The director of our congregation’s a capella choir , whose health has not been particularly good as of late, asked me to introduce the last song our choir as a whole will sing for this year, and possibly ever, and so as is my custom I would like to take this opportunity to write out my thoughts in advance (even if they will be posted later) so that I can gather my thoughts without the need for notes when I speak, and so that these thoughts may be recorded for the sake of posterity. The piece I will be introducing is “God Bless America,” written by the Russian Jewish immigrant best known as Irving Berlin which became a signature song for Kate Smith during and after World War II.
According to the book Songs Sung Red, White, And Blue, Irving Berlin wrote the original version of “God Bless America” while serving as a recruit during World War I. Seeing that the song did not fit in with the revue he was working on for life in camp, he did as writers sometimes do and set the song aside for a more opportune moment. Having immigrated during to the United States with his family from Czarist Russia at the age of five, Irving Berlin had a strong anxiety about secret police and brutal authoritarian regimes, and these anxieties were heightened by the rise of Hitler and German National Socialism starting in 1933, when he obtained the copyright for the song at last. In 1938, five years after that and only a year before World War II broke out in Europe, he was asked to provide a song for the noted singer Kate Smith, and he took this song out of hiding, made a few lyrical changes to it, and the song became an instant classic and one of Kate Smith’s signature songs.
Although this particular song from its release has been viewed as an example of the bumptious jingoism for which the United States is sometimes known, the song itself is more of a prayer–a plea even–for God to bless America rather than a conceited brag that God has blessed America because of our own righteousness. At the time this song was released, the storm clouds truly were gathering across the seas on both directions. Japan was waging a brutal war against the governments and populations of China, themselves involved in a lengthy civil war. Italy had recently conquered Ethiopia and was soon to turn its rapacious attention towards Albania. The Spanish Civil War waged between a leftist government supported by the Soviet Union and a fascist government supported by Hitler and Mussolini. Hitler himself was engaged in taking over Austria and Czechoslovakia and adding them to the Third Reich. There was much to be anxious and concerned about, and so Irving Berlin wrote this song not to boast about God’s blessings to America in a troubled world, but to pray to the Eternal that those blessings would continue. It is in that same mood of vigilant concern in a troubled world that we sing this song for you all today.
As an aside, this particular song has known a somewhat troubled and complicated history. From the moment it was published, it attracted hostility from both the right and the left, as Woody Guthrie wrote a response to it in “This Land Is Your Land,” thinking the original insufficiently focused on reform. The Ku Klux Klan, dissatisfied that the song was written by a Russian Jewish immigrant, also wrote a response song of their own. The song has found a great deal of popularity among hockey teams in the NHL for some reason, especially the Philadelphia Flyers, and the song has been co-opted for use by both political parties during the 1940 election, the civil rights movement, and by conservative political elements in recent decades. It seems somewhat strange that this song, which was two decades old when it was finally published, should inspire such a great deal of vehement controversy, but it remains a particularly well-known song and certainly one that is worthy of our reflection, not least because the way we feel about cultural artifacts like this song can tell us a lot about ourselves.
 See, for example: