Thursday, July 25, 2019
July 25, 2019: American Anthems: “God Bless America”
[On July 22, 1893, Wellesley Professor Katharine Lee Bates first composed the words to what would become “America the Beautiful.” So this week I’ll AmericanStudy “America” and other national songs, leading up to a special weekend post on 21C nominees for new anthems!]
On the importance, and the limits, of contextualizing an iconic anthem.
I’ll get to my own couple of paragraphs and analyses in a moment, but I have to dedicate one paragraph in a post on “God Bless America” to Sheryl Kaskowitz’s wonderful book God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song (2013). I had the chance to hear an early version of Kaskowitz’s work as part of a New England ASA conference back in 2011 (or maybe it was 2010—I’ve been part of a lot of NEASA conferences!), and it was already obvious that her project was going to offer compelling and crucial reinterpretations of this seemingly familiar American text. The book more than paid off that early promise, and is one of my favorite AmericanStudies scholarly texts of the last decade, readable and engaging and provocative and highly relevant in equal measure. You can get a preview of it here, and I promise that it’s well worth your time in full.
There are a lot of reasons why that’s the case, but I would argue that one of the book’s most significant effects is the best kind of scholarly revision. I have to imagine that most Americans, even those who AmericanStudy for a living, thought of “God Bless America” much as I had—as a pretty simple and saccharine musical complement to a bumper-sticker sentiment. But as Kaskowitz reveals (or reminds us, but these were largely forgotten histories before she explored them in her project), from the song’s first 1918 version by the Russian Jewish immigrant songwriter Irving Berlin through its 1938 revision by Berlin and Armistice Day debut performance by Kate Smith into its World War II evolution and beyond, “God Bless America” exemplified a great deal of complex and crucial early 20th century American and world history. Among other effects of better remembering those complex histories, I would argue that they highlight a frustrating limit to the recent “cancelling” of Kate Smith, which largely fails to engage with the nuanced, often contradictory histories of American popular music that her life and work reflect and that “God Bless America” certainly sums up.
So the story behind “God Bless America” is a lot more complicated and multi-layered than it might seem—but as for the song and its sentiment, I’d still say they are frustratingly limited in a specific and important way. While of course in most ways my identity closely aligns with mythic narratives of “American” identity, as I wrote in this post there’s one area where I significantly diverge: as an atheist in a nation that (particularly since the mid-20th century, as Kevin Kruse has amply demonstrated) has gone out of its way to emphasize again and again phrases like “under God” and “in God we trust.” As I hope this week’s posts have consistently illustrated, every choice of an anthem or national song certainly represents a vision of that nation’s identity and community, and likely inevitably excludes as well as includes along the way. But of all our prominent national songs, “God Bless America” nonetheless stands out for its thoroughgoing embrace of images of America and Americans as fundamentally religious, its expression of a communal belief with which those of us who do not believe would have a profoundly difficult time connecting. That doesn’t elide the song’s interestingly multi-layered story and history, but it does make it one with which this AmericanStudier won’t be quick to sing along.
Last anthemic post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other national songs you’d highlight?