While “God Bless America” has been sung intermittently at sporting events for decades, folks began consistently singing the song at ballparks in 2001. After the terrorist attacks against New York and Washington, the San Diego Padres suggested that the patriotic song might provide a suitable reminder of what was really important. Baseball fans were not alone in turning to the song after 9/11. Members of congress burst into a spontaneous rendition on the Capitol steps just hours after the attack. Celine Dion’s 2001 cover was a major hit. And Daniel Rodríguez, the “singing policeman” from the NYPD, also made the charts with his rendition.
But while the song’s patriotic punch has been constant, its meaning has not been. In 2001, “God Bless America” seemed to provide a soul-stirring symbol of resolve. It joined other powerful icons—the NYFD cap, loyalty ribbons, the flag on every porch—as symbols of American unity and determination. When Americans sang “God Bless America, my home sweet home,” there was grit in their voices and a tear in their eye. Yet in the decades since the song was written in 1918, it has also tapped other feelings and expressed slightly different patriotic sentiments.
When Irving Berlin wrote the song in 1918, it was intended for a show saluting America’s soldiers heading for the battlefields of France. Berlin was a successful songwriter on Tin Pan Alley by the late 1910s. His first big hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” catapulted him to success, and soon he was writing Broadway shows. But when the United States entered what would become known as World War I, Berlin was drafted into the army, but Uncle Sam wanted him for his musical brains, not his brawn. He was ordered to write morale-boosting tunes and shows for his fellow servicemen. One of these shows was Yip Yip Yaphank, a glitzy production that ended, on one occasion, with the 300 soldiers in the cast singing the finale as they marched out the door and onto troop carriers waiting to carry them to France.
Even though Berlin decided to drop “God Bless America” from Yip Yip Yaphank, the song, as originally written, expressed the fist-pumping, martial spirit behind most of the show’s tunes. One line summed up the larger purpose behind the patriotic prayer for God’s blessing: “Make her victorious on land and foam, God bless America.”
Following World War I, the song sat on the shelf for 20 years. (There weren’t as many people excited about being American during the Great Depression.) But in 1938, Berlin decided to re-introduce the song. By that time, however, a lot of things had changed. When Americans had marched off to war in 1917, they had done so enthusiastically. True, most Americans had initially hoped to avoid involvement—the European war that broke out in 1914 was an ocean away, after all—, but after American merchant ships carrying supplies to Britain and France were sunk by German U-boats, and American citizens were killed while sailing on a British passenger ship, the Lusitania, Americans decided that the war was theirs as well.
By the time it ended, however, many regretted the change of heart. American soldiers carried home the physical and psychological scars of French battlefields where the machine gun made a mockery of things like courage and valor. And the treaty signed at Versailles in 1919 was far from the idealistic document that Americans had been promised would prevent future wars. President Woodrow Wilson had hoped to impose a gentle peace, one that did not punish the defeated nations, Germany and Austria-Hungary. He also hoped to rebuild the war-scarred continent using modern principles, such as freedom of sea and democracy. Instead, the treaty gave the triumphant nations, France and Britain, their pound of financial and territorial flesh. They were granted huge reparations (payments in cash and resources) from the defeated nations, and many of the smaller nations previously colonized by Germany were merely transferred to Britain and France rather than granted the independence that Wilson had promised.
As a result, many Americans concluded that ideals and war could never be reconciled, that Europe was simply too “old” and jaded to be rebuilt along modern lines, and that the US should steer clear of all European conflicts. Therefore, when tensions rose on the continent during the mid-1930s, most Americans looked the other way. Congress followed the public’s lead by passing neutrality acts designed to prevent the United States from getting sucked into yet another foreign war.
When Berlin dusted off “God Bless America” in 1938, he did so with these lessons and objectives in mind. He dumped the line about military victory “on land and foam” and wrote a new musical preface for the song that prayed for American protection:
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
Berlin was less overt than many isolationists who urged America to avoid war at all costs; but there was no missing his hope that America would stay out of war. In fact, he gave his more peace-minded version of the song to singer Kate Smith to debut as part of an Armistice Day program set aside to celebrate the end of the World War I.
The Berlin-Smith song was an immediate hit with peace-angling Americans. Sheet music sold out, and some congressman proposed replacing the more militant national anthem with its bombs bursting in air for Berlin’s peaceful prayer for God’s blessings.
As we all know—all of this failed to prevent the United States from joining the European war in 1941. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, most Americans rallied to President Roosevelt’s call for intervention. Yet the song’s flirtation with the peace movement did not hurt its long-term appeal. And so when American found themselves under attack again in 2001, they turned to the song once more—but with neither the enthusiastic militarism of 1918 nor the isolationist hopes of 1938. Instead, they offered up the song as a nation-binding prayer for God’s favor and a soul stirring ritual of resolve.
As “God Bless America” moves toward its centennial celebration, it’s unlikely to lose any of its patriotic popularity. For starters, it’s a heck of a lot easier to sing than the “Star Spangled Banner.” More important, the song’s basic message can be fitted to any time or crisis. History suggests that the United States will surely encounter more challenges in the future, and the song, with a message that can transcend the specific needs of the moment, will be ready.