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God Bless America

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But then, as Kaskowitz shows, questions of authenticity and meaning have always hovered around "God Bless America," in a way that they don't around other patriotic songs. That is partly because "God Bless America" is the most recent entry in the patriotic canon and the only one whose composer is still well known.

Irving Berlin originally wrote the song in 1918, when he was wearing an army uniform during the First World War. He intended it as the finale for "Yip, Yip, Yaphank", the soldiers' revue he was writing while stationed at Yaphank, New York. But while the show went on to be a Broadway smash, Berlin pulled "God Bless America" from the score. "Berlin himself felt that it was 'too obviously patriotic for soldiers to sing,' " Kaskowitz explains.

If "God Bless America" had come out during the First World War, would we still be singing it today, or would it now seem like something from a history museum, like George M. Cohan's "Over There"? It's impossible to say; what's certain is that when the song finally did emerge from Berlin's trunk, in the fall of 1938, it entered a very different historical and cultural moment. The Munich crisis had just passed in Europe, making clear that war with Nazi Germany was only a matter of time. The debate over whether America should engage with the European crisis or isolate itself was at fever pitch.

When the popular singer Kate Smith introduced the song to the world for the first time, in a radio broadcast on November 10, 1938, "God Bless America" seemed to wade directly into the politics of the moment. The tune we all sing today is actually just the chorus of the song; the verse has been all but purged from popular memory. But at the first performance, the national audience heard the verse first, which read:

While the storm clouds gather
Far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance
To a land that's free,
Let us all be grateful
That we're far from there,
As we raise our voices
In a solemn prayer.

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