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Happy 100th Birthday to "God Bless America!"

By Rebecca Price Janney, Jul 30 2018 03:09PM

What is your fondest association with the beloved song, “God Bless America?” For me, it is forever entwined with my dearly loved Aunt Caroline, and the Philadelphia Flyers.

This year is the 100th birthday of the iconic American tune, which composer Irving Berlin wrote during World War. Born in Russia in 1888, Israel Baline immigrated with his family to the U.S. as a boy to escape anti-Jewish pogroms. At 19 he published his first song, but his name on the sheet music was misspelled—“I. Berlin.” He decided to adopt the name, Irving Berlin. By 1918, he’d become a U.S. citizen and had produced a major hit song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

In 1918 he was serving in the Army’s Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York and had planned to perform his newest song, “God Bless America,” for a revue. His secretary, Harry Ruby, however, discouraged him because he believed there were already too many patriotic songs. Why did there need to be another one? The composer put the song in a trunk.

Two decades later, the world teetered on the brink of yet another global conflagration, and Berlin wanted to provide inspiration through music. At 50 years of age, he’d attained major star status. He came up with “Thanks America” and “Let’s Talk About Liberty,” but he wasn’t satisfied. A sudden brainstorm led him to his old trunk. He liked what he saw, with a few changes. He reworked “Stand beside her and guide her to the right with a light from above” into “Through the night with a light from above.”

The song premiered on the radio on November 11, 1938, the 20th anniversary of the WWI Armistice. Kate Smith, who had sung to the troops as an eight year-old during the Great War, had risen to national fame, and “God Bless America” became an instant, and enduring, sensation.

As for my memories of it, I reach back to the 1973-74 Philadelphia Flyers, who had adopted Kate Smith as a good-luck charm a few years earlier when the team sometimes used her recording in place of the “National Anthem.” During the next three seasons, the Flyers’ record was 19-1-1 whenever GBA was played.

She didn’t actually perform the song live until the 1973 home opener, and when the team won its first Stanley Cup a few months later, she was there as well. By the team’s 50th anniversary, Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” would garner an impressive 100-29-5 record. There’s even a statue of her outside the Flyer’s home at the Wells Fargo Center.

Why do I associate the song with my Aunt Caroline? I always thought she looked like Kate Smith.

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