On Irving Berlin's 80th birthday, Ed Sullivan staged a televised tribute from his theater on Broadway, and America's most famous songwriter actually sang, despite his scratchy off-key voice. The song, of course, was "God Bless America," and he was surrounded by a chorus of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
The reception was underwhelming. "Reactionary" was one of the kindest things said about "God Bless America" in 1968.
It was "an anthem of imperialism," out of step with the times, the ultimate flag-waver's unthinking propaganda song.
Yet America was at war. "God Bless America" was a song of peace. It seemed to have elements that would appeal to both hawks and doves. Yet most young Americans seemed to be saying that they understood why Ed Sullivan liked it, and that was exactly what was wrong with America.
Berlin himself understood exactly what was going on.
"There is a cynicism about flag-waving and patriotism until something happens," he told one of his biographers. " God Bless America,' for instance. It is simple, honest--a patriotic statement. It's an emotion, not just words and music. A patriotic song is an emotion, and you must not embarrass an audience with it, or they'll hate your guts. It has to be right, and the time for it has to be right."
Apparently the time for it is finally right. There's hardly a single public event at which it's not being sung, sometimes instead of the National Anthem. In fact, it's many of those same anti-war protesters from 1968 who are joining in with the loudest chorus as we once again fight a faraway war against a people we don't quite understand. And apparently no one finds it at all ironic that a song written by an immigrant Jew has been adopted whole cloth by, among others, the Christian right and those who hate immigration. Nor does anyone think it strange that Berlin, perhaps the most unemotional songwriter we ever had, a man who wrote intelligently and cleverly and winsomely but hated sappiness, would be the one we turn to in a time like this. Wouldn't Rodgers and Hammerstein make more sense? Or--God forbid--George M. Cohan?
But there it is, "God Bless America," our song of choice, written in 1918 by a 30-year-old disgruntled Army sergeant stationed at Camp Upton in Yaphank, N.Y. Berlin had gotten permission from his commanding officer to stage a musical comedy revue at the Century Theater in New York--mostly because the Navy had recently done the same thing and the doughboys didn't want to be upstaged. But he scrapped "God Bless America" right before the opening of the show--called "Yip! Yip! Yaphank"--because it was "too solemn." Everyone was raring to fight, and he thought it would be "gilding the lily."
And then he forgot about the song for the next 20 years.
That same revue did include a song that became famous, though, and it's a little closer to Berlin's real feelings about war:
"I sleep with 97 men
"Inside a wooden hut.
"I love them all,
"They all love me,
"It's very lovely
"Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning,
"Oh, how I'd rather stay in bed,
"But the hardest blow of all,
"Is to hear the bugle call:
"You've gotta get up,
"You've gotta get up,
"You've gotta get up this morning.
"Someday I'm going to murder the bugler,
"Someday they're going to find him dead,
"I'll amputate his reveille,
"And step upon it heavily,
"And spend the rest of my life in bed."
And for those Irving Berlin compeletists out there, I should probably go ahead and quote the second chorus:
"And then I'll get the other pup,
"The guy who gets the bugler up,
"And spend the rest of my life in bed."
It's hard to believe today, but this was considered rather subversive at the time. Berlin had so mocked one of the standard bugle calls that, from then on, no soldier could hear the sound without thinking of his parody lyrics.
Then, in 1938, Berlin happened to be in London when Neville Chamberlain announced his "Anglo-German Pact of Friendship"--and he wanted to believe that its promises of peace in the world were true. "I'd like to write a great peace song," he told a friend, "but it is hard to do, because you have trouble dramatizing peace."
In his hotel room he started writing a song called "Thanks, America," but soon abandoned it. He tried another one, called "Let's Talk About Liberty," but deemed it too hokey. Then he remembered the old unused closer from "Yip! Yip! Yaphank" and he called his secretary in New York to see if she could fish it out of his trunk. She searched long and hard, eventually recovered "God Bless America," and a few weeks later Berlin offered it to Kate Smith for her Armistice Day radio show.
After 20 years in hibernation, the song did need a couple of changes. One line of the song read, "Stand beside her and guide her to the right with a light from above." In 1918 "the right" had meant simply "the place of goodness," but by 1938 it meant conservative political movements. So he changed it to read "through the night with a light from above"--which is a better line anyway.
The second change involved a line which read, "Make her victorious on land and foam." It made sense in 1918, but in 1938 he wanted a song of peace, not war. But in order to change it, he had to lengthen in and change the whole meter of the stanza. The result was: "From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans, white with foam"--which is actually odd, because if you go from the mountains and then to the prairies and then to the oceans, you would expect to continue the conceit with "to the stars" or something equally ethereal. Instead the fourth line simply describes the oceans. At any rate, "white with foam" sets up the emotional climax, as the next word--"God"--is the highest note of the song, and the one that brings the tears.
The phrase "God Bless America" was taken from Berlin's mother. While he was growing up on the Lower East Side, she would say "God bless America" often, to indicate that, without America, her rather large family would have had no place to go. (They had fled a pogrom in either Siberia or Belorussia.)
Kate Smith did sing he song on Armistice Day, 1938, and it was such an instant hit that within weeks there was a movement to make it the new National Anthem. After all, it was easy to sing, even by children, and Francis Scott Key's anthem had used the melody from "Anacreon in Heaven," a dirty drinking song known to sailors everywhere. "God Bless America" probably would have become the new anthem--"The Star Spangled Banner" had only been officially adopted in 1931--were it not for Berlin himself saying he didn't want it. Even though Berlin was a Republican, he gave permission for it to be sung at the political conventions of both parties, and the only time he refused to allow performances was when a swing band wanted to do an up-tempo version.
Eventually he decided that the song's royalties should go to charity, so he set up a trust to assign the royalties. Its members were Herbert Bayard Swope, the New York reporter, Col. Theodore Roosevelt, and the boxer Gene Tunney--selected so that there would be a Jew, a Catholic and a Protestant determining the recipients of the money. They eventually chose the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and both organizations still receive royalties today whenever the song is sung.
Berlin wrote many other patriotic songs over the years. He staged "This Is the Army" on Broadway in 1942 and raised $10 million for Army Emergency Relief. For the 1949 musical "Miss Liberty," he put the words on the base of the Statue of Liberty to music. As late as 1962, he staged the unsuccessful Broadway show "Mr. President," which included a song called "Hats Off to America, It's a Great Country," ending with the line:
"If this be flag-waving,
"Do you know of a better flag to wave?"
But patriotic anthems were never his forte. If you want to read a classic Irving Berlin lyric, try this one from "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy":
"What care I who makes the laws of a nation.
"Let those who will, take care of its rights and wrongs.
"What care I who cares--for the world's affairs,
"As long as I can sing its popular songs."
Mostly he tried patriotic music because of the success of "God Bless America."
"And it was a very ordinary patriotic song," he said near the end of his life, "that any child could have written. Land that I love'? What child couldn't write that? It was the timing that counted."
Don't we know it.