God Bless America and its patriotsPublished 8:34pm Saturday, September 10, 2011
A recent email reminded me of the wonderful story behind the spiritually patriotic song “God Bless America.” It was the right song at the right time for our country and became the signature song of Kate Smith. God Bless America became a rallying mantra that sustained our nation through the dark, difficult and painful days of World War II.
It was in the late 1930s and Europe was again becoming embroiled in war. We were still in the painful grip of the economic depression of the early 1930s and apprehensive about events unfolding in Europe. There was a sense of despair gripping the nation much like now.
This was before the age of television and folks would sit around battery operated radios listening to news and entertainment. My folks would restrict our usage to an hour or so after the news for fear of running the battery down. Radio batteries weren’t on the necessity list back then and you could wait a month or more for another one.
Kate Smith was quite possibly the most popular singer of that era with a huge radio audience to match her size. She was pleasantly plump with a voice from Heaven. Some would say the politically incorrect phrase, “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” was coined with her in mind, but actually its origins was from the Opera.
The story goes Kate approached American song-writer Irving Berlin for a patriotic song to help lift the spirits of her countrymen. Berlin was a first generation European immigrant of Jewish decent with immense musical talent. He obliged her by dusting off one he had penned in 1918 while serving in the Army at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York. He had written it for a revue called Yip Yip Yaphank, but decided it didn’t fit that particular venue and filed it away. Twenty two years later, he found the right situation and person to sing it.
Ever how the details unfolded, we know a collaboration developed between Berlin and Smith on the song “God Bless America.” Admirably, they agreed to donate all royalties from the song to the Boy Scouts of America. It was introduced to the public on Armistice Day 1938 by Kate Smith on her radio show. Ms. Smith predicted it would be successful and around long after she was gone Two great American patriots who were right for the times. My, how we could use another “God Bless America” for our present day quandary.