Behind The Song: “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin

It’s  one of Irving Berlin’s most famous and beloved songs, and so iconic in this country as to resonate like a national anthem. But one which is more singable than our official one, and with more understandable lyrics.

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However there is a unique aspect to this song which is hardly known and rarely mentioned: a key part of the melody is not entirely original to Berlin, and comes from an unlikely source. Whether his usage of it was intentional or not is uncertain.

Much more on that to follow, But first some history:

Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline in Russia in 1883. Everyone called him Izzy. He and his family came to America when he was five in 1888.

When he was 18, like all Jews in show-biz, he Americanized his name so as to be included. But he never hid the fact that he was not born here, and the song is very much the true expression of his gratitude for his life in America.

Unlike most songwriters then who wrote only lyrics or music, Berlin did both. From early on, he had an ingenious knack for writing songs, even though his limitations as a musican were pronounced; ; he could only play in one key on piano.

(Which was not C, as some assume, but F#. Years later he got a transposing piano, so he could change keys while staying in the same fingering – the black notes, essentially.)

Yet like all songwriters working within such a short form with only twelve tones of music, he mastered the art of transcending limitations, which is at the heart of this art. Even working only in one key, he could write every kind of song.

Sometimes he’d write an approximation of a song. When ragtime became the radical craze of the day, as popularized by Scott Joplin and other black composers, Berlin got in on the fad by writing several hit songs with ‘ragtime’ in their titles, although musically they weren’t ragtime at all. Which didn’t matter. They were hits, though, such as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” the biggest of them all. 

It’s true that a good many of his famous songs were written to be hits, but were not directly connected to the songwriter. Phillip Roth saw this as pure brilliance, and wrote that Berlin was the ultimate Jewish genius because he took the blood out of Easter, and made it about fashion (in his song “Easter Parade,”) and took Christ out of Christmas and made it about snow. (“White Christmas.”)

So while he had no real attachment to the idea of Easter or Christmas, his feelings about America were genuine.  It gave him the life he could never have had in Russia. His understanding of the meaning of  America to the “huddled masses” who came here for a better life was direct and real. He became not only a wealthy, successful man, he was famous and beloved. That truth, for which gratitude is expressed,  is woven into the fabric of the song. 

He wrote it in 1918 at the age of  25, some twenty years after arriving in America. By then, he was in the American Army, training for World War I at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York. But even in the army, he was mostly busy writing songs, and wrote a review called Yip Yip Yaphank. It was while writing songs for that show that he wrote the first version of “God Bless America.” 

Perhaps sensing this song was meant for other purposes, and elected to not use it in the show.

Being a savvy songwriter, he knew that rhyming ‘America’ would be problematic. So he structured the song so that the phrase doesn’t end with the title, but with a word easier to rhyme – ‘home.’ – “God Bless America my home sweet home.”  (It’s the same reason why Sammy Cahn, when writing the lyrics to a song about Chicago – also a tough rhyme – used the more easily rhymable title, “My Kind of Town.” 

For Berlin to set up the phrase “Home sweet home” though was easier, but still offered few options. He needed a rhymed word to precede it in the song, and settled on ‘foam.’:

From the mountains to the prairies/To the oceans what with foam
God bless America/My home sweet home

He folds that nicely into the phrasing and the melody, so it goes by without calling much attention to itself. Although when one thinks of America, ‘foam’ is not one of the first words that comes to mind. It’s a set-up, but done artfully enough to conceal its function.

It’s interesting to see the earlier version of the song completed at Yaphank, in which this famous set-up line was still in formation.  Originally, he had “Make her victorious/ on land and foam, God bless America…”

He also changed this line, which originally was “Stand beside her and guide her to the right with the light from above.” To avoid the impression that ‘to the right’ was a political suggestion, he revised it.

Written during WWI, with the rise of Hitler in the late-30s, he revised it as a prayer for peace, and was popularized by the singer Kate Smith, who performed it on her radio show and recorded it. For this he wrote a new introduction, which is rarely used now but which she sang always: 

“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.”

It was her rendition of the song at this time – the very start of what became WWII – that forever changed the status – from hit to standard and to its current status as one of America’s most beloved anthems. 

Yet it remains somewhat tainted by Berlin’s “habit,” as the writer Jody Rosen phrased it, of “interpolating bits of half-remembered songs into his own numbers.” If this was a habit, it was an unfortunate one, though less risky legally then as copyright law pertaining to song authorship had yet to be established.

Rosen writes that it’s something Berlin did often, borrowing melodic phrases from other songs, almost always from obscure, novelty songs that few if anyone would ever remember. How intentional this was, if at all, is not easy to discern. All songwriters at some point  accidentally use parts of existing melodies when writing their own. The hope is that we each get better in time at discerning this, and do our best to avoid it. 

This “habit” impacted “God Bless America” profoundly. In what has become one of America’s most iconic, almost sacred, melodies. Remarkably, the opening six-note melodic phrase of the song (on “God bless America…”) is identical to a melodic passage in a novelty song from 1906 about a Jewish musician known as the “Jewish Sousa.”

That song was written in 1906 by three Irish songwriters, Bert Fitzgibbon, Jack Drislane, and Theodore Morse.  The name of the song that seeded “God Bless America”?

“When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band.” 

It was recorded by Collins & Harlan, who were quite popular then at the dawning of the recorded era of music. This is no joke! That is where the roots of “God Bless America” are planted: In a song by a Russian immigrant borrowing the tune of a joke song about a Jewish musician written by three Irish songwriters called “When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band.” 

It adds a whole other dimension to “God Bless America.” And yet it’s perfect, for this is the nation we are in, a land of constantly changing diversity, and our popular songs reflect this diversity while also unifying us.

Berlin was 18 then when the song was a hit, working as a singing waiter at the Pelham Café in New York’s Chinatown. Referring to the songwriter’s tendency to use melodies from other songs, Rosen wrote that “this is what [Berlin] did in 1917, when he sat down to write a patriotic tune, and plopped the exact melodic phrase that opens the `When Mose With His Nose’ chorus into his new song.”

“Listen to Collins & Harlan’s weather-beaten 100-year-old recording, and it’s unmistakable: the six notes that accompany the lyric `Abie then starts to play` are instantly recognizable as the opening strains of `God Bless America.’ It’s an irony to relish, and not a bad metaphor for the alchemy of Jewish-American musical assimilation.”

The recording of that song is below. It is at exactly 0.41 – which starts the chorus – that the famous six-note phrase we know begins.

“Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” is the song Irving Berlin sings during an interview in Berlin’s New York office, July 16, 1942. Besides appearing in the army relief show, “This Is The Army” which he wrote and produced, the noted composer has written several new songs for a movie. (AP Photo/Murray Becker)


Photo by Brandon Mowinkel on Unsplash

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