"God Bless America" is one of America's favorite patriotic songs. Its melody is stirring, it's easy to sing, and its words seem readily adaptable to almost every national crisis or occasion.
When Irving Berlin wrote it in 1918, the song was meant to be part of a morale-boosting show celebrating American soldiers as they headed off to war. When the song was revived in 1938, it was revised slightly to echo widespread hopes that the United States would steer clear of the war brewing in Europe. And after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, congresspersons, singing policemen, and common citizens made the song a symbol of their unity and resolve.
Not all Americans celebrate the song so enthusiastically, though. Read on to learn more about one of our country's most patriotic tunes and the Americans in the last century who have lauded or loathed it.
|Year||1938 (revised from 1918 version)|
|Learn to play||Chords|
The black keys on the piano
Philip Furia, Irving Berlin: A Life in Song (2000)
There are several solid Berlin biographies, but this is the shortest and perhaps most accessible for the reader interested in an introduction to the songwriting icon. Furia is an academic, but his account of Berlin’s life from the streets of New York and Tin Pan Alley to the glitz of Hollywood is highly readable and entertaining.
Kathleen E. R. Smith, God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War (2003)
During World War II, Americans listened to almost five hours of radio music daily. This fact frames Smith's exploration of the popular music written and released during the war years.
He was one of America's greatest composers, but he could only play piano in one key.
Her rendition of the song prompted calls for its adoption as the national anthem.
The Singing Policeman
Daniel Rodríguez sings "God Bless America."
This Is the Army (1943)
A future U.S. senator (George Murphy) and a future president (Ronald Reagan) starred in this wartime flick. Written by Irving Berlin, the film resurrects the WWI show he wrote as soldier in 1918 and includes a rousing Kate Smith performance of "God Bless America."
Holiday Inn (1942)
If you like Berlin's music, you'll enjoy this 1942 musical that features a dozen of his songs. An all-star cast including Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Virginia Dale, and Marjorie Reynolds anchored this blockbuster hit. The film also contains a now-controversial minstrel scene in which Crosby performs in blackface.
Library of Congress on "God Bless America"
The Library of Congress has posted a small site dedicated to the song. It includes some background information and a handful of documents.
There's a nice page dedicated to Irving Berlin at this site. It offers a solid biography and some interesting images and links. There's also a separate page dedicated to Tin Pan Alley.
Songwriters Hall of Fame
The Songwriters Hall of Fame has compiled some useful materials for this online exhibit. The audio files are only teasers, but they give you a taste of Berlin's music. There's also a separate exhibit for Tin Pan Alley.
Kate Smith, "God Bless America"
Kate Smith recreates her 1938 introduction of the song for the 1943 film This Is the Army.
Celine Dion, "God Bless America"
Dion's cover, released after 9/11, was extremely popular.
Members of Congress, "God Bless America"
Members of Congress burst into a rendition of "God Bless America" on the evening of September 11th, 2001.
Daniel Rodríguez, "God Bless America"
The Singing Policeman from the NYPD performs the song in 2002.
"Alexander's Ragtime Band"
This was Irving Berlin's first hit, sung here by the Andrews Sisters.