The Song That United America
With all the hoopla over the singing of Kate Smith’s version of God Bless America, it seemed like a good time to set the record straight. Do you know the real history of the song and its composer?
Without going into the political side of things, I’d like to tell you about Irving Berlin, alias Israel Baline, the man whose musical gift pulled a nation together during dark times.
Berlin was born Israel Baline on May 11, 1888 in Siberia, to Jewish parents, Moses and Leah Baline. When he was four years old, Israel's, or “Izzy’s” parents, feared violence to Jews that was brewing in their mother country. They fled to America with their eight children and settled into tenement housing on New York’s lower east side. Moses, Izzy’s dad, got a job as a supervisor in a slaughterhouse that processed kosher chickens.
After the family saved enough money, they moved to a slightly better apartment. However, Moses, Izzy’s father, died when the boy was about eight years old.
Eight-year-old Izzy quit school and began selling newspapers on the street of the Bowery.
This lively youngster became fascinated with the singing waiters who made their living walking between tables in saloons and singing to their customers. Izzy’s mother adamantly refused to allow her son such disgraceful behavior, however. So he left home at age fourteen and began singing at Pelham’s Café in Chinatown, earning seven dollars a week just for his singing.
A typographical error changed his name from Israel Baline to Irving Berlin. His first song, Marie from Sunny Italy, contained an error on the cover: Words by I. Berlin. The name stuck.
Berlin’s life was filled with highs and lows, reflected in his music. His first wife, Dorothy Goetz, sister of his best friend, Ray Goetz, died of typhoid fever just five months after they were married. At his brother-in-law’s suggestion, Berlin wrote the song When I Lost You to deal with his grief and depression.
About 13 years later, Berlin met and carried on a secret romance with Ellin Mackey, daughter of multi-millionaire Clarence Mackey. Though her father strongly disapproved of her relationship with an immigrant from another religion (she was Catholic; he was Jewish), they eloped in January 4, 1926.
Berlin’s style of music became more conservative in his later years, adapting to cultural changes around him. However, he always possessed the ability to compose songs geared to specific singers or themes. He even composed music during his stint in the US army, including Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning. Berlin didn't learn to read music until later in life, and could play the piano using only the black keys. A special lever on his pianos allowed him to transpose.
Famous singer Kate Smith had a weekly radio show in the early part of the nineteen hundreds. In 1938 she approached Berlin about writing a patriotic song to use on her show commemorating the anniversary of Armistice Day. He pulled out his files and found a tune which had been rejected from a WW I musical.
The song God Bless America became an instant hit when Smith sang it. Later, major sporting events and school programs began using it. Congressmen stood on the capitol steps and sang the song after the terrorist attacks of 9-1-1. The song was sung at the dedication of the Pentagon Memorial in 2008.
Berlin wrote it with a heart of gratitude for what this country did for him. He had slept under tenement steps, eaten scraps, and known abject poverty. He said, “My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American, not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country. The highbrow is likely to be superficial, overtrained, supersensitive. The lowbrow is warped, subnormal. My public is the real people.”
Though Berlin’s life was far from perfect, he used his genius later in life to inspire a spirit of nationalism. And that is what helped pull us together, not apart.
What about you? Have any special memories of God Bless America being sung? Feel free to respectfully comment below.