With all the talk of meddling in U. S. elections and bounties on U.S. soldiers, it’s no small wonder that a Russian named Berlin can still claim to have composed this nation’s best-loved song. Born in the Russian Empire in 1888, the immigrant Irving Berlin wrote both the words and the music to “God Bless America.” This hymn will be heard on the 40th edition of a Capitol Fourth, the Independence Day concert that has for the past thirty-nine years taken place on the West Lawn of the White House. This time around, Covid has thwarted the full display of military pomp that Trump had promised the beleaguered country.
Caving into common sense, Trump scrapped the show of Fourth-of-July force, which cost taxpayers some thirteen million dollars last year. The Commander-in-Chief countermanded the deployment not only of tanks, but also of military bands, choruses, and orchestras. If the mission had gone ahead as planned, he would have for once tried to remain tight-lipped during the singing of “God Bless America. “He forgot words to the song in another state celebration in 2018.
Instead of boots on the ground, there’ll be a flyover of the Mall in DC and at Mt. Rushmore. Instead of live music, there’ll be pre-recorded contributions from various celebrities and a culling of highlights from previous years’ installments. As over the last four decades, PBS will broadcast the patriotic potpourri for the home audience and “our troops overseas.” Foreign entanglements are now permanently embedded in the national celebration of a day in 1776 dedicated to ending them.
Berlin wrote “God Bless America” in the wartime year of 1918 in the only key he claimed to be able to play in: F-sharp. Noel Coward, a Brit, mistakenly thought that Berlin did everything in the typical beginner key of C major. Quite the contrary said Berlin, who preferred to find his way mostly on the black notes, which are conveniently raised up like big braille buttons above the sameness of the ivories below.
A copy of Berlin’s song was 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 numbers. 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 “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.
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 anthems, at least as far as the U.S. was concerned: “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition and We’ll All be Free”—words and music by Frank Loesser. The text was based on a phrase shouted by 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 I predecessors but it, too, seems hopelessly quaint now.
One is tempted to think of those as simpler times, to imagine that if they my grandparents were alive today, they would expect similarly upbeat songs like “Baghdad and Back by Christmas,” “Tehran Tango,” “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 go-to recipe for propagandistic war music: the grisly business ahead heralded by light, pattering melodies, imminently danceable rhythms, bolstering 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 very occasional eruptions of the worldwide War on Terror on American soil, the surge in patriotism over the past twenty years has meant that Berlin’s “God Bless America” has infiltrated every corner of civic musical life since September 11th, 2001. Already in that year the song was heard in the 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. The song has secured a sacred place in the Super Bowl’s pre-kick-off ritual.
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 World War. 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. Yet the opening of “God Bless America” was apparently lifted by Berlin from a Jewish tune circulating in the Lower East Side during his youth.
It has to be admitted that “God Bless America” is more singable than the ungainly “Star-spangled Banner,” whose melody has never shaken its origins as a 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.”
In the immediate 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 yet more proof of the centrality of kitsch in propaganda. Tin Pan Alley could never have dreamt that one of its penny sheets would be taken up into the national liturgy.
A veteran of the armed services, Berlin was thrilled that his song bolstered spirits in World War II. Berlin also helped to engineer the continued weaponization of “God Bless America” over the long span of his life, as can be seen and heard during his 1968 appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, six days before the composer’s eightieth birthday. Berlin would live on for another twenty years, making it to 101.
Elegantly clad in a tuxedo, Berlin sings his most famous creation with only a gentle piano accompanying him. The composer’s voice is quiet, both grainy and full of air. Fragile but resolute, this old man’s voice does not surrender to age. When Berlin goes high in his range at the close, the power recedes still further from his voice, wafted aloft and away by nostalgia. It’s as if he’s caressing his child—or the memory of that child. His voices rises up as his poetry takes in the glorious expanse of America, Berlin’s adopted land: “From the mountains to the prairies …” And then at the apex of the melody his voice mists into thin air in a stirring evocation of the “oceans white with the foam.” It is a heart-rending performance.
One could almost be brought to tears as the tone lingers in Berlin’s throat, his head cocked prayerfully to one side. The audience applauds, as a trumpet call is heard and the curtain (chiffon rather than iron) behind Berlin opens to reveal two choral battalions of crisply uniformed Boy and Girl Scouts on steep risers. As visual and musical symbols, these children serve the same purpose of as communist Young Pioneers or members of a fascist youth group. At the rousing choral conclusion, so martial compared to Berlin’s sentimental solo, the composer extends his arms in a kind of benediction. On the other side of the world, the Tet Offensive had kicked into high gear that very day.
America has tired of its foreign adventures. In the battle against Berlin’s hymn and the ranks of propagandistic song that surround it, truthful music will be a vital weapon of dissent in the grim years ahead—in the endless, borderless War on Kitsch.