“I’d like to write a great peace song,” Irving Berlin told a journalist in 1938, “but it’s hard to do, because you have trouble dramatizing peace.”
Years before John Lennon or Bob Dylan were even born, Berlin took up the challenge of penning an anthem that would inspire his fellow men to live in harmony. As America’s most successful songwriter, the 50-year-old Berlin had already lived through one world war, and with the rise of Nazi Germany, he knew a second was brewing.
He recalled, “I worked for a while on a song called ‘Thanks America,’ but I didn’t like it. I tried again with a song called ‘Let’s Talk About Liberty,’ but I didn’t get very far. It was too much like making a speech to music. It then occurred to me to reexamine an old song of mine, ‘God Bless America.’”
Berlin’s practice of “going to the trunk,” where he squirreled away every verse, chorus and half-finished idea he ever wrote, often got him out of songwriting jams. He’d come up with “God Bless America” in 1918, while serving in the Army at Camp Upton in Yaphank, N.Y. It was intended for a military revue called Yip Yip Yaphank.
His musical secretary Harry Ruby remembered, “There were so many patriotic songs coming out at the time. Every songwriter was pouring them out. I said, ‘Geez, another one?’”
Berlin decided Ruby was right, calling the song “just a little sticky.” He cut it from the score, stashing it away in his trunk.
Two decades later, Berlin saw new hope in the old tune. “I had to make one or two changes in the lyrics, and they in turn led me to a slight change and improvement in the melody, one line in particular. The original ran: ‘Stand beside her and guide her to the right with a light from above.’ In 1918, the phrase ‘to the right’ had no political significance, as it has now. So for obvious reasons, I changed the phrase to ‘Through the night with a light from above.’”
Pleased with the revamped song—he packed a lot into its compact five-line frame—Irving searched for the right singer to introduce it.
Kate Smith was 200 pounds of wholesome country girl goodness, a vaudeville singer who’d entertained WWI troops when she was 8 years old and gone on to host her own CBS radio show, with millions of devoted listeners. On Nov. 11, 1938, Smith sang “God Bless America” as part of her Armistice Day broadcast (anniversary of the end of WWI).
This is the recording of the original broadcast performance: