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American composer Irving Berlin sings his song "God Bless America" in front of Boy Scouts troop members and spectators gathered at a tent in Monticello, New York in 1940. Instead of collecting royalties from "God Bless America," Berlin created a fund that collected and distributed them to the Boy and Girl Scouts. (Getty Images)

From Peace To Patriotism: The Shifting Identity Of 'God Bless America'

by NPR Staff
Sep 2, 2013 (All Things Considered)

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Sheryl Kaskowitz is a scholar of American music and the author of God Bless America.

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In the fall of 1938, radio was huge. That Halloween, Orson Welles scared listeners out of their wits with his War of the Worlds. And on November 10, 1938 — the eve of the holiday that was known then as Armistice Day — the popular singer Kate Smith made history on her radio show. She sang a song that had never been sung before, written by the composer Irving Berlin.

The song began with a verse about storm clouds gathering overseas — World War II was just a year off — and it summoned Americans to sing a song to their free country. Then came words and music that Americans have sung ever since. Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" has not only endured, it has become a statement of patriotism, of home front support for troops at war, and, in the Vietnam era, an anthem of counter-protest. And while it has brought a lump to the throat of many an American, it has also annoyed many who hear it as a tune of syrupy nationalism and trivialized faith.

One mark of its unusual status: Irving Berlin took no royalties from it. Instead, he created a fund that collected them and distributed them to the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts of America.

Sheryl Kaskowitz has written a book on Berlin's tune called God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song. In it, she explores the song's lyrical evolution and explains how its early popularity reflected the anxiety of the pre-war period and sparked a surprising anti-Semitic and xenophobic backlash. She speaks about it here with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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