Irving Berlin was born into a Russian Jewish family. The family fled Siberia, looking for a better life in the United States. Berlin was five when the family arrived at Ellis Island in New York Harbor. The family did not find instant wealth; what they found was opportunity.
Berlin became a successful songwriter and singer (his first hit was "Alexander's Ragtime Band"). When World War I broke out, he was writing songs for Broadway musicals. It was then he wrote a song called "God Bless America" for a patriotic revue. The song, however, didn't work in that show, so it was shelved. There it gathered dust for 20 years.
In 1938, war clouds were gathering in Europe. Patriotism began to surge in the United States. A patriotic radio special was planned for Nov. 11, 1938, Armistice Day. Berlin was asked to contribute a song. He pulled out his old song and reworked it, writing a new introduction for Kate Smith to sing: "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." Though the introduction is seldom sung today, it stated Berlin's clear intention: This song was a prayer, like a psalm. His father was a cantor in the synagogue. Berlin would have known all about a song containing a prayer.
The song became an instant hit, a second, unofficial national anthem. It was sung at both Republican and Democratic conventions and rallies. Communities would sing the song at War Bond rallies and 4th of July celebrations during World War 2. The song made its film debut in 1943, in an Army film called "This is the Army (not a great title)." The star of the film was Ronald Reagan.
The song had detractors, of course. The KKK opposed the song because it was written by a Jewish immigrant. Arlo Guthrie thought the song glossed over the troubles of the United States and in response wrote "This Land is Your Land, this Land is My Land." Others were troubled by the overt religious tone of the song.
Though Berlin was culturally and ethnically Jewish, he did not actively participate in Synagogue. Speaking about "God Bless America," he said: "To me, 'God Bless America' was not just a song but an expression of my feeling toward the country to which I owe what I have and what I am." Apparently, though his faith was not personal, he sensed he was blessed to live in a country where he had the freedom to be more than Russia would have ever allowed.
"God Bless America" is now 102 years old. It has seen its way through two World Wars, a Great Depression, a Great Recession, wars in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iran and Afghanistan. Three presidents died since the song was first written and nuclear bombs were exploded. Communistic Russia was created and died during the lifespan of the song. In 1918, when Berlin first wrote the song, there was no paved coast-to-coast road in the United States. "God Bless America" has witnessed the rise of radio, TV, computers, indoor plumbing, the internet and air-conditioning.
In times of crisis, it is still the song we reach for. Who can forget members of Congress standing on the steps of the capitol building on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, Republicans and Democrats, singing together "God Bless America." We sing it when we dedicate memorials, when we gather for a sporting event, when we celebrate the 4th.
In this strange year, we need to reach for this song again, not just to sing it, but to offer it as the prayer it was meant to be:
God Bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her,
And guide her,
Through the night,
With the light from above.
The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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