“God Bless America”: Irving Berlin’s Awful Hymn

This weekend’s Super Bowl is the first to take place during Trump Time. It also comes in the centennial year of the United States’ entry into World War I. The historical alignment can only augur ill.

Presidential approval marks are way down, television ratings way up. If yesterday’s amusing contretemps at the National Prayer Breakfast are any indication, viewership should be as robust as the Dow Jones average for the Super Bowl. If only flabby Trump would agree to arm wrestle Arnold Schwarzenegger at the fifty-yardline for the right to do the coin toss.

In the Obama years there was always a pre-game spot with the President, who’d chat about the game and the microbrews and locally-sourced tailgate-style buffet his staff had prepared.  That was a kinder, gentler form of reality television.  This year expect Trump, who will already have instructed the CIA to provide his favorite quarterback Tom Brady with intelligence on the Falcons defensive strategy, to be seen on live t.v. before kickoff groping his own private cheerleaders (Steve Bannon in sequined body suit).

The patriotic musical fare always served up at the Super Bowl will have an even uglier ring this year than it usually does. The ceremony opens like a church service with the singing of a hymn— Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”:  The cantor in Houston on Sunday will be Luke Bryan: his choice to intone this introit presages a shift towards the political right on America’s holiest day.

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 around keyboard 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 the 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 one of the Second World War’s most popular propaganda songs: “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition and We’ll All be Free”— music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. The text was based on the supposed words uttered by a chaplain named Howell Forgy on board the USS New Orleans at Pearl Harbor. This song may be edgier 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 “Damascus 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, Uncle Sam’s got some News/The Donald’s got a Daisy Cutter that’s Gonna Give Taliban the Blues.”

A mixture of naïve optimism, patriotism, and bad taste is the tried-and-true recipe for propagandistic war music: the grisly business ahead heralded by light, pattering melodies, imminently danceable rhythms, and 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 American Civil War.

Although there have been almost no 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 diverse 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 and revised 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 hymn to the similarly derivative “America,” which takes its melody from the British national anthem “God Save the King.”

The country singer Lee Greenwood concocted the derivative “God Bless the USA” in the 1980s and then rode this sugar-coated beast to middling heights of popularity during the First Gulf War and then still farther after September 11th. Watch, if you dare, Trump sing along with the closing line of this emetic anthem when Greenwood performed it at the Lincoln Memorial Thursday of Inauguration Week. That the pre-Trump Center for Disease Control did not put out a health advisory on the sight and sound of this airborne plague allowed yet another malady to afflict the body politic.

In spite of such outbreaks, Berlin’s position atop the propaganda charts remains unchallenged.

In the aftermath of September 11th, the US Army bands were already busy with Berlin’s anthem and it is still an unbeaten 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 Berlin “A Hero for Today” on the Today Show, with the audience in Rockefeller Center plaza breaking into a chant of “USA, USA,” 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 enshrined in the national liturgy.

On Super Bowl Sunday and throughout Trump’s malign tenure, there is a battle to be fought against Berlin’s awful 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 Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com