Eisenhower but in 1960 he returned to the Democrats to vote for Kennedy) . During WWI he was for Wilson and in the 20s he supported Al Smith (NYT 21.9.1928). In the 30s and 40s - I don't know exactly about '32 but it's definitely true for '36, '40 and '44 - Berlin campaigned and voted for Roosevelt.
He also supported New York governor Herbert Lehman (NYT 3.11.1932; 26.11.1938), one of the great progressive Liberals of that era and New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia (NYT, 30.3.1941), the latter a militant anti-Fascist and a very independent and very progressive Republican running on a fusion ticket. Both Lehman and La Guardia were civil rights advocates, social reformers, internationalists and very dedicated New Dealers and Roosevelt supporters. In the political landscape of that time Berlin was clearly a New Deal Democrat, not a "conservative". In fact the “reactionaries” as well as many conservatives of this era were those who deeply resented the immigrants from non-Anglo-Saxon countries and tried to keep them out of the USA.
Generally the Berlin of the 20s, 30s and 40s doesn't look much like a "conservative". In the 20s he was associated with the Algonquin Round Table, surely no circle of reactionaries. Among his friends were progressive journalists Herbert Bayard Swope and Heywood Broun, both charted members of the ART. In fact in 1930 he had even - together with people like Swope, Walter White and two of the Marx Brothers - supported Broun as a socialist candidate for congress (NYT, 19.8.1930). A simple list of some of his activities in the 30s and 40s doesn't give the impression that he was - as is insinuated often enough - an uncritical and complacent millionaire. In fact he seems to have been somehow ahead of his time.
Not at least he was honored - I quote it here again - "because his songs have been ‘an expression of better understanding for all races, creeds and religions for over a quarter of a century’” or for his “contributions [...] in the theater world that have advanced the aim of the conference [i.e. the "National Conference Of Jews And Christians"] to eliminate religious and racial frictions”. It seems like he was not only celebrating his adopted country but also really doing something to make it better, but without writing a protest song every other day. I tend to think that the issues most important to him were the integration of immigrants into a tolerant multi-ethnic society as well as the fight against anti-Semitism and racism and for religious tolerance. These ideas can be traced back to his early songwriting days - here I refer for example to Charles Hamm describing some of Berlin's songs about African-American musicians - and to the 20s when he supported catholic presidential candidate Al Smith.
Another look at the lyrics of "God Bless America" and the historical context of the year 1938 may help to understand more thoroughly the song's background and possible intentions. The introductory line
refers of course to the political situation in Europe: three totalitarian dictators, threats of war, the Munich conference, "democracies kowtowing to dictators" (Berlin in 1940), Britain and France under pressure, Antisemitism and pogroms in Germany. This kind of metaphors were obviously not that unusual at that time. President Roosevelt two months later in his Annual Message to Congress on January 4th 1939 spoke about "storm signals from across the seas" and "storms from abroad".
The line "Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free" is surely a reference to the Pledge Of Allegiance:
"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all."
Here Berlin defines very explicitly the difference between European despotism and anti-Semitism - both in 19th century Russia where he and his family had been denied liberty and justice and in Nazi Germany where his people were persecuted and denied citizenship - and the multi-ethnic American democracy with its promise of liberty and justice for all. In this context "fair" and "free" is surely no uncritical glorification of America but first and foremost the contrast to Europe. This idea can also be found in "Russian Lullaby" (1927), a sad and poignant song about those left behind - written after immigration from Eastern Europe to the USA was stopped by the National Origins Act (1924):
It is important to see that this was an elementary experience for both Berlin himself and fellow immigrants from Russia and as well as for the many European refugees of the 30s who had saved their lives by coming to the USA. To state it again: it’s not possible to understand this song without being aware of the fact the Berlin himself came to America from pogrom-ridden Russia and that he had revised and published it in face of massive-Antisemitism in Germany in the 1930s.
The “land that’s free” - in both songs - is of course also a reference to Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” (1883), the famous poem inscribed since 1903 on a plaque at the foot of the Statue Of Liberty. “God Bless America” won its authenticity through the fact that the songwriter himself had been one of those “tired” and “poor”:
[...] Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
In 1938 there was another reason to be "grateful for a land so fair" and to show "gratitude for what this country has done for its citizens" (Berlin in 1940). It should be taken into account that the USA had a progressive government at that time. That's why it is important to know that Berlin was no dark reactionary but an ardent New Dealer and an admirer and supporter of President Roosevelt "who had closed the banks, created jobs, given people hope, prevented a revolution, FDR the savior, upholder of the American way [...] they [Berlin and his wife] liked his being 'a traitor to his class', the independence of it" (Barrett, p. 153). Not at least the song perfectly well reflects Roosevelt's anti-totalitarian "united patriotism" at a time when patriotism was a "hotly contested issue" (Giddins):
"In meeting the troubles of the world we must meet them as one people—with a unity born of the fact that for generations those who have come to our shores, representing many kindreds and tongues, have been welded by common opportunity into a united patriotism" (Roosevelt, 1939)
On a personal level this song represents the immigrant saying “thank you” to his adopted country. I really don't know what's the problem. Berlin had every right and reason to do so and it should be noted that he only says “land that I love, my home, sweet home”. Many people at that time could identify with these words. But in this respect "God Bless America" of course had a great political potential: if it was just a harmless patriotic ditty there wouldn't have been so much mean-spirited criticism. Is "God Bless America" uncritical? That's simply not the point. It's rather absurd both in the historical and the biographical context to denounce Berlin as some uncritical flag waver. At this time the people surely didn’t need a songwriter to tell them what was wrong in their country. They needed a positive vision and that’s what Berlin gave them.
One little piece of the puzzle that may help to understand the song is a story of Eleanor Roosevelt visiting striking workers:
"[...] Mrs. Roosevelt, who joined in the singing of 'God Bless America' at the opening of the rally, said she recognized that the hardships encountered by the strikers in their quest for better conditions must make them feel at times that 'many things are not as they should be in this country'
'I am afraid that I agree with you,' she commented. 'I know many parts of the country and there are many conditions that I would like to see changed, and I hope eventually that they will be changed, but in spite of that I hope that we all feel that the mere fact that we can meet together and talk about organization for the worker and democracy in this country is in itself something for which we can be extremely thankful.
'There are many countries in which there can no longer be any participation or decision on the part of people as to what they will or will not do, and so in spite of everything we can still sing 'God Bless America' and really believe we are moving forward slowly, sometimes haltingly but always in the interest of the people in the whole country'
H.H. Broach, general organizer for Local 3, said in introducing Mrs. Roosevelt that it was well that 'after twenty-four weeks of bitter hardship and in many cases extreme privation we are still able to sing 'God Bless America' with meaning and feeling'". (NYT 6.2.1941)
"God Bless America" indeed "provided a sense of reassurance and communal uplift" - here Rosen is perfectly right - and it offered hope for the future. I think some of Berlin's wartime songs became so popular because they spoke of hope. That was also the case with "White Christmas" and with "It's A Lovely Day Tomorrow", a song that may look like an escapist ditty but had a much different effect as here described by Robert Kimball:
"In May 1940, as Hitler's army smashed through Holland and Belgium and drove the British and Frnch forces back to the coastal ports of Nieuwport and Dunkerque, the great Gallic musical star Irene Bordoni, for many Americans the embodiment of France, stood on the stage of New York's Imperial Theatre. Her voice breaking, her eyed filled with tears, night after night Bordoni sang Berlin's poignat song of hope 'It's A Lovely Day Tomorrow' while friends and family - their fate uncertain - were trapped behind enemy lines" (Kimball/Emmet, p. 339)
Of course it's always difficult to discuss a song's meanings, the writer's intentions and its effect on the people. It's very helpful to check the performance context: who sang this song, when was it sung, at which occasions was it performed, who criticized and denounced the song, who didn't sing it. Surprisingly this has never been done systematically for "God Bless America" although it is in fact very enlightening. There are enough primary sources available and it's really important see them in the historical, political and biographical context to shed light on the songwriter's perspective.
The very first performance by Kate Smith on her Armistice Day broadcast on November 11th 1938 should of course be discussed with the political situation in Europe and the USA in mind. Berlin later said that she had wanted a song to "wake up" America. Why wake up? Surely because a lot of Americans were still suffering from isolationist apathy and lack of interest for Europe, something that very obviously was troubling to him. Kate Smith was very popular among the radio listeners in the midwest, the heartland of isolationist America. And - as mentioned in the main text - this performance happened to be immediately after Kristallnacht in Germany. Those pogroms shocked the American public and it is well worth asking if it had something to do with the song's immediate popularity.
Two and a half week later "God Bless America" was performed at a meeting of the National Conference of Jews And Christians, an organization working against religious intolerance and anti-Semitism, both homegrown and imported:
"Catholic, Jewish and Protestant leaders of church, State, education, business and labor joined last night at a dinner of the National Conference of Jews and Christians to plead for a true brotherhood of man in the United States and a repudiation of the doctrines of race and hate they saw practised in the totalitarian States of Europe. [Chairman] Dr. Compton [...] declared that it was the duty of organizations such as the conference to 'make America safe for differences.'
' It is those in the room tonight,' he said, 'representative leaders in shaping attitudes, on whom a large share of the responsibility lies for creating the spirit of good-will throughout our nation. With wars and threats of wars about us, with hate unifying and antagonizing powerful neighboring States, it is literally a matter of life and death that we make this spirit grow to fruition in a unified and cooperative citizenship" (NYT 29.11.1938)
The song seems to have been adopted very quickly all around the USA and it was also accepted and sung among the democratic left and in the labor unions (see f.ex. NYT 19.7.1940). But it is very interesting to see where Berlin himself was performing "God Bless America". He usually could be found at rallies and other occasions where he took a very pronounced stand - for Roosevelt, for support for Britain, against totalitarian dictators (especially Hitler), against isolationism - to get the Americans standing together against totalitarianism. Berlin knew exactly which side he was on and in the context of the political struggles of that years the song became something of a symbol for his side, an internationalist and later interventionist anthem.
The original audiences of the song and those who sang it were not the "conservatives" and "reactionaries" but mostly liberal anti-Nazis, Roosevelt supporters and internationalists. Berlin and his song stood for anti-totalitarianism as well as ethnic and religious tolerance. In turn "God Bless America" was heavily criticized and opposed by the political right, parts of the "conservative establishment" (see Furia) and by anti-Semites (as reported by Time Magazine) and "racists" (as reported by Carl Sandburg).
After the war "God Bless America" took a life on its own and it would be worth studying how the song changed context and meaning. But it is interesting to see that during the 50s there were a lot of performances in widely differing contexts that seem to be true to the song's original spirit and sentiments and where those who sang it obviously grasped what Berlin originally had wanted to express. For example in 1945 it was "the most popular song" on a rally against the military government in Argentina (NYT 20.9.1945); in 1947 a group of boy scouts "with the negro boy scout in the center of their first rank" sang it after they had "deposited a container of earth from the base of the Statue of Liberty at the tomb of the French unknown soldier" (NYT 20.8.1947). In 1955 it closed a concert - including works by Bloch, Weill, Copland and Gershwin - organized by Salt Lake City's Jewish Community "to mark the 300th anniversary of Jewish settlement in the United States as well as the first migration of Jews to Utah a century ago" (NYT 18.3.1955). In 1956 "a massed chorus of twenty-six ethnic groups sang 'God Bless America'" at a tree planting ceremony at the foot of the Statue of Liberty (NYT 29.6.1956).
I have seen that "God Bless America" has been called - in different variations - a "jingoistic" song. Jingoism can be defined as "extreme patriotism in the form of aggressive foreign policy" (Oxford English Dictionary). I am afraid, but I think the lyrics offer no evidence for this charge. Not at least it seems to be an extremely unhistorical view. A Jewish American songwriter in 1938 was in no position to indulge in "jingoism"´.
Again a look at the international political situation in that year is necessary and enlightening: three totalitarian dictators, democracies under pressure, threats of war, Antisemitism and pogroms in Europe. In fact the foreign policy of Germany, Italy and Russia can easily be described as jingoistic and nationalistic. In this context charges of "jingoism" against Berlin and his song seem to me patently absurd and tasteless to the extreme. Actually Berlin was a very dedicated and very active anti-Nazi at a time when it was not that easy for Jewish Americans to do so. I refer again to Douglas Fairbanks' remark that the “American Jews [...] would, of course, risk being attacked as warmongers [...] if they supported anti-Nazi movements”. And Charles Lindbergh's infamous speech in Des Moines 1941 should be know well enough to see that context.
Berlin was a member and supporter of organizations working against anti-Semitism and religious intolerance, he was busy singing "God Bless America" at anti-Nazi and anti-isolationist rallies and similar occasions, he was a staunch supporter of Roosevelt's pro-British and anti-German policy. On May 27th 1941 he could even be found in the audience (see NYT 28.5.1941) in the White House when the President announced over the radio Unlimited National Emergency, a speech partly written by his friend Robert Sherwood. Songs like "Arms For The Love Of England", "Any Bonds Today", "When That Man Was Dead And Gone" and "A Little Old Church In England" were not so much patriotic songs but political statements because they were written and published months before America's entry into the war. I really have to wonder if this charges of "jingoism" are in fact an uncritical revival and survival of isolationist propaganda against Roosevelt and fellow internationalists.
Most of the interpretations about the relationship between “God Bless America” and “This Land Is Your Land” are much too simplistic. They usually paint an image of Berlin as some uncritical flag waving patriot (or even jingoist) and as a lightweight Pop writer. That's simply wrong and misleading . He was a professional who knew what he was doing and he had an unsurpassed emphaty for the people. Not at least he was the most politically active popular songwriter of that era.
There is not only the difference between the “rich” Berlin and the “poor” Guthrie (but it should be remembered that Berlin had started out as poor immigrant and that he had been an outsider too). It seems to me not that convincing to claim that Berlin was “uncritical” because he was rich (that is obviously the basic idea of most interpretations) or because he was an immigrant and Guthrie was critical because he represented the poor or because he was born in the USA. There is also the different songwriting technique, the different ethnic and social background, there is a much more complex political context. It is in fact dangerous to project todays ideas of what is "left" and "right" or what is "progressive" and "conservative" back into the late 30s. Berlin was a Roosevelt Democrat and a dedicated internationalist (and later interventionist). His patriotism was a very political patriotism. Woody Guthrie was from 1939 until June 1941 (this was the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact) an equally dedicated isolationist and an outspoken critic of Roosevelt's pro-British and anti-German policy. It's startling that this is never taken into account.
In this context it is helpful to quote one chapter from Mary Ellin Barrett’s “A Daughter’s Memoir” to get another glimpse of Berlin’s perspective:
“For my parents, though, the war in Europe remained frighteningly close [...] they genuinely believed, in the summer and fall of 1940 and well into the next year, that the Germans would win [...] Eventually, so they went their worst imaginings, he would conquer England, then Canada, ten ‘make an arrangement’ with the United States that would amount to conquest. And if that happened, how would they protect their half-Jewish children? Flee to South America?
Politics became the stuff of their lives. As there were Democrats and Republicans, so now there were ‘interventionists’ and ‘isolationists. Early joiners of William Allen White’s Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, supporters of all of Roosevelt’s pro-British moves, my parents campaigned for the president even more vigorously in 1940 than they had in 1936” (Barrett, p. 186)
At the very same time Guthrie and his fellow Folk Singers were actually - on order from that man in Moscow who was allied to Germany - demonstrating and singing against Roosevelt’s anti-Nazi policy.
Even more startling and annoying is a surprising enmity and a deplorable lack of fairness against Berlin in certain parts of the literature. This would be worth further investigation. He is surely someone who earns much more respect for what he has achieved. It seems to me that Berlin was - especially in the late 30s and early 40s - something like the real authentic voice of America, more than any self-appointed “Folk Singer”.
- Alan Anderson, The Songwriter Goes To War. The Story Of Irving Berlin’s World War II All-Army Production Of This Is The Army, Pompton Plains, NJ 2004
- Mary Ellin Barrett, Irving Berlin. A Daughter’s Memoir, New York 1994
- Laurence Bergreen, As Thousands Cheer, The Life Of Irving Berlin, New York 1996 (1990) [It is not a good idea to rely solely on Bergreen's biography, it should be used with considerable caution. For example: based on a short note in the NY Times (6.9.1940) about Berlin having to pay some back taxes he freely extemporizes without referring to any other sources that "he held the Democrats responsible for raising taxes", that he "resented the outcome of the case that he gave vent to his feelings in an unusual lament, 'I Paid My Income Tax Today,' in which he bewailed his having to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar's", that he "wouldn't have been at all disappointed if Roosevelt's opponent, Wendell Willkie, won the election" and insinuates "right-wing tendencies" as well as "political controversies at home" (p. 382/3). In fact the song "I Paid My Income Tax Today" was only published in January 1942 and it had actually been commissioned by the Treasury Department and Secretary Morgenthau (see Kimball/Emmet, p. 373; NYT 26.1.1942), so it surely was no anti-tax protest song. And I have some serious doubts if he really "wouldn't [...] have been disappointed" about Willkie winning the election as he in fact didn't favor the Republican cause (as is claimed on p. 380). He was supporting Roosevelt (NYT 22.10.40, 5.11.40a+b, 20.1.41). But all the cliches are there: a rich man doesn't want to pay taxes, he has "right-wing tendencies", he prefers a Republican candidate and without any factual evidence a Roosevelt Democrat is turned into a "conservative" and "Republican". This legend regularly rears its head in later writings about Berlin although it has been corrected as early as 1994 by Mrs. Barrett (p. 111, 152, 186) who clearly states that Berlin and his wife regarded Roosevelt as "their" President and campaigned for him in 1936, 1940 and 1944. Also he claims that “’God Bless America’ had long been resented by the Left, who found these lyrics jingoistic and presumptuous” (p. 381) but he does not cite a single source. In fact Berlin himself was as a Roosevelt supporter part of the left side of the political landscape!]
- John Bloom, New York Diary: God Bless America (November 2, 2001[not available anymore])
- Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good. The Folk Revival, Cambridge & London 1996
- Steven Carr, Hollywood & Anti-Semitism. A Cultural History Up To World War II, Cambridge & New York 2001
- Ronald Cohen, Woody The Red?, in: Robert Santelli & Emily Davidson (ed.), Hard Travelin’. The Life And legacy Of Woody Guthrie, Hanover & London 199, p. 138-152
- Richard Corliss, That Old Christmas Feeling: Irving America ,Time 24.12.2001
- Ed Cray, Ramblin’ Man. The Life And Times Of Woody Guthrie, New York & London 2004.
- Richard M. Fried, The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! Pageantry and Patriotism in Cold-War America, Oxford & New York 1998 (p. 14ff; about the I am An American Day)
- Benjamin Filene, Romancing The Folk. Public Memory & American Roots Music, Chapel Hill & London 2000
- Michael Freedland, Irving Berlin, New York 1978 (1974)
- Philip Furia, Irving Berlin. A Life In Song, New York 1998 [the best book about Berlin available today, see also the chapter about Berlin in his Poets Of Tin Pan Alley. A History Of America’s great Lyricists, New York 1990]
- Philip Furia & Michael Lasser, America’s Songs. The Stories Behind The Songs Of Broadway, Hollywood And Tin Pan Alley, New York 2006.
- Gary Giddins, Bing Crosby. A Pocketful Of Dreams. The Early Years 1903 - 1940, Boston, New York & London 2001 [the quotes from p. 552/3 refer to Bing Crosby’s recording of “God Bless America” but they are of course equally valid for Berlin as the writer of the song]
- Charles Hamm, Irving Berlin: Songs from the Melting Pot The Formative Years, 1907-1914, Oxford & New York 1997
- Edward Jablonski, Irving Berlin. American Troubadour, New York 1999 [an excellent biography]
- Mark Allan Jackson, Prophet Singer: The Voice And Vision Of Woody Guthrie, Jackson 2007
- Philipp Jenkins, Hoods and Shirts: The Extreme Right in Pennsylvania, 1925-1950, Chapel Hill & London 1997
- David Kennedy, Freedom From Fear. The American People In Depression And War, 1929 - 1945, Oxford & New York 1999
- Robert Kimball & Linda Emmet (ed.), The Complete Lyrics Of Irving Berlin, New York 2000
- Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life, London 1999 (1980)
- David Leopold, Irving Berlin’s Show Business. Broadway - Hollywood - America, New York [n.d.]
- Robbie Lieberman, “My Song Is My Weapon”. People’s Songs, American Communism, And The Politics Of Culture, 1930-50, Urbana & Chicago 1995 (1989)
- Jeff Lunden, ‘God Bless America’ npr.org (29.9.2001) [interesting but a little biased, another attempt to turn it into a conflict between the rich, uncritical immigrant Berlin and the poor critical American Guthrie. There is no discussion of the political background nor of the differing songwriting concepts. Nora Guthrie claims that “because her father was born in America, in Oklahoma, he developed a more critical view of the country than an immigrant like Irving Berlin: ‘He [i.e. Guthrie] was born to question and critique; to look at and explore the whole concept of citizenship whereas the immigrant generation is so grateful to be here, to make it better and to celebrate their lifes here. It’s just a different perspective [...]’”. Berlin surely had a more positive view of the USA, but first and foremost because he knew much better about the difference s between American democracy and European dictators ].
- James MacGregor Burns/Susan Dunn, The Three Roosevelts. Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America, New York 2001.
- Jody Rosen, Two American Anthems, In Two American Voices, NYT July 2, 2000
- Jody Rosen, White Christmas. The Story Of An American Song, New York 2002 [Both the NYT article and the book are outstanding and inspiring. But Rosen doesn’t try to find a more thorough definition of Berlin’s patriotism, stops halfway in describing the political and historical background and especially misses Berlin’s political and social commitment and his involvement with organizations fighting religious and ethnic intolerance. Berlin was not only a “fund-raising machine” but among the politically most active popular songwriter of that years. Not at least Rosen forgets to sketch Woody Guthrie’s political background more clearly].
- Ethel Waters, His Eye Is On The Sparrow: An Autobiography, New York 1992
- David Wondrich, Stomp And Swerve. American Music Gets Hot 1834 - 1924, Chicago 2003.
- John Zeller, A Visit From Irving Berlin [ Bucknell University; 1941: Irving Berlin visits a college in Pennsylvania; here he and his song represent religious and ethnic tolerance; unfortunately this article isn’t available anymore]]
Articles from the New York Times:
- 21.09.1928: Stage Stars In Fete For Smith On Radio
- 19.08.1930: Broadway Celebreties Aid Broun Campaign
- 03.11.1932: Wagner Denounces Hoover As Dilatory [Mrs. Berlin as a supporter of Herbert Lehman]
- 31.10.1933: Hitlerism Likened To Lynch Law Here - Mob Actions Weaken Protests Against Anti-Semitism, Interfaith Seminar Agrees
- 18.08.1938: Hollywood Group Protests [members of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League - James Cagney, Irving Berlin, Frederic March et al. - attack the Dies committee]
- 20.11.1938: Mss. Will Be Auctioned - Einstein And Mann Works To Be Sold To Aid Refugees
- 26.11.1938: Received $ 73000 For Lehman Fight [Berlin supports Herbert Lehman]
- 29.11.1938: Tolerance Pleas Led By Dr. Compton [”A hymn, ‘God Bless America,’the words and music of which had been written by Irving Berlin especially for the conference, was first sung by Miss Dorothea Flexer and then by the diners. Mr. Berlin was present to take a bow”]
- 24.05.1939: Viennese To Open In Refugee Revue
- 28.05.1939: 2 Stage Stars Get Tolerance Badge
- 18.06.1939: And Now From Vienna
- 25.02.1940: Ball Is Planned For Allied Fund
04.05.1940: Sets ‘I’m An American Day’ - Roosevelt Urges Honor For New Citizens On May 19th
- 16.05.1940: Lehman Proclaims Day For Citizenship
- 08.07.1940: ‘Pseudo-Americans’ Viewed As A Menace - Philadelphia Judge Warns Of Red Sympathizers... [here the “pseudo-Americans [...] noisily singing ‘God Bless America’” are identified as “red sympathizers”]
- 11.07.1940: Irving Berlin Song To Aid Our Youth
- 14.07.1940: Democrats Will Use Tune Willkie Forces Will Sing
- 17.07.1940: Chicago Stadium Is Crowded for Fateful Announcement Of President’s Plans [People singing “God Bless America” at the democratic convention in Chicago; “Each performance of this song is greeted by a standing audience”]
- 28.07.1940: What Makes A Song: A Talk With Irving Berlin
- 06.09.1940: Irving Berlin Loses Tax Appeal
- 19.09.1940: New Jersey Labor Backs Roosevelt [“The delegates [...] adopted the resolution by acclamation to the tune of ‘God Bless America’ The singing was started by the delegates from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and others joined in”]
- 22.10.1940: Roosevelt Will Give Three Talks At Start Of His Tour Tomorrow [Berlin at a Roosevelt rally]
- 24.10.1940: M’Leish Urges Mobilization Here To Create ‘Democracy In Action’
- 24.11.1940: WEVD To Salute America
- 05.11.1940a:In The Nation - The Fine And Very Liberal Arts Go Political
- 05.11.1940b:Roosevelt Forces In Victory Rally
- 06.01.1941: Hits Fear In Book By Mrs. Lindbergh - Mrs. Berlin, the Former Ellin Mackay, Links Volume to German Propaganda
- 20.01.1941: President States Faith In Democracy - Roosevelt Tells Presidential Electors No Dictator Would Dare Risk Free Ballot [Berlin conducts the Navy Band performing “God Bless America”]
- 20.01.1941: 4000 Attend Gala On Inaugural Eve
- 22.01.1941: Scout Rally Opens Drive For $430,000
- 25.01.1941: 1000 Pay Homage To Mrs. Roosevelt
- 02.02.1941: Two New Berlin Songs Are Heard on Radio... [“When That Man Is Dead And Gone” & “Little Old Church In England”]
- 06.02.1941: 3 Leaders Honored At Y.M.H.A. Dinner - Irving Berlin, Colonel Adler and H.A. Badt Win Awards [Y.M.H.A = Young Men’s Hebrew Association]
- 06.02.1941b:First Lady Backs Leviton Strikers
- 22.02.1941: War Relief Show Attended By 6,200
- 09.03.1941: Berlin To Be Honored By Girl Scout Council
- 30.03.1941: ‘Draft La Guardia’ Gaining Headway [Berlin supporting Mayor La Guardia]
- 18.05.1941: Mayor Calls City To Big Rally Today - Asks Huge Turnout at Central Park to Show That ‘America Is Awake and Prepared’
- 19.05.1941: Vast Throng Jams The Mall To Cheer American Day Fete - City’s Greatest Patriotic Rally Draws Estimated 750,000 to Reaffirm Loyalty to U.S. - Ickes Pleads For Britain - Mayor Tells ‘Adolf, Benito and Joe’ That We Are Not Afraid To Defend Institutions
- 24.05.1941: Lindbergh Joins In Wheeler Plea To U.S. To Shun War [Madison Square Garden Peace Rally]
- 25.05.1941: Aid Allies Groups Show Today
- 28.05.1941: Cameras Dominate Scene Of Adress [Berlin in the White House During Roosevelt’s radio adress]
- 29.05.1941: La Guardia Warns Of Aid To Enemy By Lack Of Unity [Berlin at anti-isolationist rally in Philadelphia]
- 26.01.1942: Berlin Writes Song For Treasury, ‘I Paid My Income Tax Today’; He Volunteers a New Number to Help Drive for Record Spring Collections -- Copyright Is Turned Over to Morgenthau
- 26.12.1942: Says Jews On Soil Are Aid To British [Berlin sings “God Bless America” at the Land Of Freedom conference of the Jewish National Fund]
- 01.01.1944: Medal To Irving Berlin - Hebrew Magazine Makes Award For Racial Morale Achievement
- 16.08.1944: Gifts To Scout Units Honor Gen. Roosevelt
- 20.08.1944: This Is The Army Irving Berlin Saw
- 06.11.1944: Peril In Hatred Noted - 500 Girl Scouts Hear Warning on Prejudice Against Minorities
- 20.09.1945: 250000 Argentines Rally For Liberty [“Favorite Song Is ‘God Bless America’]
- 30.01.1946: Dutch Girls Aided Anti-Nazi Groups
- 12.05.1946: 800 Nazi Victims Sail For Shelter In U. S.
- 24.11.1946: Mixed Audiences - Situation In Washington Compared With Experience In Washington Theatres
- 13.12.1946: 3 Of Theatre Get Anti-Bias Awards - Berlin, Skouras And Sherwood Honored by Conference of Christian and Jews
- 04.02.1947: Berlin Song Adopted - Group of Christians and Jews Gets ‘Help Me to Help’
- 20.08.1947: Boy Scouts Of This Area Visit Arc de Triomphe
- 29.07.1948: New Group Formed To Aid Civil Rights
- 30.10.1948: Big City Welcome Awaits DP’s Today
- 02.12.1949: Berlin Adds To Fund - Assigns Royalties on ‘Miss Liberty’ to Welfare Plan
- 11.10.1950: 450,000 Sought For Girl Scouts
- 18.03.1955: Concert To Mark Migration To U.S.
- 23.04.1955: Scouts Receive 410,000
- 29.06.1956: New Tree Grows At Liberty’s Foot. People From 37 Nations and Races Dedicate It to Unity on Bedloes Island
- 22.09.1962: Interfaith Rites To Hail 25 Years - Protestants, Catholics And Jews to Be Honored Here
- 14.10.2001: Irving Berlin Gave The Scouts A Gift Of A Song
[This text was first published on my former website www.morerootsfbob.com in 2007/08]
© Jürgen Kloss