Illustration by Damien Correll
Illustration by Damien Correll

The “God Bless America” that we know today was forged from collaboration between its composer, Irving Berlin, and Kate Smith, the performer who first made it famous. Behind the scenes, though, the two of them battled for control of the song.

The story begins in 1918, when Berlin was drafted as an Army private, a few months after he officially became a U.S. citizen.

While stationed at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York, Berlin was asked to write a soldier show to raise money for a community house to be built at the camp. The revue, called “Yip, Yip, Yaphank,” staged at New York City’s Century Theatre, included a blackface number, satirical spoofs of Army life (including “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”) and Ziegfeld Follies-style dance numbers featuring soldiers in drag that one reviewer characterized as “one long laugh.”

Berlin wrote “God Bless America” as the show’s finale, but decided to end instead with the upbeat “We’re on Our Way to France.” Berlin later said he changed his mind because “God Bless America” was “too obviously patriotic for soldiers to sing.” People in the military already amply demonstrate their patriotism through service, he believed. Patriotic songs were for civilians.

Stashed Away

So Berlin stashed “God Bless America” in his trunk of rejected songs, where it lay for 20 years. He got it out in the fall of 1938, after returning from a trip to London, where he had felt the growing tensions in Europe. He wanted a song that expressed a feeling of gratitude for the U.S.

About the same time, Smith approached Berlin in search of a patriotic song to sing on the radio for Armistice Day. Berlin made changes to “God Bless America” and gave it to Smith, and she performed it on “The Kate Smith Hour” on Nov. 10, and almost every week after for more than two years.

Smith made a popular record, Berlin sold half a million copies of the sheet music, and the song became an unofficial anthem for public gatherings at schools, churches, civic meetings, concerts and sports events.

That wasn’t the end of the story though. On the contrary, it was the beginning of the long struggle between the singer and the composer -- over when it was written, whom it was written for, why it was popular, and who had the right to perform it.

One source of tension was Smith’s role in the song’s creation. During her daytime talk show on the day she first sang it, she said that she had asked Berlin for “a new hymn of praise and love and allegiance to America” and that the composer had “worked day after day, night after night, until at last his task was completed.” Then he sent it to her with a note saying, “Dear Kate: here it is -- I did the best I could, and it expresses the way I feel.”

Two years later, an article with Smith’s byline in Pic magazine rendered the contents of Berlin’s note differently: “Dear Kate: This song is yours and yours alone,” she said it said. “I have written so many for everyone to sing but this one I give to you.”

Berlin objected to both this fabrication and the message it implied -- that Smith was a central figure in the song’s crafting. He had already announced, in a July 1940 news release, that he had composed the song during World War I.

Another point of dispute centered on whether the song’s overwhelming popularity was due to its inherent quality or to Smith’s treatment. In a July 1940 profile of Berlin in the New York Times Magazine, the composer said the reason the song caught on “is that it happens to have a universal appeal. Any song that has that is bound to be a success.”

Mistaken Caption

In December of that year, a photo caption in a Look magazine profile of Smith stated that Berlin had originally given Smith a mere sketch of the song and that her instrumental arranger had polished it up -- so that by the time she sang it, it was not the song Berlin had written at Camp Upton. Berlin, given an opportunity to review proofs before this article was published, called the assertion “incorrect and really libelous,” and the caption was fixed. But because of a mechanical error, some copies of the magazine included the mistaken caption.

Smith’s exclusive right to perform the song became an additional source of strife. According to Berlin, it was he who first suggested that early radio performances should be restricted to Smith. In February 1939, Berlin’s business partner Saul Bornstein and Smith’s manager Ted Collins agreed that Smith would have exclusive rights to broadcast the song for eight weeks.

When the eight weeks were up, Berlin wired Bornstein that they could no longer withhold requests from other people to perform the song on important patriotic occasions, but Bornstein said that it would be wrong to antagonize Smith, as she had made the song a hit. Berlin argued that the song would have been a hit even without Smith, but ultimately agreed to give her sole permission to sing the song outside “educational, religious, patriotic and charitable non-commercial programs” and except on national holidays.

In September 1940, Berlin’s office requested that this modified restriction to Smith be lifted, because the song had “become part of our national musical life.”

To some extent, the rancor between Smith and Berlin reflected a cultural clash between urban sophistication and small-town folksiness. Berlin was associated with the glamorous vision of the musical spectacle, an escapist dream of luxury during the Depression years. He was also linked to the Algonquin Round Table, a group of intellectuals in New York City, including Edna Ferber, Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Smith lived in a Park Ave. penthouse, yet stood entirely outside the Round Table’s world. Her radio show focused on the issues faced by ordinary folks. And she was a target for urban critics. A 1934 New Yorker profile of her described Smith’s “throaty contralto, which sentimentalizes even the most concupiscent torch song” and her “folksy manner (in which the word ‘something,’ for example, becomes ‘sumpin’).” The writer observed that Smith hated Broadway, preferred staying home or visiting suburban movie houses, and hardly ever read.

The two artists’ differences would last a lifetime. After Smith’s death in 1986, her obituary in the New York Times described her affiliation with “God Bless America” by stating that in 1938 she had “introduced a new song written expressly for her by Irving Berlin.” A correction ran a few days later, after the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers let the Times know the truth -- to protect the legacy of the then 98-year-old Berlin.

Yet Smith may have won in the long run. In an online survey on attitudes about the song, 43 percent of more than 1,800 respondents said they associate “God Bless America” with Kate Smith, while only a quarter correctly identified its composer as Irving Berlin.

(Sheryl Kaskowitz writes about music in American culture. This is adapted from her book, “God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song,” which will be published July 4 by Oxford University Press.)

To contact the writer of this article: Sheryl Kaskowitz at skGodBlessAmerica@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net.