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Bluster, Banality and the National Liturgy

The War on Kitsch

by DAVID YEARSLEY

This year’s Boston marathon was preceded the week before by the commemoration of the first anniversary of last year’s bombing. The somber, patriotic ceremony began like a church service with the singing of hymn—Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” The Russian-born Berlin wrote the song in 1918 in the only key he claimed to be able to play in: F-sharp. Noel Coward mistakenly thought that Berlin did everything in the typical beginner key of C major. Actually, Berlin found it easier to find his way on the black notes, conveniently raised up like big braille buttons above the sameness of the ivories below.

A copy of the song is among the sheet music left in my grandmother’s piano bench. She also had a “war edition” from 1917 of a sentimental love-song entitled “K-K-K-Katy” composed by Army Song Leader Geoffrey O’Hara. On the back page of the single-fold half-folio—a small format adopted says the publisher “to co-operate with the Government and to conserve paper during the War” since “Save! Save! Save is the watchword today”—is an advertisement for some other wartime offerings.  Among my favorite titles are the catchy “Just like Washington Crossed the Delaware General Pershing Will Cross the Rhine”; the forthright “We Stopped them at the Marne”; and my own favorite, “It’s a Long Way to Berlin, But We’ll Get There,” which turned out to be something of a hit when recorded by Arthur Fields that same year.

To judge from these songs, 1917 was an optimistic year in the United States, far from the realities of Europe: no lyrics about No-Man’s Land, mustard gas, trench warfare.  And no, they didn’t get to Berlin.

My grandmother also had a copy of the Second World War’s popular anthem, at least as far as the U.S. was concerned, was “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition and We’ll All be Free”—words and music by Frank Loesser; the text was based on the supposed utterance of a chaplain named Howell Forgy aboard the U.S.S. New Orleans at Pearl Harbor. This song may be more hard-hitting than its World War One predecessors but it, too, seems hopelessly quaint now.

One is tempted to think of those as simpler times, to smile condescendingly at my grandparents and imagine that if they were alive today they would expect similarly buoyant songs like “Baghdad and Back by Christmas” or “Daddy’s a Delta Force Hero” or “Dronesome Dove.”

It’s a fun game to play, updating the words and melodies of 1917: “Rollover Mullah Omar, and Uncle Sam’e got some News/Obama’s got a Daisy Cutter that’s Gonna Give Taliban the Blues.”

A mixture of naïve optimism, patriotism, and bad taste is the fail-safe recipe for propagandistic war music: the grisly business ahead heralded by light, pattering melodies, imminently danceable rhythms, comfortable harmonies.

This is what we expect from the music that accompanies us to wars.  Tin Pan Alley would hardly have welcomed a lyric such as Wilfred Owens’s “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” set so unsettlingly by Benjamin Britten in his War Requiem of 1962. Indeed, the military has long recognized the destabilizing power of song: the Army of the Potomac banned the singing of the popular “When This Cruel War is Over” midway through the America Civil War.

Although there have been only occasional eruptions of the worldwide War on Terror on American soil, the surge in patriotism has meant that Berlin’s “God Bless America” has metastasized into every corner of national civic musical life since September, 2001. Already in that year the song was heard in 7th inning stretch of Game 7 of the World Series; Madonna did it on her Drowned World Tour; and aged British rock stars got into the act as they staggered around Madison Square Garden.

Berlin first concocted “God Bless America” in 1918 as a chorus to one of his musicals, then exhumed it for Kate Smith in 1938 in advance of the second big war of the last century. It is a song whose harmonic and melodic profile— particularly the goose-stepping bass-line of the chorus—has always reminded me of the marginally more dreadful “Onward Christian Soldiers,” a hymn extruded from Arthur Sullivan on a day off from the Savoy Theatre.

It has to be admitted that “God Bless America” is more singable than the ungainly “Star-spangled Banner,” that reeling English drinking song. Many prefer Berlin’s nationalist hymn to the similarly derivative “America”, which takes it melody from the British national anthem “God Save the King.” Nonetheless, as the Boston ceremony showed, Berlin is topping the propaganda charts.

In the aftermath of September 11th the U. S. Army bands were already busy with Berlin’s anthem and it has become a patriotic, anti-terror warhorse. On October 4th and 5th of 2001 the Army’s marquee band traveled to New York where the group received a rapturous reception at their Lincoln Center concert. The Army Chorus with soloist Tenor Staff Sgt. Steve Cramer sang “A Hero for Today” on the today Show, with the audience in Rockefeller Center plaza breaking into a chant of “U. S. A., U. S. A.” before the last of these rousing strains had faded. Later that day, Sergeant 1st Class Bob McDonald sang “God Bless America” at Ground Zero, describing how “the whole place had a sacred feel to it. It’s a burial ground with an element of otherworldliness.  There was also an element of humanity that was so strong.”

The early phases of war are often filled with musical bluster and banality. A lone tenor emitting the strains of “God Bless America” over the hallowed hole in Lower Manhattan was the ultimate proof of the centrality of kitsch in propaganda.  Tiny Pan Alley could never have dreamt that one of its penny sheets would be taken up into the national liturgy.

In the battle against Berlin’s hymn and the ranks of propagandistic song that surround it, truthful music will be a vital forum for dissent in the grim years ahead, in the endless, borderless War on Kitsch.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com