Sunday, August 22, 2010

"God Bless America", America's Unofficial Anthem

With this 2010 stamp, the U.S. Postal Service honors Kate Smith, the celebrated singer and entertainer whose signature song, “God Bless America” (composed by Irving Berlin), has been called America´s unofficial national anthem. The stamp art duplicates artwork created for the cover of a CD titled “Kate Smith: The Songbird of the South.” The artwork was based on a photograph of Smith taken in the 1960s.

Berlin originally 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 comments 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, with the rise of Hitler, Berlin, who was Jewish, and a first-generation European immigrant, felt it was time to revive it as a "peace song", and it was introduced on an Armistice Day broadcast in 1938 sung by Kate Smith, on her radio show. Berlin had made some minor changes; by this time, "to the right" might have been considered a call to the political right, so he substituted "through the night" instead. He also provided an introduction that is now rarely heard but which 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."

More than just the dramatic words and melody, the arrangement for Kate Smith's performance was accompanied by full band, progressing into a grand march tempo, with trumpets triple reinforcing the harmonies between stanzas: the dramatic build-up ends on the final exposed high note, which Kate Smith sang in the solo as a sustained a cappella note, with the band then joining for the finale.

The song was a hit; there was even a movement to make "God Bless America" the national anthem of the United States. However, there was strong opposition by conservative southerners as well as conservatives who lived in rural areas where there were no Jews living in it, stating that because Irving Berlin was a foreigner and a Jew, that they would not accept their national anthem to be composed by a member of the minority class. Congress would have had to repeal the "Star Spangled Banner" in both houses of congress by two-thirds of the votes, which they lacked to this very day.