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The Song That United America

This Saturday marks the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. It’s a time to remember and reflect, to express heartfelt gratitude for the many heroes who sacrificed that day.

It’s also a time to recall a song that united our country. The occasion? Two persons, a singer and a songwriter, collaborated to commemorate another twentieth anniversary.

November 11, 1938, marked twenty years to the day when warring nations signed the Treaty of Versailles, declaring the end of World War I. They called it Armistice Day, a time to remember the dedicated soldiers who gave their lives or were maimed fighting for world freedom.

Anyone alive near the middle of the 20th century probably remembers Kate Smith, the plus-size singer with the magnanimous voice. From 1937 to 1945, Smith had a weekly radio program, “The Kate Smith Hour.”

This performer, dubbed the Songbird of the South, needed a tune for her show to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of that momentous declaration of peace. She asked songwriter Irving Berlin to supply it.

Berlin already had made a name for himself composing hit songs like Easter Parade and White Christmas. Most people didn’t know the hardships in his early life provided a thought base that enabled him to identify with many citizens.

Born Israel Baline and nicknamed Izzy, he was the son of Jewish immigrants fleeing the coming persecution in Russia and Siberia. Settling at first in tenement housing in New York City, the family experienced more hardship when the father died during Izzy’s eighth year.

Streets were safer for children in the early 1900s, so Izzy quit school and sold newspapers on the street to help his family survive. Then, fascinated with singing waiters in saloons, the boy thought he would like to try it next.

Izzy’s mother, however, refused to allow her young son the disgrace of working in saloons. Striking out on his own, he left home at age fourteen and earned seven dollars a week singing in Pelham’s Café in Chinatown. Incredibly, this talented youth couldn’t read music and could play the piano using only the black keys.

Kate Smith’s acquaintance with Irving Berlin was no coincidence. Neither, however, could imagine how far ripples would spread decades later, from the simple melody that resonated across the nation.

After obtaining the musical score for Berlin’s obscure song, Smith decided to use it to honor American soldiers and inspire a nation emerging from sorrow only two decades prior.

While introducing the song on her show, Smith said, “This year, with the war clouds of Europe so lately threatening the peace of the entire world, I felt I wanted to do something special ---- something that would not only be a memorial to our soldiers ---- but would also emphasize just how much America means to each and every one of us ... The song is God Bless America…”

She continued, “When I first tried it over, I felt, here is a song that will be timeless—it will never die—others will thrill to its beauty long after we are gone. …As I stand before the microphone and sing it with all my heart, I’ll be thinking of our veterans, and I’ll be praying with every breath I draw that we shall never have another war.”

And sing she did, with all her heart. The song became an instant hit.

Decades later, people continued to sing it at major sporting events and school programs. Congressmen stood on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington DC and sang it the day of the terrorist attacks of 9-1-1. President Bush and wife Laura joined in singing it at the dedication of the Pentagon Memorial in 2008. The Philadelphia Flyers even brought Smith to a game to perform it live the day they won the 1974 Stanley Cup Finals.

Why does the song resonate with so many U.S. citizens?

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. My public is the real people.”

Though Berlin’s life was far from perfect, he used his genius to inspire a spirit of nationalism at a critical time in America. And that is what pulled us together.

What about you? Any thoughts on this famous song or the anniversary of 9-1-1? You can use the comment box below.


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