"God Bless America" is a patriotic song in a brisk march tempo, written by one of America's favorite popular songwriters. After its introduction on a radio broadcast in 1938, it quickly became one of the most popular songs of its type, attaining the status of an unofficial national anthem.
Irving Berlin (b. Israel Baline in Mogilev, Siberia, in 1888; d. New York, 1989) came to the United States at the age of five when his family determined to escape the rising trend of anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia. He taught himself piano and song composition, and obtained his pen name through a printer's misprint. Among his generation of Tin Pan Alley masters, he is notable for never trying for sophistication: his melodies and lyrics are simple and direct, with a common touch.
Berlin was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1917, during World War I. He served at Camp Upton in Yaphank, Long Island, NY, where he was assigned to write a musical review for the troops. One of the songs he wrote for the show, which was called Yip, Yip, Yaphank, was "God Bless America" with slight differences in the words and music from the familiar version. Berlin decided that the seriousness of the song would not work with the surrounding comedy and withheld it.
In autumn 1938, as the prospect for war was rising, Berlin decided to write a peace song, and remembered his 1918 song. He produced a proof version of it on October 31, 1938, and a final version just three days later. He brought the song to Kate Smith, a highly popular singer with a huge alto voice. On Armistice Day, Kate Smith sang the song for the first time on her national radio program. The top story that day, November 11, 1938, was about the previous night's pogrom against Jews carried out by Hitler's Nazi Party -- Reichkristalnacht (The Reich's Crystal Night). Americans that day could truly reflect that they lived in a blessed land and took heart from the confident tune and lyric. The song was an immediate hit. Kate Smith's recording alone sold millions of copies and the sheet music rapidly sold out. Berlin donated all royalties from the song to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America through his God Bless America Fund.