Stories Behind the Music: Irving Berlin's "God Bless America"
"God Bless America", perhaps one of our nation's most well-known and moving anthems,
was composed by Irving Berlin (1888-1989), a true American who immigrated to America when he was five years old.
Born Israel Baline in Eastern Russia, the musician was one of eight children whose parents brought them to
New York in 1893 to escape the pogroms in Russia. As a young boy, he took to the streets of the Lower East
Side of New York City to help support his mother and family after his father had died. In the early 1900s,
Berlin worked as a singing waiter in Chinatown, and began writing songs. In 1907, he published his first song,
"Marie From Sunny Italy" and by 1911, he had his first major international hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band."
Berlin wrote a version of "God Bless America" in 1918 at Camp Upton, for a comedic Ziegfeld-style revue
called "Yip, Yip, Yaphank." "Make her victorious on land and foam, God Bless America..." ran the original lyric.
soon decided that the solemn song did not fit with the lighthearted show, and so he abandoned the work.
In the fall of 1938, as Europe was again being threatened by war, Berlin decided to write a "peace"
song and he remembered "God Bless America." He made a few edits to the song that he had written twenty
years earlier to reflect the different state of the world. On Armistice Day in 1938, the song was introduced to the nation. It became well-loved quickly and was almost chosen
to replace the national anthem because of its patriotism and popularity.
Berlin made so many sales on the sheet music of the hymn that he established the God Bless
America Fund, dedicating the royalties to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.
Throughout Berlin's life, the composer supported Jewish charities and organizations and donated many dollars to worthwhile causes. He was honored in 1944 by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for "advancing the aims of the conference to eliminate religious and racial conflict." Five years later, he was honored by the New York YMHA as one of twelve "outstanding Americans of the Jewish faith." On February 18, 1955, President Eisenhower presented him with a gold medal in recognition of his services in composing many patriotic songs for the country. The original lyrics of the song are as follows.
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,
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