My grandmother thought Kate Smith was the greatest. She loved hearing her sing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” as most people did. Kate Smith was a star in the 1930’s and 40’s. When I was young I remember watching her TV show which she always closed with her rendition of “God Bless America.” Just recently Kate’s rendition of the song has been silenced, and one might even say banished by the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Yankees. Even a statue of Kate in Philadelphia, erected by the Flyers in her honor, has been covered over. Why the banishment? It has recently been discovered that Kate Smith sang some very racist songs in her early movies and performances.
The New York Yankees gave the following statement: “The Yankees take social, racial and cultural insensitivity very seriously. And while no final conclusions have been made, we are erring on the side of sensitivity” by brandishing the recording of Kate Smith singing, “God Bless America.” If I remember correctly, the Yankees were once upon a time an all-white team, excluding African-American players. Even the U.S. military has a history of racial segregation, discrimination, and prejudicial behavior. The truth of the matter is that our whole American society has more racial undertones and overtones than any song poor Kate may have sung. Kate Smith’s niece is “appalled,” and I am, too.
I watched the 30th PBS National Memorial Day Concert last night and heard Patti LaBelle, along with all the other performers, sing “God Bless America” at the close of the event. Are all of those performers free of “taints” of one kind or another? Are any of us free of such taints? Can any of us throw the first stone, or the second stone, or the third?
As I listened to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” lyrics, I wondered if perhaps when we hear the song sung, we only hear the phrase “God bless America,” and let the rest of the words kind of fade out. The song is addressed to God—not America. The song asks for God’s blessing and presence—“Stand beside her and guide her, through the night with the light from above.” I think we do this with other songs as well, like “America” (“My Country, ’Tis of Thee”) and “America the Beautiful.” We tend to miss the impact of the fourth stanza of “America,” “Our father’s God, to thee, author of liberty, to thee we sing; long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light; protect us by thy might, great God, our King.” The same is true with these words from “America the Beautiful”—“God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea…May God thy gold refine, till all success is nobleness, and every gain divine…God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”
God bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with the light from above