‘God Bless America’ turns 100

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, July 13th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. An all-time favorite song is 100 years old this month. Let’s see if you recognize this stanza: “From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans, white with foam…God Bless America, my home sweet home.” The song was first penned in 1918, but it spent the next 20 years hidden in a trunk. So how did “God Bless America” become one of our nation’s most recognizable patriotic songs? Paul Butler has the story.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: In 1893 a Jewish family fled religious persecution in Russia. Israel Beili was just 5 years old when his parents immigrated to America. In New York, his father worked in a deli, his mother—a midwife—and his sisters wrapped cigars.

At age 18, Beili began writing music. He became known as Irving Berlin after a publisher misspelled his name. By 19-11, he was a Ragtime celebrity—known nationwide.

He became a naturalized citizen and at age 30, and was drafted during World War 1. Soon after, Berlin wrote “God Bless America” for a wartime fundraising program. He ended up not performing the piece and placed it inside a trunk filled with other musical ideas.

Two decades later, as World War II loomed, Berlin dusted off the song and revised it for singer Kate Smith. She introduced the song on her weekly radio program for the first time on November 10th, 19-38:

SMITH: And now, it’s going to be my great, very great privilege, to sing for you a song that has never been sung before by anybody…

God Bless America became her signature song—making it an immediate success.

SMITH: As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer. God Bless America…

Irving Berlin wrote the patriotic ballad to express his love for America. He grew up hearing the phrase “God Bless America” from his mother. She would often say it in gratitude for their new home, adding that America welcomed and protected them when no one else would.

BERLIN: From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans…

Berlin didn’t feel right benefiting from the song’s popularity so he established the God Bless America Fund—distributing all the royalties to the New York chapters of the Boy and Girl Scouts of America. Which continues even to this day…

BERLIN: My home, sweet home…

On May 5th, 1968, days before Berlin’s 80th birthday, he sang the song on the Ed Sullivan Show—backed by a choir of Scouts:

BERLIN: God bless America, land that I love…

For 100 years, “God Bless America” has been both a rallying call for national unity and a prayer for peace—sung at political rallies in the 40s, civil rights marches in the 60s, and peace protests in the 70s. Today, it’s most often sung at sporting events.

KNIGHT: God bless America, land that I love…

That’s Gladys Knight singing her version of the song during the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals. Since September 11th, 2001, baseball’s New York Yankees have featured it during every home game…

AUDIO: New York City police officer Daniel Rodriguez…

…and at least 17 other MLB teams, including the Red Sox, Cardinals, and Cubs, present it every Sunday and on national holidays.

RODRIGUEZ: Land that I love….

In some circles, the song has fallen out of favor—with some seeing it as right-wing, religious propaganda, and a violation of the separation of church and state.

CARLIN: Do these people honestly think that God is sitting around picking out his favorites?…

Despite the criticism, the song still reminds us of the patriotic anthem’s lasting legacy: true national blessing does comes from God as that nation upholds righteous laws and seeks His guidance.

We end today’s program with a portion of CeCe Winans’s performance of “God Bless America” from last week’s Capitol 4th of July program—honoring the 100th anniversary of the song. Audio courtesy of PBS. Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler.


(Associated Press) President Richard Nixon and Irving Berlin sing “God Bless America” during a celebration for former prisoners of war at the White House in 1973.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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