Irving Berlin wrote the song in 1918 while serving in the U.S. Army at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York, but decided that it did not fit in a revue called Yip Yip Yaphank, so he set it aside. The lyrics at that time included the line “Make her victorious on land and foam, God bless America…” as well as “Stand beside her and guide her to the right with the light from above”.
Music critic Jody Rosen says that a 1906 Jewish dialect novelty song, “When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band,” contains a six-note fragment that is “instantly recognizable as the opening strains of ‘God Bless America'”. He interprets this as an example of Berlin’s “habit of interpolating bits of half-remembered songs into his own numbers.” Berlin, born Israel Baline, had himself written several Jewish-themed novelty tunes.
In 1938, Berlin changed his original World War I–era lyrics from “guide her to the right” to “through the night,” because by 1938 “the right” had acquired associations with fascism. But the idea of a move “to the right” is quite relevant in looking at the changing meaning of “God Bless America” through time, as it began to be associated with increasingly conservative points of view.
He also provided an introduction that is now rarely heard but which Kate Smith always used: “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.” (In her first broadcast of the song, Smith sang “that we’re far from there” rather than “for a land so fair”.) This was changed when Berlin published the sheet music in March 1939.
Just after its debut in 1938, the song was weighted with a subtext of religious, ethnic, and racial tolerance, as Irving Berlin’s immigrant success story connected the song to a burgeoning public appeal for ethnic and racial tolerance during the 1940s. And during the 1940 presidential campaign, both FDR and his Republican challenger Wendell Willkie adopted “God Bless America”—then at the height of its prewar popularity—as campaign theme songs. This bipartisan use followed the wishes of Irving Berlin, who wrote in July 1940, “no political party has the exclusive rights to the song ‘God Bless America.’ ”
The chameleon-like lyrics of “God Bless America” made it a powerful vehicle for a wide range of meanings during the 25 years after its debut. In its early years, the most common use of “God Bless America” within protest contexts served an anti-Communist message, likely drawing on the song’s invocation of religion and patriotism as a symbolic weapon against “Godless Communism.” A group of teenagers sang it to disrupt a Communist meeting in a downtown Milwaukee park in 1941, and in 1947 war veterans broke up a Communist party rally in Bridgeport by singing it. It was also embraced as a protest song by striking garment workers in Brooklyn in 1941, and by subway workers protesting a lockout in 1956. Civil rights activists also used the song frequently in the early 1960s. Within a two-day period in early summer 1963, young African-American students sang “God Bless America” at school segregation protests in Jackson, Miss., and Baton Rouge, La., hinting, perhaps, at a strategic, unified use of the song by the movement. After all, what could be threatening about schoolchildren, some as young as nine, peacefully singing that staple of elementary school music programs, declaring their love for God and country in support of their right to an equal education?
The song became a staple at pro-war rallies, and was often used as a sonic weapon in conflicts with anti-war protestors, such as a confrontation in 1973 between pro-war construction workers and peace rally participants in which a “pro-Administration crowd sang ‘God Bless America’ at an antiwar group who confronted them with peace signs.” This was the result of government propaganda that had been labeling anyone in opposition to wars as ‘un-American,” thus the song had also become a political weapon.
Smith, along with many other celebrities, donated her time to entertain troops during World War II. During the war, the song was used on the home front to represent American domestic values of tolerance and inclusion in the face of Nazi totalitarianism. But within the context of the Vietnam War, the song’s use was linked with a claim to the virtue of America’s conduct in the world at large, a claim that many Americans could not support. Those opposed to the war could not “bless” America’s violence in Vietnam, and this shame over the country’s conduct was a divisive tool against conservatism and patriotism.
The historian Lisa McGirr points to the early and mid-1960s as the beginning of a “conservative revival,” dubbing religious conservatives to be the “other radicals of the 1960s” and framing the Right as a grassroots social movement during this period. If conservatives can be understood as revolutionaries reacting against the progressive social change movements of the 1960s, then “God Bless America” was their “We Shall Overcome,” used by activists expressing opposition to progressive social movements like school integration, women’s rights, and abortion. In the late 1960s, it was played by the John Birch Society at a Memorial Day parade in Norwalk, Conn., and became a political anthem for the segregationist politician Lester Maddox, who played it no less than three times at one public event and often proclaimed that he sang it “with all of my heart.”
The generational rifts that became so apparent in the 1960s, with the rise of a youth culture increasingly disenchanted with the mores of its elders, also influenced the shifting meanings of “God Bless America.” For older Americans, this song was likely tinged with nostalgia, invoking memories of Kate Smith and the cozy shared community of radio, for the united sacrifice of the World War II home front, and perhaps for a musical world dominated by Tin Pan Alley, rather than the alien sounds of rock ’n’ roll. For those born after World War II, “God Bless America” was likely a song they were forced to sing in elementary school, or one they heard on one of their parents’ corny TV shows, devoid of any cultural meaning other than its simple patriotic religiosity and the bland mainstream that the youth of the 1960s rebelled against.
Woody Guthrie, a singer / songwriter who said joining communism was the best thing he’s ever done, criticized the song, and in 1940 he wrote “This Land Is Your Land,” originally titled “God Blessed America For Me,” as a response. The Ku Klux Klan also protested against the song due to its authorship by a Jewish immigrant.
In 1943, Smith’s rendition was featured in the patriotic musical This is the Army along with other Berlin songs. The manuscripts in the Library of Congress reveal the evolution of the song from victory to peace. Berlin gave the royalties of the song to The God Bless America Fund for redistribution to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in New York City. Smith performed the song on her two NBC television series in the 1950s. “God Bless America” also spawned another of Irving Berlin’s tunes, “Heaven Watch The Philippines,” during the end of World War II after he heard the Filipinos sing a slightly revised version of the song replacing “America” with “The Philippines.”
Later, from December 11, 1969, through the early 1970s, the playing of Smith singing the song before many home games of the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers brought it renewed popularity as well as a reputation for being a “good luck charm” to the Flyers long before it became a staple of nationwide sporting events. The Flyers even brought Smith in to perform live before Game 6 of the 1974 Stanley Cup Finals on May 19, 1974, and the Flyers won the Cup that day.
However, Kate Smith, a thorn in the progress of the progressives with her beautiful prayer and song, became a victim of their cancel culture in 2019 when the NY Yankees, who waited 8 years after Jackie Robinson broke into the majors to sign a black player, ceased playing it before games as did the Philedelphia Flyers, who also removed a statue of their former ‘good luck charm.’
It turns out that Smith, who died in 1986, recorded two songs, considered satire at the time, that were hits in the early 1930s but are now seen as racist riffs. One is called “That’s Why Darkies Were Born, written by Ray Henderson and Lew Brown.” It starts, “Someone had to pick the cotton, someone had to slave and be able to sing, that’s why darkies were born.” Smith was one of the nation’s biggest musical artists from the 1930s to the 1960s. She burst on the scene just after minstrel shows and a subgenre of ragtime called coon songs were all the rage.
Kate Smith recorded “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” in 1931 and it was among her biggest records. Some argue that the song is an homage, in part, to the “spirit” of African-Americans and point to his lyric: “sing when you’re weary and Sing when you’re blue, Sing, sing, that’s what you taught, All the white folks to do…” The song was part of a fatalistic musical genre in the 1930s where African Americans were depicted as “fated to work the land, fated to be where they are, to never change.”
But the song begins with the statement that black people were born to be slaves and to sing.
“Someone had to pick the cotton,
Someone had to pick the corn,
Someone had to slave and be able to sing,
That’s why darkies were born;
Someone had to laugh at trouble,
Though he was tired and worn,
Had to be contented with any old thing,
That’s why darkies were born;
Sing, sing, sing when you’re weary and
Sing when you’re blue,
Sing, sing, that’s what you taught
All the white folks to do;
Someone had to fight the Devil,
Shout about Gabriel’s Horn,
Someone had to stoke the train
That would bring God’s children to green pastures,
That’s why darkies were born.”
The other is titled, “Pickaninny Heaven,” which also brims with racist language and was featured in the film Hello, Everybody! starring Smith.1 Smith sang the latter to black children featured in the movie: “And now folks, I’m gonna sing this next song for a lot a little colored children listening in an orphanage in New York City. Here ya are, kids.”
“Great big watermelons” and “pork chops right outside your door,” with a “Suwanee River made of real lemonade,” in the heaven that’s made just for “pickaninnies.”
“…though the good lord took your mammy, she’ll be waiting there for ya.”
If Smith can be condemned on the basis of two songs, what are we to make of Paul Robeson, truly a black superhero before his time? He was a star college football player, gifted student, powerful singer, commanding actor (“Show Boat,” “Othello”) and, to the end of his days, a radical and fiery civil rights activist. He, too, recorded “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.”
Her family defended her accusations of being a ‘racist’ below:
Smith’s niece artist Suzy Andron, told USA Today she was “saddened that a woman who has been dead for almost 35 years would be attacked in this way.”
“Aunt Kathryn really did not see color,” Suzy Andron said. “She didn’t see a person’s color. She was very in tune with a person’s character. I’ve always thought that was a model, to not see a person’s color but to see their character. And this is why I’m incredibly sad,” Andron told the outlet.2
Sinatra recorded the evocative standard “Without a Song” in 1941 using the original racist lyric — “a darkie’s born, but he’s no good no how, without a song.” He did that once, but never again. In later recordings, the obnoxious word is gone. Should Sinatra be banned?3
Source: Revised from the leftist viewpoints in the original column – https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2013/07/god-bless-america-and-republicans-how-the-song-became-an-anthem-of-conservatives-and-the-christian-right.html