Irving Berlin and "God Bless America"

Episode 57

Ray Notgrass: On today’s Exploring History podcast,  we’ll tell the story of an immigrant and his song that became an American classic.

Titus Anderson: [music in background] Welcome to Exploring History with Ray Notgrass, a production of Notgrass History.

Ray Notgrass: The 5-year-old boy watched in horror and confusion as angry men rode into his village. The men dragged people from their homes and beat them. They ransacked the homes and set them on fire. “Why?” he must have wondered. “What have we done?”

The year was 1893, and the place was Russia. The so-called crime of the people of that village was that they were Jewish.  Such attacks, called pogroms, were all too common in Russia at that time. The boy’s father made a life changing decision. The family was going to escape this abuse and move to America.

The boy’s name was Israel Beilin (B-E-I-L-I-N). He was born in 1888, the eighth child in the family. His father was a cantor, a singer in Jewish synagogues. When the family came to America in 1893 and settled in New York City, the father went to work, but the family was still poor. Years later, Israel recalled, “I never felt poverty because I’d never known anything else.” The young man did not know any English when he came to this country.

Sadly, his father died only a few years later, in 1901. Young Israel went out on his own to earn a living so that he could make things easier for his mother. He took up a line of work that followed in his father’s footsteps: singing. But Israel did most of his singing as a singing waiter and for tips in saloons. He became familiar with Tin Pan Alley, an area of New York City where songwriters gathered, composed, and tried to become famous and successful. The songs that he sang were Tin Pan Alley songs. But Tin Pan Alley was a rough part of the city, not the best place for a teenage boy on his own.

Israel began to write songs, and he revealed an amazing talent for doing so. One handicap he had to overcome was that he couldn’t read or write music. He learned to play the piano, and as he performed a song someone else would take down the musical notation.

In 1907, when he was 19, Israel published his first song. When he saw the sheet music, he noticed that it said, “Words by I. Berlin.” He thought this name sounded more American, so Israel Beilin became Irving Berlin.

Four years later, Berlin published “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The song sold one million copies of sheet music that year, and another million the next year, and the composer Irving Berlin was on his way to a memorable career. Still, Berlin never learned to read or write music. He would always compose on the piano, and someone else would write down the music.

Berlin was married in 1912, but his wife died five months later from typhoid fever she contracted on their honeymoon to Cuba.

In 1914 Berlin wrote his first Broadway musical. After this success, Berlin eventually built his own theater and started his own music publishing company. A few years later, Berlin achieved a dream: he became a U.S. citizen. But the Great War was raging in Europe, and the new citizen found himself drafted into the Army. Berlin was stationed at an Army base near Yaphank, Long Island. His commanding general agreed for Berlin to write a musical that his fellow troops would perform. One of the songs that he wrote for “Yip, Yip, Yaphank” was a patriotic tune that Berlin decided not to use because he thought it was too serious for the musical comedy he had written. So he laid it aside in a trunk of other unused tunes.

Sgt. Irving Berlin (1918)

Sgt. Irving Berlin (1918)

Berlin married again, and he and his wife had three daughters. He began to have consistent success with his music. During the 1920s a new entertainment medium was sweeping the country: motion pictures. In 1930 Berlin wrote the music for a movie featuring a rising young singer named Bing Crosby. Unfortunately, the film was a flop. But Berlin kept writing, and most of his compositions were popular and successful.

Irving Berlin with his second wife, Ellin

Irving Berlin with his second wife, Ellin

In 1938 war clouds built again in Europe. Berlin was asked to write a song for the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day (the observance marking the end of World War I that later became Veterans Day). Berlin remembered that song he had written and laid aside 20 years earlier. He dug it out, revised it a bit, and gave it to Kate Smith, one of the most popular singers of the day. Smith sang it for her Armistice Day radio program that year. The song received a huge positive response from the public, and it became Kate Smith’s signature song. Berlin once said “Of all the songs I’ve written, this is the closest to my heart.” That song was “God Bless America.”

Irving Berlin at the Piano (1948)

Irving Berlin at the Piano (1948)

Berlin kept writing music. He composed over 1,000 songs and had 35 number one hits. He wrote music for Broadway and the movies. In 1941 Berlin composed the song “White Christmas.” Bing Crosby performed it for the first time on his radio program December 25, 1941, and it became an instant classic. Pearl Harbor had been attacked just a few weeks before, and America was once again gearing up for war. The song had its motion picture debut the next year when Bing Crosby sang it in the movie “Holiday Inn.” In 1954 the song was the title number for another movie starring Bing Crosby. The movie “White Christmas” is about two guys who were in the Army during World War II and who team up after the war to become a smash musical success. The movie’s dramatic finish is when the two former soldiers plan a reunion for their Army buddies to help their former commanding general. The song “White Christmas” has become the best selling single of all time. Ironically, Berlin did not celebrate Christmas because he was Jewish.

But this podcast is about “God Bless America.” This song also became an American classic, performed annually on patriotic holidays and other special occasions. It has helped to keep us going in difficult times. For instance, in 1973, at a White House reception for returning prisoners of war from Vietnam, Irving Berlin himself led the audience in singing “God Bless America.” After the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001, members of Congress gathered on the capitol steps in Washington, D.C., and sang “God Bless America.” The show notes that accompany this podcast include a link on Homeschool History to a moving video of Irving Berlin singing “God Bless America” on the Ed Sullivan television show in May of 1968, just a month after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Berlin’s wife died in 1988 after 62 years of marriage. Irving Berlin passed away on September 22, 1989, at the age of 101.

I think we should notice that what Irving Berlin did not do during his life was protest and demonstrate and complain about being treated unfairly and having to work so hard as a child. He did what he had to do, he kept at it, and he became successful. 

Also, we should recognize that the song “God Bless America” is first and foremost a prayer. It is an acknowledgment of the wonderful “land that I love” that God created and to which Berlin came as an immigrant. It is a request that God “stand beside her and guide her.” It is a song and a prayer that we should carry in our hearts always.

I’m Ray Notgrass. Thanks for listening, and God bless America.

Titus Anderson: This has been Exploring History with Ray Notgrass, a production of Notgrass History. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast in your favorite podcast app. And please leave a rating and review so that we can reach more people with our episodes. If you want to learn about new homeschool resources and opportunities from Notgrass History, you can sign up for our email newsletter at This program was produced by me, Titus Anderson. Thanks for listening!

Visit Homeschool History for more resources, including a video about Berlin's life, a coloring page, and a TV ad for Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidential campaign with music written by Berlin.

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