In the fall of 1938, radio was huge. That Halloween, Orson Welles scared listeners out of their wits with his War of the Worlds. And on November 10, 1938 — the eve of the holiday that was known then as Armistice Day — the popular singer Kate Smith made history on her radio show. She sang a song that had never been sung before, written by the composer Irving Berlin.
The song began with a verse about storm clouds gathering overseas — World War II was just a year off — and it summoned Americans to sing a song to their free country. Then came words and music that Americans have sung ever since. Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" has not only endured, it has become a statement of patriotism, of home front support for troops at war, and, in the Vietnam era, an anthem of counter-protest. And while it has brought a lump to the throat of many an American, it has also annoyed many who hear it as a tune of syrupy nationalism and trivialized faith.
One mark of its unusual status: Irving Berlin took no royalties from it. Instead, he created a fund that collected them and distributed them to the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts of America.
Sheryl Kaskowitz has written a book on Berlin's tune called God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song. In it, she explores the song's lyrical evolution and explains how its early popularity reflected the anxiety of the pre-war period and sparked a surprising anti-Semitic and xenophobic backlash. She speaks about it here with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel.