Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’ Turns 100

A century later, Irving Berlin's wartime song is as popular as ever

Irving Berlin aboard the USS Arkansas, July 25, 1944.
Irving Berlin aboard the USS Arkansas, July 25, 1944. (photo: Register Files)

Singer and radio host Kate Smith first sang “God Bless America,” one of the most beloved of American patriotic songs, on her radio show on Armistice Day in 1938. However, the song was actually written 10 years earlier by Irving Berlin (née Israel Beilen), a Russian immigrant with a great love for his adopted nation.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of “God Bless America”; and the centennial will be celebrated in our nation’s capital on May 24, at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast. “God Bless America” will be performed at the Prayer Breakfast by Luciano Lamonarca, Italian opera singer known as the “Goodwill Tenor.” Lamonarca is an Italian immigrant well-known for his philanthropic initiatives and, like songwriter Irving Berlin, he has a deep appreciation for our country. 


A Challenging Childhood

Near the close of the 19th century, Moses and Lena Lipkin Beilens, an impoverished Jewish family, saw their house burned to the ground by Russian soldiers during an anti-Jewish pogrom. Although the Beilen family was poor and could hardly afford the cost of international travel, Israel's father, a cantor in the local synagogue, decided that the safest course was to flee the anti-Jewish brutality sweeping through Russia, and to migrate with his wife and children to America. In 1893, the family embarked on a new life in New York City. Upon their arrival at Ellis Island, the family name was changed to “Baline”; and young Israel was imprisoned in a pen until immigration officials declared that he, his five brothers and his sister were fit to live in America.

Just three years later, his father died, forcing the family members to take whatever humble jobs they could find to support themselves. Izzy, as he was called, first tried to sell newspapers; but he had a talent for music, and so began composing ballads and singing in saloons on the Bowery, at Tony Pastor's Music Hall in Union Square and, later, as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown. At the Pelham Cafe, he collaborated with the cafe's resident pianist, Mike Nicholson, to write “Marie from Sunny Italy,” the first song for which he earned a royalty payment. Unfortunately, when the sheet music was published, his name had been misspelled as “I. Berlin” – and from that time forward, Israel became known as Irving Berlin.


Patriotism Set to Music 

Berlin composed hundreds of songs, many of which became major hits. News of Berlin's talent for musical composition spread; and in 1917 at the age of 30, he was drafted by the United States Army to serve in World War I and stationed at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York. His unique assignment: boost the troops' morale with patriotic songs. 

He performed that assignment so effectively, in fact, that while serving with the 152nd Depot Brigade he wrote an all-soldier musical revue intended to bolster the troops which he titled “Yip Yip Yaphank.” The show was so successful that it eventually found its way to Broadway. 

Irving Berlin's gratitude toward his adopted homeland led him to compose inspirational songs which supported the war – songs such as “For Your Country and My Country” and “Let's All Be Americans Now,” a song which he hoped would help to end ethnic divisions. Speaking about his patriotic tunes, Berlin explained, “We must speak with the sword not the pen to show our appreciation to America for opening up her heart and welcoming every immigrant group.”

And explaining his goal of touching the hearts of the American people, Berlin said, “My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American, not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country. The highbrow is likely to be superficial, overtrained, supersensitive. The lowbrow is warped, subnormal. My public is the real people.”

But Berlin held back one song he'd written for “Yip Yip Yaphank.” After thinking about it, he decided that “God Bless America” should not be included in that high-energy review; and he set it aside, not releasing it for the public until 1938, as the world teetered on the brink of the Second World War. 

“God Bless America” was introduced by singer and radio personality Kate Smith, and became her signature song. In the 1950s, Smith sang the song on her NBC show; later, when she hosted a weekly show on CBS, it was also featured on that network. 

“God Bless America” was sung by protestors early in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as at labor rallies. Christian conservatives saw the song as a signal that they opposed secular liberalism and communism. In the late '60s and '70s, the National Hockey League's Philadelphia Flyers played Kate Smith's version of the song before their home games, and they brought Kate Smith in to perform the song live during the Stanley Cup Finals in 1974. And following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, “God Bless America” has frequently been sung during the Seventh-Inning Stretch at major league baseball games.

Curiously, “God Bless America” was the official theme song of 1940 Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt and of his Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie. 

And Kate Smith's recording was played by NASA to cap its 30-year shuttle program – as the final wake-up call for the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis on July 21, 2011.

This week the song will be performed live at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, DC, on Thursday, May 24, during the 14th Annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast. According to the organizers of the Prayer Breakfast:

This song about a beautiful and beloved land is regarded by many as a second national anthem, and its call to prayer in search of God’s blessing and protection invites us to reflect on the words of Saint Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo Regius, who said, “He who sings, prays twice.”

A free MP3 download of “God Bless America” is now available at the website of the Catholic Prayer Breakfast.

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

God bless America
Land that I love
Stand beside her
And guide her
Through the night with the light from above

From the mountains
To the prairies
To the oceans
White with foam
God bless America
My home sweet home