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Retro Redux: Kate Smith’s Special Song

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As most baseball fans know, since the events of September 11, 2001, a lot of games now feature the singing of “God Bless America” during the 7th inning break. I was watching a game on TV the other day and, as the music was performed, I began thinking about the origins of the song itself and its most memorable performer.

The song came together from various earlier influences that culminated in Irving Berlin’s final version, which debuted in 1938. The legendary composer was a self-taught pianist who could not read or write music, but such wasn’t unusual in those days and there were plenty of people around who could transcribe musical notation. As a Jewish-American immigrant, Berlin was well aware of the rising storm in Europe as Nazi Germany flexed its muscles and he wanted to draw attention to that while celebrating America. (Ironically, the Siberian-born Berlin — whose real name was Israel Baline — had much earlier taken as his surname the name of the largest city in Germany.)

Kate Smith was already a popular singer at that time, and she had sold a lot of records. One of her biggest was “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain,” the theme song from her radio show. It was considered her trademark song — both then and on her later TV show — but she would also become known for singing the song Irving Berlin asked her to debut.

She continued to have a strong career for the next couple of decades, appearing in many venues and selling a lot of records — not only of her two most famous songs, but also of a wide variety of pop and show tunes.  She specialized in inspirational songs like “Climb Every Mountain,” but one of my favorites was her rendition of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” a piece that almost sounds as if it has German roots but is actually Yiddish.

Kate Smith died in 1986 and Irving Berlin passed away in 1989 (at age 101), but the song they teamed up on is still going strong. Although it has had its detractors — Woody Guthrie hated it and countered with “This Land Is Your Land” — most Americans still enjoy hearing “God Bless America.”

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