“God Bless America” was written in 1918 as part of the score for Irving Berlin’s army show, Yip, Yip, Yaphank, but he decided that it was a little too patriotic and put it in the proverbial trunk. In the fall of 1938, with the demise of the Munich Pact, Berlin returned from Europe knowing there would be a war. He wanted to come up with a patriotic song and remembered “God Bless America.” Among the changes he made was the addition of a verse that went, “When the storm clouds gather far across the sea, let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.”
Kate Smith’s manager seized on it as the perfect patriotic song for her Armistice Day broadcast. Smith wanted to sing it with a marshal beat but Berlin prevailed upon her to sing it more lyrically. Smith sang the song per Berlin’s instructions and it went over fantastically. Berlin was so excited he went down to the network to hear Smith sing it again for the West Coast feed. Originally, Smith sang “From the green fields of Virginia to the gold fields out in Nome. Make her victorious on land and foam.” Berlin subsequently changed the lyric.
Hearing Kate Smith sing the song, Congress was urged by thousands of citizens to make the song the new National Anthem. Berlin and Smith said no.
Smith sang the song on December 11, 1969, before a Philadelphia Flyers hockey games which they won. She was made an unofficial mascot of the team and sang the song prior to many games including two Stanley Cup finals (which the Flyers won). Her career record for the flyers: 64-15-3.
“God Bless America” was the last song she sang, on a Bicentennial special.
Mary Ellin Barrett, daughter of Irving Berlin recalls, “I was eleven years old when I first heard “God Bless America.” Now, to me, this was a very strange Irving Berlin song because I knew my father as this jazzy, sophisticated or earthy vernacular writer of songs like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Cheek to Cheek.” And then it began creeping up on me. I came to understand that it wasn’t “God bless America, land that we love.” It was “God bless America, land that I love.” It was an incredibly personal statement that my father was making, that anybody singing that song makes as they sing it. And I understood that that song was his thank-you to the country that had take him in. It was the song of the immigrant boy who made good.”