I missed posting this for Veterans Day, but want to catch up a little bit. “God Bless America” was introduced on Armistice Day in 1938, although it had been written twenty years earlier. The composer and lyricist, Irving Berlin, thought of it as a “peace song,” which makes more sense when you read the intro lyrics, generally omitted today but which Kate Smith always insisted on including:
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 far, as we raise our voices in a solemn prayer…
“God Bless America” used to irritate me, when it got appropriated by Christian conservatives as a sort of alt-National Anthem, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. The lyrics, always Berlin’s weakest side, are still corny and trite; the tired trotting out of mountains-prairies-oceans is lazy, and since when are oceans “white with foam”? Only when there’s been an environmental disaster, I suppose. But you have to give the song credit for great singability and the masterful pop-song flow that rises to a high note and forte on that last “God.” It’s a well-built tune.
The only thing that irritates me nowadays about “God Bless America” is the air of faux piety with which people sing it. It’s a song that I wish could be put in a vault for a couple of decades, and then brought out again when it could be experienced fresh, without the layers of sanctimonious muck that have accreted on it over the years.
For more of my thoughts on patriotic songs, check here and here.