Just after speaker Alton Fields had concluded, Rockdale Intermediate School students, under the direction of Leslie Hasselbach, started singing “God Bless America.”
First, a few people seated near the kids stood up, totally unprompted by anyone. Then more did. They were joined by all the veterans seated on the track.
Then, people in the rest of the bleachers stood by the hundreds until the entire crowd in the stands, plus everyone on the track, was standing at attention until the song was finished.
It was one of those moments. Why? “God Bless America” is not our national anthem.
Or is it?
You can make a case that this song has become, in effect, The People’s National Anthem.
You’ve heard it everywhere since 9-11 but the history of this very special song goes back a long way. It’s kind of a microcosm of America.
He wrote the song in 1918 while serving in the U. S. Army at Camp Upton, New York. But he decided it didn’t fit with the musical he was creating, so he left it out.
Fast forward 20 years. It was 1938 and the lights in the outposts of democracy were going out all over the world as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and the Japanese militarists stalked the planet. Bad times.
Enter a singer named Kate Smith, a larger-than-life personality with a ringing voice that could turn a ballad into a march. Berlin, along with millions more, was concerned over the fate of our nation. He wrote an introduction for his old song that was timely, on purpose, and left no doubt the song was a prayer:
When the storm clouds gather/ Far across the sea/Let us swear allegiance/To a land that’s free/ Let us all be grateful/For a land so fair/As we raise our voices/In a solemn prayer.
Then it comes: “ God Bless America/Land That I Love....”
It connected. Sure, it didn’t hurt that for a singer it was a show-off song and Kate Smith, with that astonishing alto voice, was the ultimate show-off singer.
But it was much more. The song touched something in the American spirit. It was the right song for the right time.
Four years later Berlin did it again, tapped into the American psyche with a little piece called “White Christmas.”
Yes, it’s a supremely delicious irony that our nation’s most popular secular song commemorating a religious holiday, and most popular religious song commemorating a nation that everyone tells us is based on separation of church and state, were written by the same man.
A man who was born somewhere else.
“God Bless America” took off. It was used by just about everyone everywhere in the nation.
Curiously, in its early days, it also had its detractors. Leftist troubadour Woody Guthrie criticized it as “unrealistic and complacent” and wrote the song “This Land is Your Land” as a response.
And the Ku Klux Klan criticized it, of course, because it was written by a Jew.
None of that mattered to the American people who, early on, treated “God Bless America” as if it were a de facto second national anthem, right up there with “The Star Spangled Banner.”
It was everywhere. The song turned up in movies, radio, stage, television and political rallies. Berlin donated the royalties from “God Bless America” to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
It became Kate Smith’s signature song even as times and tastes changed and she was relegated to the status of “former star.”
Then something happened. In the 1970s the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team began to play her recording of “God Bless America” before home games.
One night, Kate showed up and sang it in person. The crowd just about blew the roof off the Spectrum ice rink.
That’s a Philadelphia crowd, the same town whose sports fans once booed Santa Claus.
Suddenly, Kate, and the song, had a second career. She kept showing up and singing and the Flyers kept winning, eventually won the Stanley Cup.
Later came Nine-Eleven and the song went from being a cultural icon to being America itself.
Talk about chilling moments. When the U. S Congress met for the first time after the attacks, hundreds of members gathered informally on the capitol steps. Suddenly, Republicans and Democrats alike, they spontaneously broke into “God Bless America.” It’s never been sung more poorly nor more wonderfully.
Major League Baseball began playing it in the seventh inning. People started standing and taking their caps off when they heard it, just like they did at Tiger Field on Veterans Day.
Here’s the most important part. Nobody tells them to. For our real national anthem—God bless it— its understood that’s what you’re supposed to do.
For “God Bless America” we do it because we want to.
Most of the time when someone says something is “the people’s” this and “the people’s” that, you better keep your hand on your billfold. They want something.
With “God Bless America” the people actually have something that’s theirs. And they know it. firstname.lastname@example.org