Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, May 28, 2016

"God Bless America": Written During WW1 – But Saved for Another Generation

By James Patton

Irving Berlin in Uniform
Irving Berlin was constantly writing songs and didn’t slow down even after he was drafted. While he was writing the revue Yip Yip Yaphank (more about that later), he turned out a song that he called "God Bless America." He had no specific need for a patriotic number in the show, plus the patriotic music of the era was up-tempo and stirring, music you could march to. He told his colleague Harry Ruby that the work felt “just a little bit sticky," and it went into his “trunk.”

Fast forward to the fall of 1938, when Berlin felt the times were right for a patriotic song. He wrote "Thanks America" and "Let’s Talk about Liberty," but neither satisfied him, so he retrieved the 1918 "God Bless America" and made a few changes, most notably the line "to the right with a light from above" became "through the night with a light from above."  He arranged it for radio star Kate Smith and she debuted the song on CBS on 11 November. Woody Guthrie later said that he wrote "This Land is Your Land" as a rebuttal to the religiosity of Berlin’s work.

Irving Berlin (Israel Isidore Baline) was born in Russia and came to New York in 1893. With little formal education he began performing at age 14 and published his first song in 1907. In 1911 he hit the big time with "Alexander’s Ragtime Band".  In 1914, his Broadway show Watch Your Step (starring Vernon and Irene Castle) was the first production to include syncopated dance routines, which became the standard. He went on to become a mainstay of the music genre known as Tin Pan Alley, writing hundreds of songs, many of which were hits, some have been hits more than once. He also wrote and produced 20 Broadway shows and 16 movies in his 101 years.

Berlin was drafted in April 1918 and spent the war serving with the 152d Depot Brigade at Camp Upton, NY (near the village of Yaphank), which was the training camp for the 77th Division and later a transient embarkation center.

Berlin was used to late nights and late sleep-ins, so disliked the Army routine. He composed "Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," which he described later as “a protest written from the heart out, absolutely without the slightest thought that it would ever earn a cent.” The most famous part:

Someday I'm going to murder the bugler,
Someday they're going to find him dead;
I'll amputate his reveille
and step upon it heavily,
and spend the rest of my life in bed.

The CO wasn’t amused and placed Berlin in charge of the buglers. He later related that the colonel wanted the Camp Upton buglers to play George M. Cohan’s hit patriotic song "Over There," which is written outside the four-note range of the Army bugle. Disappointed at the result, the colonel ordered that "thin little sergeant" (Berlin) to have them practice until they could get the song right.

Kate Smith Will Be Forever
Associated with
"God Bless America"
At Camp Upton Berlin wrote the musical revue Yip Yip Yaphank about life as a soldier in training camp, originally performed for the troops by a draftee cast of hundreds. In August strings were pulled and the revue moved to Broadway, where it was allowed to run for about two months. Familiar songs from the show include "Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" and "Mandy." At the conclusion of the run the entire cast (and an army band) formed up and dramatically marched off the stage and west to the Hudson River Piers, where they were ferried to a troop ship headed for France, although Berlin stayed in New York.

In 1942 Berlin revived Yip Yip Yaphank as a show called This Is the Army, with additional music, including Puttin’ on the Ritz.  He was allowed to use Camp Upton for his casting and rehearsals. After three months on Broadway and a 16 month national tour, Berlin had earned over $2 million for The Army Relief Fund. A reduced version also played with USO tours in the Pacific Theater.

Observing the runaway success of the Abbott and Costello musical comedy Buck Privates, Berlin re-worked This Is the Army as a Hollywood extravaganza, with 17 musical numbers. The cast included Berlin (as himself), future president Ronald Reagan and, of course, Kate Smith, who sang an extended "God Bless America" that ran for five minutes. The movie earned over $9.5 million for the Army Relief Fund.


  1. Irving was a true American patriot whose musical legacy continues to this day. He buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, NY, along with other WW I notables. In a bit of ironical humor, this Jewish boy from Brooklyn gave us "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade".

    Steve Miller

  2. Um, not Brooklyn but the Lower East Side, Cherry Street.

  3. Fabulous post -- sharing it on Twitter for Memorial Day!