With their sober business suits and too-perfect posture, the makeshift choral group that assembled on the steps of the Capitol building could not have looked less showbizzy. But on the evening of Sept. 11, when members of Congress assembled to belt out a solidarity-showing rendition of Irving Berlin’s ”God Bless America,” the year’s most surprising musical movement was born.
For the rest of the year, the song extended to Broadway, where audience and cast members stood and sang during curtain calls; to ballparks, where it replaced ”Take Me Out to the Ball Game” as the seventh-inning stretch sing-along; and in concert, with everyone from James Brown to Celine Dion chiming in. Notes NYPD Officer Daniel Rodriguez, a tenor who’s performed ”America” at numerous events and recorded it for charity: ”After 9/11, it became more than just a song. It became a prayer.”
First written in 1918, while Berlin was a U.S. Army sergeant stationed in upstate New York, ”America” was originally intended for use in the comedy revue Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, but the song was thought too somber, and the 30-year-old writer pulled it from the show. It wasn’t until 1938, with World War II on the horizon, that Berlin revised the song for Kate Smith. And though the song’s lyrics are all-inclusive — ”From the mountains, to the prairies/To the oceans, white with foam” — for Berlin, a Russian immigrant, ”America” was an intensely personal work: ”He felt it was the most important song he’d written,” says Robert Kimball, a musical-theater historian and coeditor of The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin. ”[It] expressed for him how special it felt to be part of this country, and he wanted to give something back.”
Berlin’s charitable efforts expanded two years later, when he established the God Bless America Fund, a philanthropy group that allocates all revenues from ”America” (along with 17 other compositions) to New York-area Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. To date, the fund has brought in more than $6 million for the groups; Irving Berlin Music Company spokesman Bert Fink expects sales and performances to ”triple or perhaps even quadruple” this year’s contributions, largely due to the Sept. 11 attacks.
But Berlin’s biggest gift may have been providing amateur crooners with a song that doesn’t require the vocal flexibility needed to perform, say, ”The Star-Spangled Banner.” The shorter ”America” is a lot easier on the pipes. Still, Kimball notes, ”[Berlin] wasn’t interested in it becoming the national anthem. He thought we had a perfectly good one already.” Now thanks to him, we’re twice blessed.