Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” has the shorter chronological arc. Written for a patriotic show in 1918 and then put aside, the tune reemerged from Berlin’s trunk in 1938 and began a journey that has never ended. Sheryl Kaskowitz, an independent scholar, has constructed an engaging portrait of how the song infiltrated patriotism, business and sports.
Kaskowitz skillfully traces the mixture of myth and reality that gathered around “God Bless America” from the moment of its identification with the popular singerKate Smith. Berlin did not write the song for Smith, but he and the tune benefited from the publicity she gave it on her radio show. In fact, Berlin and Smith’s manager, Ted Collins, vied to get credit for allocating the royalties from “God Bless America” to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.
The song also figured in the debate over American involvement in World War II. At first, Berlin’s lyrics spoke to disillusionment over the nation’s participation in World War I. As the threat of Nazi Germany mounted in 1939 and ’40, “God Bless America” took on new meaning, especially for its Jewish composer — who faced anti-Semitic criticism, including from the future chaplain of the Senate, Peter Marshall of Washington. As the threat of war intensified, Berlin’s words seemed to become an argument for greater U.S. involvement n the fight against totalitarianism.
In the years that followed, “God Bless America” evolved into a tune associated with political conservatism. Protesters against liberal causes sang it as a way of emphasizing their patriotism and drowning out their enemies. Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan made the song or its title an integral part of musical performances in their campaigns and of their presidential speeches. Kaskowitz’s treatment of these developments is illuminating and thoughtful.
Some of the most interesting pages in her sprightly narrative concern the recent fusion of sports and patriotism in “God Bless America.” The events of Sept. 11 gave the song new resonance, especially at baseball games, where it is still sung in the middle of the seventh inning.