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“God Bless America”: A hymn by a Jewish composer, made popular by a Catholic singer

J-P Mauro - published on 11/11/21

You know the song. Now learn the fascinating story behind it.

This Veterans Day we celebrate the dedicated service of U.S. men and women in the armed forces. The celebration originated at the end of World War I, which formally ended on November 11, 1918, so we thought we’d take a look at one of the most popular American songs to come out of The Great War, “God Bless America.” 

While “God Bless America” was first performed well after WWI, in 1938, it was written in 1918, just before The Great War ended. The tune was penned by legendary 20th-century composer Irving Berlin, who also wrote “White Christmas.” Berlin, while a sergeant at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York, wrote the song as part of a musical review about army life, titled Yip Yip Yaphank.

Irving Berlin

The musical review was well received by the troops, but the final production did not include “God Bless America.” One reason for this, according to the Kennedy Center, was that Berlin felt the content of the song did not fit the rest of the show. The musical review was generally comedic, while “God Bless America” was a reverent tune with “sappy” lyrics. In fact, the Russian-born Jewish composer had written a hymn. 

The lyrics of “God Bless America” were written as a prayer. The opening line calls for God’s blessing on the country, asking for intercession during a most tumultuous time. The original 1918 lyrics read: 

God Bless America, land that I love 
Stand beside her 
And guide her 
To the right with the light from above 
Make her victorious on land and foam 
God Bless America, my home sweet home.

It looks just a little different than the modern-day version. Berlin decided to change the words around when he was preparing it to be first performed. It was then that the lyrics “to the right” were changed to “through the night” to avoid any perception of political leaning. Another section, “make her victorious,” was removed because the composer felt it made America seem like it was out for conquest.

Berlin didn’t change the lyrics right away. In fact, the song was put aside for 20 years after he wrote it and nearly forgotten. Then, in 1938, famed American singer Kate Smith, a Catholic, commissioned Berlin to write a new song for her radio broadcasts. With just two weeks to deliver a new song, Berlin scoured his notes and came across his draft of “God Bless America,” which he fixed up and presented to Smith. 

Kate Smith

“God Bless America” was first performed at the end of Kate Smith’s radio show on November 11, 1938, while Veterans’ Day was still referred to as Armistice Day. Smith’s rendition was an instant hit, reportedly causing Berlin’s phone to ring for days. The tune was so beloved by Americans that Smith made it her signature sign-off song, performing it at the end of every broadcast. The prayerful nature of the hymn resonated so well that she and Berlin added a section of spoken words to the prayer, which was eventually incorporated into the music: 

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 solemn prayer.

In 1938, this imagery of storm clouds gathering was especially poignant as Americans watched the world enter WWII. At a time when war seemed inevitable and survival by no means guaranteed, this simple prayer became an American anthem to rival “The Star Spangled Banner.” Throughout the war, Berlin toured with a new show that included “God Bless America.”

In the end, it seems that Berlin and Smith understood that “God Bless America” was at its heart a prayer. In acknowledgement that its success was due to God’s grace, they decided not to keep any of the revenue from the tune. Instead, they donated all royalties of their hit song to the Boy Scouts of America, an arrangement that continues to this day. 

This was not the end of Smith’s generosity, either. Upon her death, Smith left a sizable donation and half of her estate’s residuals to St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church, in Lake Placid. This was Smith’s beloved parish church, which she regularly attended while staying at her summer home. Smith was buried in the St. Agnes cemetery, where she is the only person to be interred in a crypt. 

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