November 11, 2015

How “God Bless America” created a musical duel between Woody Guthrie and Irving Berlin

In 1917, during World War I, American songwriter Irving Berlin was drafted into the U.S. Army.

He was already a successful songwriter at that point, known for huge hits like “Alexander's Ragtime Band” (1911) and “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” (1915).

Berlin was stationed at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York. Not long after he arrived, an officer asked if he’d be willing to write a musical show for the soldiers at the base to perform.

Berlin agreed and composed a set of songs for a musical he called Yip-Yip-Yaphank.

He wrote at least eight songs for the show. They included “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning,” which later became a hugely popular hit, and several now-forgotten songs, like “Mandy” (a minstrel-style song performed by soldiers in drag and blackface).

One notable song Berlin wrote for Yip-Yip-Yaphank that didn’t make it into the show was titled “God Bless America.” 

Before the musical was performed in July 1918, Berlin decided “God Bless America” was “too solemn.” So, he cut it from the song list, stored his written copy away and forgot about it for twenty years.

Then, in 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to appease Adolf Hitler and prevent a second world war ended up bringing the song to light.

Irving Berlin happened to be in London when Chamberlain announced that he and Hitler had signed the “Anglo-German Pact of Friendship,” or “Munich Agreement.” That pact permitted Nazi Germany to annex the part of Czechoslovakia called Sudetenland in return for Hitler’s supposed promise to refrain from any further land grabs and remain at peace with other European countries.

Chamberlain optimistically proclaimed that the agreement had secured “peace for our time.”

Chamberlain’s remark inspired Berlin. He told a friend he wanted to write “a great peace song,” a patriotic song that celebrated America at peace.

After a couple of false starts, Berlin recalled his abandoned song from Yip-Yip-Yaphank. He made some edits to the lyrics and ended up with the song as we know it today. It starts with these familiar lines:

       “God bless America,
       Land that I love,
       Stand beside her and guide her
       Through the night with a light from above.
       From the mountains to the prairies,
       To the oceans white with foam,
       God bless America,
       My home sweet home.”

Berlin gave his patriotic “peace song” to renowned American singer Kate Smith for its initial unveiling.

She debuted it on her popular radio show on November 11, 1938 — the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day, the commemoration of the peace agreement that ended World War I.

Ultimately (and infamously) Chamberlain’s attempt to appease Hitler failed to prevent World War II.

However, “God Bless America” quickly became a major hit, a signature song for Smith and the unofficial American national anthem.

It also rubbed activist-folksinger Woody Guthrie the wrong way.

Irving Berlin and Kate Smith were rich and famous celebrities.

Woody Guthrie was a vocal advocate for low-income Americans and was a poor man himself. He knew from first-hand experience that life in America wasn’t so sweet for most people in late 1930s — the height of the Great Depression.

He felt America needed an anthem for those common folk, instead of a mawkish one that seemed to just wave the flag and ignore the economic problems millions of Americans faced.

So, in 1940, Guthrie wrote a song responding to “God Bless America.” He originally titled it “God Blessed America.”

In the original lyrics, he ended each verse with the words “God blessed America for me.”

And the original last verse had a sardonic twist:

       “One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
       By the Relief Office I saw my people,
       As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering
       If God blessed America for me.”

Over the next few years, Guthrie reworked the lyrics of the song. It still reflected the viewpoint of working class Americans. But he gave it a more positive spin, changed the line used at the end of the verses and retitled it.

Guthrie recorded that version of the song in 1944. You’ll probably recognize it immediately from the first verse:

“This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.”

That’s right. Woody Guthrie’s well-known song “This Land is Your Land” started out as “God Blessed America,” his musical answer to Irving Berlin. And, ironically, it is now almost as famous and iconic as Berlin’s song “God Bless America.”

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