Our small church continues its ministry to neighborhood children. These days our daughter Mary Evelyn is helping to prepare them for a patriotic concert the week of the 4th of July.
Last night we practiced singing and signing “God Bless America.” After a couple of practices, Mary Evelyn showed the children two YouTube videos of other people singing “God Bless America.”
First, she played the radio performance of the first time “God Bless America” was ever performed in public. Kate Smith performed the song beautifully on November 11, 1938, then Armistice Day and now Veterans Day. By that date, Smith had already had her own radio show, “Kate Smith Sings,” on CBS for seven years. Hers was one of the nation’s most popular programs.
For some time, composer Irving Berlin allowed no one besides Smith to perform “God Bless America.” It became her signature song. When President Franklin Roosevelt introduced Kate Smith to King George VI in 1939, he said, “This is Kate Smith. Miss Smith is America.” Kate Smith entertained troops during World War II, and she sold $600 million worth of war bonds, more than anyone else.
Kate Smith, who was born in Greenville, Virginia in 1909, made “God Bless American” famous, but it was an immigrant who penned its famous words. Irving Berlin came to the United States from Siberia when he was five years old. He grew up to be a famous composer, though he could neither read nor write music.
Berlin had begun the lyrics to “God Bless America” while he was serving in the Army back in 1918, but had set them aside. As tensions heated up in Europe in 1938, he decided to write a song of peace. Irving Berlin decided that he did not want to make any money from this song. He immediately created the God Bless America Fund with its royalties.
At the time, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America were great organizations that did much good for America’s children. Ray and I both benefited from these programs when we were children. Irving Berlin wanted these royalties to do good in the country that he lived, so he decided to give the money to these two organizations and instructed that they use it with impoverished children.
Irving Berlin’s daughters donated their father’s papers to the Library of Congress in 1992. They include original handwritten manuscripts of “God Bless America,” including one written in Berlin’s own hand and given to future President Dwight David Eisenhower in 1940.
Irving Berlin was born in the area of Russia that is now Belarus. His father was a Jewish cantor. I did not remember from my childhood that Irving Berlin was a singer, too, but our second video last night was of Berlin himself singing “God Bless America” on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1968.
Berlin stood alone on the stage in front of a curtain and began to sing the song beautifully. Midway through, the curtain opened and behind him was a chorus of children on chorus risers singing along with him, Boy Scouts on the left and Girl Scouts on the right. All were dressed immaculately in their dress uniforms with rows of Cub Scouts and Brownies in the front and older Scouts in the back. My moist eyes tried to take it all in. What a precious moment in time.
The year was 1968. The Vietnam war raged in Southeast Asia. American students demonstrated in the streets in protest. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy died at the hands of assassins.
But on one Sunday night in a studio in Manhattan, the entire Ed Sullivan Show honored the great American Irving Berlin on his 80th birthday, and Berlin himself sang “God Bless America,” and a bunch of children sang it, too.
Last night Mary Evelyn put one more thing on the screen for the children to see. In an impromptu moment, she asked her daddy to explain it to the children.
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves
and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways,
then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin
and will heal their land.
2 Chronicles 7:13-15, NIV
Afterwards, she asked church bus driver and class helper Ricky to pray. I had one of those moments like I do sometimes at a homeschool convention. I am convicted that there is hope for America. It struck me last night that we can ask God to help this great land and He will listen.