782: God Bless America by Sheryl Kaskowitz

by Gerard


782.421599: Kaskowitz, Sheryl. God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. 154 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-991977-2.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 700: Fine Arts and Recreation
  • 780: Music
  • 782: Vocal music
  • 782.4: Secular forms of vocal music
  • 782.42: Songs
  • 782.42159: Alma maters (songs)
  • 782.421599: National anthems

In 1917 or 1918 (nobody really knows when), a man wrote a simple song. He was an immigrant from modern Belarus. He was drafted into the US army at the age of 29 to help fight World War I. But first he was asked to boost morale by composing an all-soldier revue of song, dance, and revelry. He had already had a bit of success as a Tin Pan Alley writer and Broadway composer, so the army decided to put his talents to good use. The revue, entitled Yip Yip Yaphank, did very well and everyone enjoyed themselves, but the composer didn’t use all the songs he had written. He tucked the rest away for later.

Then, twenty years later, the song found daylight when national radio icon Kate Smith asked for a patriotic ditty to sing on the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day. The man dusted off the old composition, fiddled with it for a bit, and it soon took off. The man, as you may have already guessed by know, was Irving Berlin and the song was “God Bless America.” Sheryl Kaskowitz’s God Bless America is an in-depth look into the early history and national meaning of this iconic song and how it shaped and still shapes the American patriotic landscape.

Kaskowitz tracks the song through history, from its first appearance in the soldier revue through to Smith’s debut and its reception with the American public through its current manifestation as a throwback to simple national unity. The song, she argues, occupies a central place in our national memory and becomes prevalent in times when the nation needs to bolster its identity. In times of war and terrorism, the song frequently reconnects its singers to their national roots. The posits that this song, rather than “The Star-Spangled Banner,” more readily connects current Americans to their citizenship because it is written on more modern vernacular (apparently, the actual national anthem is too stuffy and too technical a piece to sing when you really need to sing something patriotic).

This book is interesting as well as informative. It frames an interesting debate on what exactly defines a national identity and how the use of certain song can affect that identity. Does its use in sporting venues, classrooms, and civil gatherings mean that those events are inherently nationalistic? And conversely, what does the penchant for not singing the song do for the national identity? Kaskowitz, along with delving into the history of the song, also looks into studies done about the song to understand what it means to certain people. These two parallel theses made for a very intriguing read. If you’re into music history, pick this one up.