While Irving Berlin served in the army in 1918 during World War I, he was given the job of creating a show to raise money for facilities at the army base and to raise morale. The show was called Yip Yip Yaphank. Two of the songs he wrote for this show are well remembered today: Oh how I Hate to get up in then Morning and God Bless America. Berlin was a night owl, who often worked all night when he was caught up in the inspiration of a new song. He hated getting up, army style, at 5:00 in the morning. Oh How I Hate to get up in the Morning turned out to be the most popular song in the show. Irving Berlin was not the only person who hated that part of army life. He did not include God Bless America in the show. Lots of people were writing patriotic songs at the time, and Berlin was afraid that it might be seen as not very original.
Twenty one years later, in 1939, it was becoming obvious that there would be another war. When Irving Berlin visited London, he found that public opinion was turning against the appeasement of Hitler and in favor of a war effort. When he returned to the United States, he still hoped that America could stay out of the war. So he decided to write a patriotic peace song. After trying to do so without much success, he remembered God Bless America. It needed a few changes to fit the new world situation, but he was able to publish it. A young singer who was full of optimism and energy was found to sing it — Kate Smith. It was a huge hit, and in 1939 and 1940, the song was everywhere.
As written in 1918, God Bless America had a verse, seldom sung today. Also, the familiar "Through the night with the light from above" was originally "To the right with the light from above." The change was made because the "right" could be taken to mean the political right, which in 1938 could mean anti-semitic facism and Nazism. As a Jewish immigrant, that was the last thing Berlin wanted.
The song was so successful that it began to take on the status of an unofficial national anthem. The Star-Spangled Banner had been declared to be the national anthem just a few years earlier, so Berlin was accused of trying to displace it. Others thought that he should not profit from a patriotic song during a time of national crisis. Irving Berlin was able to respond to that criticism very well. After considering several worthy organizations, he donated the copyright to the Boy Scouts of America. Another complaint was that, as a national song, it did not respect the separation between church and state. While that might be a complaint keeping it from being made the national anthem, it could hardly be a criticism of it just as a song. More darkly, some writers complained that a Jewish immigrant was not enough of a "real American" to write a national song.
Nevertheless, God Bless America became a common expression of patriotic fervor. It was performed at both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating national conventions in 1940 and established the phrase "God bless America" as part of the politician's lexicon. It is non-specific enough that an immigrant take it as an expression of gratitude to a nation willing to embrace outsiders (as Berlin felt); it can be taken as a song of patriotic love and affection for God and Country; it can be taken as a deep feeling of ceremonial civil religion. Along with White Christmas and a few other Irving Berlin songs, it became one of those songs that everybody knows.
From the Mountain, to the Prairie ...
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