The 5-year-old and his family had traveled thousands of miles to escape. When they finally arrived on American soil, free from the marauders who had burned their house to the ground, the boy was placed in a holding pen with his brother and sisters, while immigration officials decided their fate.
From this story, a classic piece of music emerged. The family, fleeing religious persecution in Russia in 1893, was soon reunited and allowed to enter the country. And that little boy, born Israel Beilin, would grow up to become Irving Berlin. Twenty-five years after emigrating, the same year he became an American citizen, he composed “God Bless America.”
The song, which rings out with special fervor each Fourth of July as a kind of unofficial national anthem, is turning 100 this year, and at a fraught moment in America’s relations with would-be immigrants, it is worth remembering its origins. Berlin said he first heard the title phrase from his mother, who frequently spoke the words with an emotion he later said “was almost exaltation,” despite their poverty. His daughter Mary Ellin Barrett later wrote that Berlin meant every word: “It was the land he loved. It was his home sweet home. He, the immigrant who had made good, was saying thank you.”
It was a desire to serve his adopted country during World War I that impelled the 30-year-old Berlin, already a successful songwriter, to be naturalized as a citizen in February 1918. That May, he began his military service as an army private at Camp Upton in Yaphank, N.Y., where he was asked to write a soldier show as a fund-raiser. “God Bless America” was originally conceived as the finale for the revue, “Yip, Yip, Yaphank,” but Berlin ultimately decided not to include it. It was shelved and forgotten for 20 years, until he rediscovered the song and provided a revised version to the radio star Kate Smith, who sang it on Nov. 10, 1938, and reprised it weekly.
Berlin’s immigrant success story connected the song, in the period just after its premiere, to a burgeoning public appeal for tolerance in the face of the rise of Nazism in Europe. The first reference to the song in The New York Times describes a performance at a dinner sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, where religious leaders repudiated the “doctrine of race and hate” in totalitarian Europe and urged Americans not to let it happen within their own communities. Three months later, Berlin led a crowd in “God Bless America” after a speech against bigotry by Eleanor Roosevelt, in which she warned, “Fear arising from intolerance and injustice constitutes the chief danger to our country.”
The song also inspired anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric aimed at Berlin, a Jew who dared to ask God to bless America. At a joint rally of the Ku Klux Klan and the pro-Nazi German American Bund in 1940, leaders called for a boycott of the song. A week later, an article mockingly titled “G-A-W-D Bless A-M-E-R-I-K-E-R!” appeared in the Bund’s newspaper; the author derided the song as reflecting the “attitude of the refugee horde.” (Berlin faced fire on the left, as well: Woody Guthrie’s “God Blessed America For Me” was an angry protest against the complacency he found in Berlin’s lyrics. Guthrie soon changed the chorus to “This Land Is Your Land.”)
Through the early 1960s, the chameleon-like lyrics made it a vehicle for a wide range of messages, depending on which direction a given singer wanted the country to be “guided through the night.” In the 1940s it was sung by anti-Communist protesters as well as by striking laborers. Civil rights activists used the song frequently; it was sung by African-American children at school segregation protests in Mississippi and Louisiana, and by participants in Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Detroit in 1963.
But this multiplicity of meanings became largely unified during the cultural rifts that began in the mid-60s, as “God Bless America” increasingly became a symbol for a white, conservative worldview. Previously malleable meanings behind the lyrics became fixed, and gone was the song’s pluralist subtext.
Instead, there emerged a tacit understanding that the song represented a warning to those challenging the status quo, just as Woody Guthrie had felt all along. In dramatic contrast to the original connection with a message of tolerance, in the late ’60s the segregationist politician Lester Maddox claimed the song as a personal anthem, and in the ’70s it was used by right-wing activists opposed to school integration and public housing.
The song’s rightward tilt persisted, but was temporarily suspended in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when it became a sonic emblem of unity and collective mourning — sung at memorials both official and ad hoc, on the steps of the Capitol, at neighborhood candlelight vigils, at Broadway theaters and professional baseball games. And even as it was embraced as a conservative anthem, it has continued to be used as a symbol for the inclusion of immigrants in American culture, often sung during citizenship and naturalization ceremonies.
In 2006, activists sang “God Bless America” at immigrants’ rights rallies across the country. But the song’s xenophobic edge has sadly persisted, as in the backlash to Marc Anthony’s performance at the 2013 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Twitter exploded with outrage, with some questioning Mr. Anthony’s right to perform the song on the basis of his perceived foreignness (despite the fact that he is an American citizen, born in New York of Puerto Rican heritage).
If Irving Berlin’s family had sought asylum in the United States today, they would likely have been deported — deemed criminals just for landing on American soil in their flight from persecution. The 5-year-old boy may have been kept in that holding pen, separated from his parents, until they were sent away to an unknown fate. As “God Bless America” celebrates its 100th birthday this summer, anyone who sings it should remember that it began as — and at root will always be — a love song to this country from an immigrant grateful to have been given a chance at a new life.
Written by By Sheryl Kaskowitz