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The Song That United Us

Memorial Day: the day we set aside to honor those who died while serving in the armed forces. We owe a great deal to those who gave their all.

This Memorial Day is different than any we have experienced. In a time of uncertainty, when we’re cautiously emerging from behind closed doors, we as a people need encouraging words.

Years ago, a man wrote a song which pulled together Americans in several times of crises. Its composer? Irving Berlin.

Perhaps you remember other iconic tunes he wrote, like White Christmas and Easter Parade. But God Bless America is the one our nation needed—and used—to commemorate times when our back was against the wall.

Composer Berlin had good reason to be grateful for America. Born in Siberia in 1888 to Jewish parents and emigrating to America to escape persecution four years later, Israel or “Izzy” Berlin (later known as Irving Berlin) knew abject poverty. His parents and their eight children settled into tenement housing on New York’s lower east side, where Moses, his dad, got a job as supervisor in a slaughterhouse that processed kosher chickens.

Izzy’s father died when the boy was eight years old. The child quit school and began selling newspapers on the street in the Bowery.

Berlin’s life was filled with highs and lows, reflected in his music. His first wife died of typhoid fever just five months after they were married. Songs written during those times reflected his emotional valleys.

As prolific as Berlin was at writing songs, however, it was ironic he didn’t learn to read music until later in life. And he could play the piano using only the black keys. That didn’t stop Izzy, however, from producing song after song to lift the spirits of his listeners.

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.”

In 1938, famous singer Kate Smith approached Berlin about writing a patriotic song to use on her radio show, commemorating the anniversary of Armistice Day (the end of WW I). Berlin searched his files and pulled out a tune he wrote for a WW I musical, which had been rejected.

The song God Bless America became an instant hit. For decades, vocalists sang it at major sporting events and school programs. Congressmen stood on the capitol steps and sang it after the terrorist attacks of 9-1-1. It 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 stared poverty in the face. Yet the freedoms he enjoyed, allowed him to begin with depressing circumstances and end with lump-in-the-throat patriotism.

One lone Jewish man who rose from despair, used his genius to inspire a spirit of nationalism in America just when we needed it most. And that is what pulled us together.

How about you? Any encouraging words during this unprecedented time?

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