A Brief History of ‘God Bless America’

In 1918, Jewish immigrant Irving Berlin was serving the U.S. Army at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York when he started composing a Ziegfeld Follies-style revue for the soldiers. For its finale, he penned a little diddy called “God Bless America.”

Berlin didn’t end up using tune, and didn’t think of it much again until about two decades later. With World War II looming, the songwriter wanted to pen an anthem rallying for harmony. “I’d like to write a great peace song,” he said, “but it’s hard to do, because you have trouble dramatizing peace.”

He dug up his discarded musical number from the WWI revue, and Kate Smith ultimately debuted the revised version on her radio show on Armistice Day in 1938. She reportedly said: “As I stand before the microphone and sing it with all my heart, I’ll be thinking of our veterans and I’ll be praying with every breath I draw that we shall never have another war.”

The new song had a few modifications. Among other things, to avoid any confusion regarding politics, Berlin changed the phrase “to the right” to “through the light” by the time the sheet music was published. The song was a fast sensation. It was featured a few years later in 1943’s This is the Army (appropriately starring Ronald Reagan), which is where the above clip comes from.

Smith and Berlin would later squabble over proprietorship, foreshadowing a bit of the kind of contention the song would continue to engender for many years to come. It’s seen a complicated history, and the phrase itself occupies a strange place in the American zeitgeist. And while those in the political landscape argue over its meaning and ownership, it’s technically the property of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of New York City. Berlin established the God Bless America Fund in 1940, and its royalties go directly to the young adult organizations. An estimated $10 million in profits have gone to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in the decades since.

Image credit: YouTube

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By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]

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