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While the storm clouds gather far across the sea
Irving Berlin saw a war on the horizon, not just rain.
We rarely sing this opening line and the verse of which it is a part. Instead, we jump straight to the "God Bless America," which is more widely remembered. But in November 1938, when the song was re-written and re-introduced, the song's opening lines were critical to its interpretation and reception.
In November 1938, Europe seemed to be moving irresistibly toward war. Many had sensed that war was inevitable as early as 1933, when Adolph Hitler first muscled his way into power. Others weren't convinced until 1936 when he sent troops into the Rhineland. Under the Treaty of Versailles, which had ended World War I, this territory running along the border of Germany and France was to remain demilitarized. Still others did not become concerned until March 1938, when the German fuehrer took even more aggressive steps by invading and occupying neighboring Austria.
British and French leaders tried to gauge the extent of Hitler's ambition in September 1938. Knowing that his next territorial objective was a portion of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier met with Hitler in Munich to discuss his intentions. Hitler reassured the pair that his territorial ambitions would be satiated with the acquisition of just this small slice of Czechoslovakia, home primarily to ethnic Germans. They acquiesced in his occupation, which began in October 1938.
Chamberlain boasted that the agreement preserved European peace. We have "peace for our time," he proclaimed. But many believed that Chamberlain had capitulated naively to the German leader and that further aggression and war were inevitable.
When Kate Smith debuted Berlin's revised version of "God Bless America" on November 11th, 1938, "storm clouds" were indeed gathering across the sea. The invasion of the Sudetenland was still fresh in Americans' minds; many believed that the German army would soon be on the march again. And they were right. Just four months later, Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, and in September, he invaded Poland, prompting Britain and France to finally declare war.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with a light from above
This religiously popular line was added to the song in 1938.
This line is popular among religious fans of the song. It seems to offer a poetic plea for God's guidance through difficult times. But the line was a late addition to the song, and Irving Berlin's own religious views are difficult to discern.
Originally, Berlin used a different phrase in the song. The line he wrote in 1918 was, "Stand beside her and guide her to the right with a light from above." By 1938, however, "the right" had taken on political connotations that he wanted to avoid, so he replaced the line with the more familiar one we now sing.
The revised line still sounds like a plea for God's guidance, but Berlin has been described by his daughter as an agnostic. He was born Jewish, but by the time he was an adult, he was no longer practicing. In fact, his second wife, Ellen Mackay, was a Catholic, and the two were married in a secular civil ceremony.
The couple's daughter, Mary Ellin, recalled that the ecumenical couple tried to "pass down to their children the moral and ethical values common to all great religions" (source). Yet this wasn't tied to even a deist-type of spiritualism. As a result, according to Mary Ellin, all of the Berlins' children inherited the agnosticism of their father.
To the oceans, white with foam
If you've ever seen the ocean, you can visualize this line. But do you know why the ocean is sometimes covered with foam?
Well, the key ingredient is organic matter, such as decaying fish and plants that have risen toward the surface. These "surfactants" are stirred by the current, forming bubbles. As the current reaches the shore and the waves begin to break, these bubbles burst through the surface forming foam.
Songwriter Irving Berlin possibly understood the role that surfactants play in the formation of ocean foam. He may have even known that ocean foam is also referred to as spume. Unfortunately, neither "surfactant" nor "spume" rhymed with "home."
God bless America, my home sweet home
Irving Berlin was born in the Russian Empire, but America was his home sweet home.
Some find it ironic that Irving Berlin, an immigrant, penned this patriotic tribute to "home sweet home." (Some find it similarly ironic that Berlin, a Jew, wrote America's most popular Christmas song, "White Christmas.") But Berlin was a patriot and ardently attached to his adopted country.
Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline in Belarus, then a part of the Russian Empire, in 1888. His family emigrated from Belarus in 1893, eventually settling in New York City. His father, a cantor, initially found work as a kosher butcher, but after he died in 1896, eight-year-old Irving had to find work on the street. At first he sold newspapers and sang for pennies. Then, in his teens, he worked as a singing waiter. In his early twenties, Berlin landed a job on Tin Pan Alley—the strip of music publishers located on Manhattan's 28th Street—and began to find his first real success.
During World War I, the successful songwriter was drafted into the army. Berlin was 30 at the time, but he willingly accepted the government's "invitation" to write morale-boosting songs for America's troops. One such song was "God Bless America," written while Berlin was serving at an army camp in New York.
When Adolph Hitler began amassing power during the 1930s, Berlin hoped that the United States would steer clear of the European conflict. He revised and revived "God Bless America" in 1938 with war looming on the horizon. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, most Americans agreed with Berlin that the war in Europe was none of their concern, but Irving Berlin was also in certain ways unlike the majority of Americans.
He was born Jewish; most Americans are Christians. He might best be described as an agnostic humanist, while most Americans of his era held some sort of belief in God. Yet Berlin shared the prevailing belief in democracy, even when it came to music. He believed that "the people" were the best judges of good music. "The mob is always right," he once said. "It seems to be able to sense instinctively what is good, and I believe that there are darned few good songs which have not been whistled or sung by the crowd." (Source)
And the crowd that Berlin wrote for was distinctly American.