The song of the moment is more than 80 years old.
In the 11 days since the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" has been played and sung repeatedly throughout the United States in the halls of Congress, after Broadway shows, at major-league baseball parks, in the Washington National Cathedral and, of course, on countless less formal occasions. For the moment, it may even have surpassed our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," in mass popularity.
"The idea of bombs bursting in air has suddenly taken on a strange connotation," Robert Kimball, a musical theater historian and co-editor of the forthcoming "Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin," reflected this week. "And, in a funny way, 'God Bless America' is almost beyond the national anthem. It's always been reserved for very special occasions and this is certainly one of them."
Getting to the point
Susan Elliott, the editor of Musical America.com, a Web site for the classical music industry, said she believed there were two central reasons for the appeal of "God Bless America." "First, the lyrics do not beat around the bush. It's 'God bless America, land that I love. ' That's exactly the way we all feel right now. We don't have to weave our way through 'O! say, can you see by the dawn's early light' or 'My country, 'tis of thee.' We get right to the point in the first three words 'God bless America.'
"Another reason it's a lot easier to sing than 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' "
National Symphony Orchestra Music Director Leonard Slatkin said "God Bless America" "seems to have struck the right tone for Americans because it operates somewhere between love of country and defense of country."
Slatkin said, however, that if he were pressed to select an alternate anthem for our time, he would choose "America the Beautiful." "It carries much of the same message as Hubert Parry's setting of William Blake's 'Jerusalem,'" which is a pastorale, gently radiant affirmation of working to build a paradise on earth.
Frances Richard, vice president of concert music for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) remembers singing "God Bless America" when she was growing up in New York during World War II. "We sang it more than the 'Star-Spangled Banner' at school and in assemblies and at recess.
"I haven't heard it as much in recent years, and some young people probably don't know the words. But now my grandson is playing it with his middle-school band in Massachusetts." Richard calls "God Bless America" "a great calling together of people very easy to sing and remember."
There are more than 70 different arrangements of "God Bless America," available for solo voices, choruses, bands, string orchestra, full orchestra, piano, hand bells and many other combinations of instruments.
Saved from scrap heap
Berlin, who lived from 1888 to 1989, was probably the country's most versatile and productive songwriter, with more than 1,500 songs to his credit. (Some of his other hits include "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Easter Parade," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "White Christmas.") Jerome Kern, the composer of "Show Boat," once summed up his colleague's contribution succinctly: "Irving Berlin has no place in American music. Irving Berlin is American music."
Ironically, "God Bless America" began life as a rejected number for "Yip! Yip! Yaphank," a traveling revue Berlin had put together in 1918 to drum up patriotism after the United States entered World War I. Twenty years later, on the eve of World War II, Berlin took another look at the song, which he had all but forgotten.
"With a little editing and the deletion of a couple of bellicose phrases, he had a new song declaring his love for the country to which he believed he owed everything he had," according to Berlin's biographer, Edward Jablonski.
The singer Kate Smith gave "God Bless America" its world premiere over the radio on Nov. 11, 1938 on what was then called Armistice Day the 20th anniversary of the end of World War I. It was an immediate hit, sung in schools and churches, recorded by Smith and Bing Crosby, among many others.
Berlin was a shrewd and meticulous businessman who generally guarded his copyrights with a phalanx of lawyers. Yet he knew that "God Bless America" was special, and in this one case he surrendered all of his royalties to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, who have made more than $6 million from the song.
"The notion spread that 'God Bless America' should be adopted as the national anthem in place of the less accessible "Star-Spangled Banner,' " Jablonski wrote. "Berlin himself was adamantly opposed, saying 'There's only one national anthem, which can never be replaced.'"
Then again, Berlin never lived to see the events of Sept. 11.