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Unit 7: The Great Depression and World War II      

"God Bless America"

by Adam Cooper


The Song:

“God Bless America”

Words and Music by Irving Berlin, 1918; revised 1938


Song Background:

 Irving Berlin, a Russian Jewish immigrant and a leading 20th century American songwriter, originally wrote “God Bless America” in 1918 as part of a World War I all-soldier musical revue, Yip, Yip, Yaphank. Berlin’s mother often used the phrase “God Bless America” to express her gratitude at having the United States to flee to from prejudicial violence back in her native Siberia. The resulting wartime song, which included the lyrics “Make her victorious on land and foam,” was ultimately edited out of the production due to its perceived conflict with the show’s overall comedic style.

Twenty years later Berlin wanted to write a “peace song” to complement the ephemeral peace-keeping events associated with the 1938 Anglo-German Pact of Friendship. After rejecting other tunes, Berlin opted to revise “God Bless America” for this purpose. Written in the form of a prayer, the song was intended to avoid being an overtly nationalistic or politicized song. Popular vocalist Kate Smith reintroduced the song to national acclaim on her radio broadcast honoring the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day on November 11, 1938.

The easily sung tune became so popular that a movement formed to make it the new national anthem, replacing “The Star Spangled Banner” which had acquired that designation in 1931. The song, and Kate Smith’s performance of it, would later be featured in the patriotic stage show and follow-up film, This is the Army. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” another popular candidate for being the national anthem, was actually written as a critical response to Irving Berlin’s song. Through criticized at times for being propagandistic, reactionary, or simplistically sentimental, the song has been sung at sporting events, in films, recitals, political conventions, and grade school classrooms ever since.

The Activities:

Central Activity

After providing a general introduction to the song “God Bless America,” read or sing the song as a class. To bring focus to each line’s imagery, select a different student to recite each individual phrase and then read the song aloud in its entirety moving from student to student.

Using questions from “Further Classroom Discussion,” engage students in an open dialogue on the meaning of the song and on interpretations of its lyrics. In addition, students might be queried to identify their song preference for a national anthem, describe briefly the song’s lyrics, and explain why they chose it.

Each student should then write a poem about his/her sense of what America is or what it means to be an American (or an American immigrant). They can focus on the nation, a home state, city, or neighborhood. Students should also be engaged in a preliminary discussion about why it might be considered inappropriate to ask public school students to write their own prayers. Each student will then present her/his poem to the class.

Further Classroom Discussion:

  • Survey experiences different groupings of Americans had living in the United States during the Great Depression

  • Discuss both interventionist and isolationist trends and forces in the US pertaining to events developing in Europe during the late 1930s

  • Compare and contrast Berlin’s song with other tunes that might qualify as a national anthem. Examples include “This Land is Your Land,” “America the Beautiful,” “America,” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

  • Review the concept of separation of church and state and analyze how the song pertains to it

  • Analyze how both the lyrics and the music contribute and complement each other in the aural experience

Research Papers:

  • Write a research paper on the history of the national anthem of the United States, “The Star Spangled Banner”

  • Write a survey paper on 1938 world events that would provide a historical context for the release of this song

  • Write a short biography on the life of Irving Berlin or on the life of Kate Smith

  • Write an analytical essay on the causes of World War II with a focus on what led to America’s involvement in the war

  • Write a comparative essay on “God Bless America” versus Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which was written as a critical response to Irving Berlin’s song

  • Write a personal essay on what being an American means to the student

Oral Presentations:

  • Give a presentation on the music of Irving Berlin and how “God Bless America” fits into the context of his life’s work

  • Give a talk comparing national anthem-like songs in America to ones from other countries

  • Present a comparison of different renditions of “God Bless America” by different artists

  • Offer a detailed summary of how the concept of “God Bless America” has played a role in American popular culture throughout the last century

  • Describe a set of songs which express the student’s hopes and dreams for her/his life

  • Give a presentation on what in the student’s life s/he loves and wants to stand beside and guide

Artwork and Performances:

  • Sing “God Bless America” in class, ask students to write about the singing experience, and then compare the present-day experience to memories of having sung the tune as a child

  • Make a collage of images expressing what America means to the student

  • Draw or paint two images: one conveying a sense of America as expressed in the song and the second expressing the student’s sense of what America means to her/him

  • Perform or adapt into a new vignette the “God Bless America” sequence from the film This is the Army

  • Create a video using the student’s world as a landscape from which to compose a vision of what America means to him/her

The Questions:

  • Who would sing this song? Who is the audience? What is the song’s purpose? What is the style and tone of the song? What kinds of ideas are presented in the lyrics? What is propaganda? Is this song propaganda? Why or why not?

  • How is America conveyed in the song? What role do US citizens play in “God Bless America”? Does the song capture what America is? If not, what aspects of America are absent?

  • What qualities should a national anthem possess? Would “God Bless America” be a good candidate for being the United States’ national anthem? Why or why not?

  • What is patriotism? How are songs connected to patriotism? Why is “God Bless America” repeatedly sung by schoolchildren across the United States? What roles has the song played in American life in the last century? Why is it significant that Irving Berlin gave the royalties from the song to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America?

  • How does religion play a role in this song? What does Berlin’s use of “God” signify? What is a prayer? What is a blessing? What would it mean if God did bless America and why would this be desirable in 1938? Where else in American culture are there images or symbols of religion and Americana that are intertwined?

  • How does Berlin’s song speak to world events of 1938 and America’s place within them? Why did Berlin add the introduction to the 1938 revision of the song? How does it differ from the rest of the song in terms of content and style?

  • How is “God Bless America” a peace song? a war song? How is the song a bridge between the two world wars? What is Armistice Day and what does it signify? Why is it noteworthy that the revised version of this WWI song was performed on this special anniversary?

  • How might peoples who have experienced oppression in the United States respond to and/or critique “God Bless America”? Why is it noteworthy that this popular and patriotic song was composed by a Russian Jewish immigrant? Are peoples of Canada, Mexico, and Central and South America “Americans”? How might they respond to this song?

  • What does the pronoun “her” refer to in the song? What other non-gendered nouns are referred to as female? Why are these objects designated as such and what does this usage suggest about language and perception in American culture? Considering the Judeo-Christian notion of God as a father and the relationship between God and America in the song, what aspects of gender roles and gender typing are discernible in the lyrics?

The Comparative Element:

1) Information on the 1943 Hollywood film This is the Army

After introducing and analyzing the song “God Bless America,” students should see and discuss the “God Bless America” scene from the film This is the Army to aid in the appreciation of links between the two world wars and the role the song played in promoting patriotism as the United States took part in World War II. Topics for discussion might include the following:

  • What observations do students make of the film clip’s images

  • How do the film images relate (or not) to the images of the song’s lyrics

  • How does adding visual imagery alter the experience of hearing the song

  • How does experiencing the song differ during peacetime versus wartime

  • What comparisons are established between contemplating World War I and World War II

  • What kinds of wartime experiences are conveyed in the film

  • How do these film images compare with other films about World War II (both American and foreign)

  • How do these film images compare with films of other wars in American history

2) After discussing Irving Berlin’s 1938 version, students should read and analyze Robert Montgomery Bird’s song "God Bless America" (1834) and Harold Pinter’s recent poem by the same name . Students should be given a historical context for both works for purposes of comprehension and comparison. Topics for discussion might include the following:

  • Describe in detail what observations students make of the lyrics

  • Compare and contrast the lyrics of the three “God Bless America”s

  • Analyze how the visions of America are similar or dissimilar among the three works

  • Describe the relationship between the people, the land, and God in Bird’s song

  • Discuss the virtues and deficiencies of Bird’s version as a national anthem

  • Analyze how Pinter’s poem differs in content and style from the two songs

  • Explain what Pinter means by “America’s God”