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NPR Arts & Life

From Peace To Patriotism: The Shifting Identity Of 'God Bless America'

American composer Irving Berlin sings his song "God Bless America" in front of Boy Scouts troop members and spectators gathered at a tent in Monticello, New York in 1940. Instead of collecting royalties from "God Bless America," Berlin created a fund that collected and distributed them to the Boy and Girl Scouts.
American composer Irving Berlin sings his song "God Bless America" in front of Boy Scouts troop members and spectators gathered at a tent in Monticello, New York in 1940. Instead of collecting royalties from "God Bless America," Berlin created a fund that collected and distributed them to the Boy and Girl Scouts.

In the fall of 1938, radio was huge. That Halloween, Orson Welles scared listeners out of their wits with his War of the Worlds. And on November 10, 1938 — the eve of the holiday that was known then as Armistice Day — the popular singer Kate Smith made history on her radio show. She sang a song that had never been sung before, written by the composer Irving Berlin.

The song began with a verse about storm clouds gathering overseas — World War II was just a year off — and it summoned Americans to sing a song to their free country. Then came words and music that Americans have sung ever since. Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" has not only endured, it has become a statement of patriotism, of home front support for troops at war, and, in the Vietnam era, an anthem of counter-protest. And while it has brought a lump to the throat of many an American, it has also annoyed many who hear it as a tune of syrupy nationalism and trivialized faith.

One mark of its unusual status: Irving Berlin took no royalties from it. Instead, he created a fund that collected them and distributed them to the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts of America.

Sheryl Kaskowitz has written a book on Berlin's tune called God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song.In it, she explores the song's lyrical evolution and explains how its early popularity reflected the anxiety of the pre-war period and sparked a surprising anti-Semitic and xenophobic backlash. She speaks about it here with All Things Consideredhost Robert Siegel.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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