11 Things You May Not Know About "God Bless America"

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You may know all the words, but how much do you know about the song itself?

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1. Yip Yap Yaphank

Written in 1918 while Berlin was an Army sergeant stationed in upstate New York, it was intended for a musical comedy revue about army life called Yip Yip Yaphank. The song's earnest tone ("It's a little sticky," was Berlin's assessment) didn't quite mesh with the show's light-hearted spirit, so Berlin squirreled it away in his songwriting trunk (an actual wooden trunk full of unused songs and half-finished ideas that Berlin opened whenever he was stuck for inspiration).

2. World War II

Twenty years later, on the eve of World War II, Berlin wanted to write something to stir the country's patriotic spirit. He started a song called "Thanks, America," then abandoned it. He tried again with "Let's Talk About Liberty," but didn't get very far. Then he remembered "God Bless America," and saw that it was perfect for the occasion.

3. To the Right

Berlin made one significant change in the lyrics. As he explained in the 1940s: "The original ran, 'Stand beside here and guide her to the right with a light from above.' In 1918, the phrase 'to the right' had no political significance, as it has now. So for obvious reasons, I changed the phrase to 'Through the night with a light from above.'"

4. "When Mose With His Nose Leads the Band"

Several music historians have observed that a six-note phrase from a 1906 Jewish dialect song, "When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band," forms the opening melody of "God Bless America." A coincidence? Maybe not. When Berlin was a kid, he earned change singing comedy songs and hits of the day on the streets of New York, and he would have doubtless heard the tune. He probably just interpolated it into his own composition without realizing.

5. God Bless America Fund

After Kate Smith's rendition of the song became a sensation in 1938, royalties started pouring in. But Berlin felt conflicted about making money from a patriotic song. So he assigned the copyright of the song (along with 17 other of his lesser-known tunes) to the God Bless America Fund, which has raised millions of dollars for New York-area Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.

6. "This Land Is Your Land"

One person who didn't like Berlin's anthem was folk singer Woody Guthrie. It's said that he got so fed up with hearing Kate Smith on the radio, he wrote a rebuttal in "This Land Is Your Land." In the original version of Guthrie's classic, he painted pictures of a desolate, corrupt country, ending each verse with "God blessed America for you and me."

7. The Philadelphia Flyers

In the early 1970s, Kate Smith's version of "God Bless America" was adopted by the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, after they noticed that they always seemed to win whenever the song was performed before a home game. Before Game 6 of the 1974 Stanley Cup finals against the Boston Bruins, Smith sang the song in person. Bruins captain Phil Esposito presented Smith with a bouquet of roses when she finished, in an attempt to jinx the good luck charm. It didn't work, and the Flyers went on to win the Cup. To this day, the song retains its mysterious influence with the team. Philadelphia's record when "God Bless America" has been played or sung in person pre-game is 94 wins, 26 losses.

8. 9/11

After the tragic events of 9/11, members of Congress assembled that evening to belt out a non-partisan version of "God Bless America." In the weeks ahead, the song became a kind of unofficial national anthem, sung at baseball playoff and World Series games, and after Broadway shows during curtain calls.

9. The Ed Sullivan Show

At 80 years old, a long-retired and reclusive Irving Berlin appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show to sing a plaintive rendition of "God Bless America."

10. Land That I Love

Though it is often praised for being an all-inclusive anthem, the song was a very personal statement for Berlin, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who went from rags to riches. The second line, "Land that I love," is a tip-off that this is Berlin's expression of gratitude to the country.

11. Atlantis

On July 21, 2011, "God Bless America" was played as NASA's final wake-up call for the space shuttle Atlantis, ending the thirty-year shuttle program.

For 11-11-11, we'll be posting twenty-four '11 lists' throughout the day. Check back 11 minutes after every hour for the latest installment, or see them all here.

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November 10, 2011 - 10:11pm
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