Of our national songs, three I would say have been institutionalized as songs that are part of our civil consciousness. There is "The Star Spangled Banner," our national anthem, with its intricate melodic shifts and intricate lyrics, which is no surprise since the song was derived from a poem. There is "America the Beautiful," which I think has the most beautiful melody of the patriotic songs. And then there is "God Bless America" which is the simplest of all the songs, both in melody and lyrics. It is so simple that one thinks, how could that be make it so big and so engrained in our identity? The song was written back in 1918 by Irving Berlin, who wrote so many of what became known as the American Songbook of songs, and it was made popular by Kate Smith, “the first lady of radio” who made it her signature song. The song—so fitting for one of my Faith Filled Friday posts—is a prayer, displaying the simplicity of a request to our Creator.
God bless America,
Land that I love,
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home
God bless America, My home sweet home.
That’s the whole song. But I have to say my heart just wraps around the song. Is it the invocation of God? Is it the humility in the petition for guidance? Is it the cross continental embrace from the west coast to Rocky Mountains to the Midwest to the Atlantic Ocean? Is it the simple expression of love for this abstract entity we call our nation? It’s all of that, but I can tell you my lips quiver every time I get to the part “My home sweet home.” God, humility, continent, love of country seem to congeal into my home. There is something archetypical about this song.
I’m going to embed three versions which grabbed me as I started searching for the perfect rendition. The first is a cappella by Sgt Christine Permenter, part of a some Army band, and she sings it live at last year’s Baseball World Series. I love the way she sings it in a lower female register.
And then I have to say I really love Celine Dion’s version. This was recorded post 9-11. She slows the tempo down a notch and the arrangement is exquisite. Here’s a clip with notable quotes from our history.
And finally, one has to end with the signature version, the Kate Smith version. Frank Sinatra said something to the effect (don’t exactly quote me) that Kate Smith was the singer whose voice he most envied.
Hmm, all three versions I most admired were by female singers. Does this song suit a woman’s voice best? Or is it my ear that is tuned to a woman singing it? I don’t know.