At least one critic has noted that parts of the song are lifted from a Jewish vaudeville song written over 100 years ago. (If you’re curious, give a listen to a sampling, and you can indeed hear the title strains of “God Bless America” very clearly.)
Below, Kate Smith’s iconic rendition from “This is the Army.”
And the song’s history, from the good people at Wikipedia:
Berlin wrote the song in 1918 while serving the U.S. Army at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York, but decided that it did not fit in a revue called Yip Yip Yaphank, so he set it aside. The lyrics at that time included the line, “Make her victorious on land and foam, God bless America…” as well as “Stand beside her and guide her, to the right with the light from above.”
Music critic Jody Rosen comments that a 1906 Jewish dialect novelty song, “When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band”, contains a six-note fragment that is “instantly recognizable as the opening strains of “God Bless America””. He interprets this as an example of Berlin’s “habit of interpolating bits of half-remembered songs into his own numbers.” Berlin, born Israel Baline, had himself written several Jewish-themed novelty tunes.
In 1938, with the rise of Hitler, Berlin, who was Jewish and a first-generation European immigrant, felt it was time to revive it as a “peace song”, and it was introduced on anArmistice Day broadcast in 1938 sung by Kate Smith, on her radio show. Berlin had made some minor changes; by this time, “to the right” might have been considered a call to the political right, so he substituted “through the night” instead. He also provided an introduction that is now rarely heard but which Smith always used: “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 a solemn prayer.” (In her first broadcast of the song, Kate Smith sang “that we’re far from there” rather than “for a land so fair”.)
More than just the dramatic words and melody, the arrangement for Kate Smith’s performance was accompanied by full orchestra and chorus, progressing into a grand march tempo, with trumpets triple reinforcing the harmonies between stanzas: the dramatic build-up ends on the final exposed high note, which Kate Smith sang in the solo as a sustained a cappella note, with the orchestra and full chorus then joining for the final chords.
In 1943, Smith’s rendition was featured in the patriotic musical “This is the Army” along with other Berlin songs. The manuscripts in the Library of Congress reveal the evolution of the song from victory to peace. Berlin gave the royalties of the song to the God Bless America Fund for Redistribution to the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the USA. She performed the song on her two NBC television series in the 1950s and in her short-lived The Kate Smith Show on CBS, which aired on CBS from January 25 to July 18, 1960. “God Bless America” also spawned another of Irving Berlin’s tunes, “Heaven Watch The Philippines”, during the end of World War II, after he heard the Filipinos sang a slightly revised version of the song replacing “America” with “The Philippines”.
Read more. And Happy Fourth!