The All-American Song Book: A Reflection on Popular Patriotic American Songs

Mike Lawson • • August 3, 2018

Share This:

Parades, flags, fireworks, picnics, politics and patriotic American music: whether it was the small-town traditional event at the centrally located bandstand, the televised parades, or Public Broadcasting’s Washington, D.C. annual holiday concert, it was the 4th of July, America’s Independence Day!

But just below the surface there is a political tension, anger and uncertainty about where our country is going. Basic issues of “who we are” permeate the news. Perhaps this is a good time to reflect on some of the tunes that might be considered “All-American” and the composers that created them.

I grew up listening to Kate Smith belting out “God Bless America” from the family radio. Every family had such a radio, probably a wood console patterned somewhat after the windup Victrola of the pre-radio era. It sat in the living room with seating that allowed, perhaps encouraged, the family gathering together after supper to listen to Walter Winchell’s news, President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats….and Kate Smith.

To many, “God Bless America” is a sort of second national anthem. But where did it come from? A recently released picture book by Adah Nuchi, God Bless America, the Story of an Immigrant named Irving Berlin, tells about five-year-old Izzy Baline coming to America with his parents in 1893. They were among the many Russian Jews fleeing the anti-Semitic pogroms that faced them in their homeland. Looking simply for a better, safer life, they were jammed into crowded ships headed for America.

Once here, they lived in crowded, ethnically segregated neighborhoods that were essentially ethnic ghettos. Berlin also wrote complete musical scores or lyrics for a number of Broadway musicals. An underlying all-American theme is there as well. As Thousands Cheer (1933) used a series of twenty-one newspaper headlines to introduce scenarios including President Hoover giving a Bronx Cheer as he left the White House, the first full billing African- American actor…Ethel Waters, and even a U.S. Supreme Court decision about Broadway musicals.

Taken with American history themes, Berlin wrote both music and lyrics for Annie Get Your Gun (1946) and Louisiana Purchase (1940). Annie gave us that American spunk and spirit with “Anything You Can Do,” “They Say it’s Wonderful” and the anthem of all performing arts, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

Even toward the end of his career, Berlin’s choices in projects emphasized his perspective as an immigrant. Miss Liberty in 1949 was not well received but included the song “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.” – Berlin’s last musical in 1962 was Mr. President, who runs into political trouble after a disastrous trip to the Soviet Union. This musical was not successful either.

Berlin’s comments about “God Bless America” were “There is a cynicism about patriotism and flag-waving until something happens…’God Bless America’ for instance. It is simple, honest – a patriotic statement. It’s an emotion, not just words and music.”

Berlin updated this anthem from time to time. The verse that went, “when storm clouds gather…” was added just as World War II loomed ahead. Living for 101 years, he even penned a chorus for a friend that went, “God Bless America, land I enjoy, no discussions with Russians, ’til they stop sending arms to Hanoi!”

The hand of other non-American composers is even found among our armed service official theme songs. The venerable Marine Corps Hymn melody was originally written by German born, French composer Jacque Offenbach in his “Genevieve de Brabant” and modified, only slightly, to accommodate the words “Halls of Montezuma.” Other service songs, although written by American-born composers, also have strong immigrant histories. The U.S. Army’s “The Army Goes Rolling Along,” was originally written as the Army Artillery “Caissons Go Rolling Along.” It was composed by Edmund L. Gruber, a direct descendent of Austrian organist-composer Franz Gruber who wrote “Silent Night.” George M. Cohan was not an immigrant either, having been born in Providence, Rhode Island on the eve of the 4th of July. As part of the Irish Catholic community, though, he was discriminated against as an outsider.

His penchant for writing patriotic music came from that same hopeful, outsider background. “You’re A Grand Old Flag” was actually first written more than a decade before WWI and was originally titled “You’re a Grand Old Rag!”

Cohan had encountered an old Civil War veteran who carried a tattered American flag which he called “His Grand Old Rag.” WWI brought out many other Cohan patriotic anthems including the retitled “Grand Old Flag” and “Over There,” both part of the 1917 musical Over There. President Wilson’s secretary sent a note to Cohan, “The President considers your war song ‘Over There’ a genuine inspiration to American manhood!” A wave of over 18 war-related songs were written by Cohan in 1918 alone.

Cohan became the first person in any artistic field to receive a Congressional Gold Medal. His medal was awarded by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on May 1, 1940 for Cohan’s “contributions to American music culture” with his many patriotic songs. During the approval debate in Congress, a New York representative offered “his music (Cohan) instilled in the hearts of our growing citizenry a loyal and patriotic spirit for this country and what it stands for!”

Similar comments came from a Massachusetts congressman: “He was responsible for recruiting thousands of American soldiers during the World War (I) …his patriotic songs sent young men to the recruiting centers to join the cause. He also brought up the morale of all the people!” Cohan was a founding member of ASCAP and the royalties from his songs all went to charity.

All-American music of two genres entirely different from these popular and show tunes came from two brothers, part of the same Russian-Ukrainian Jewish immigrant community as Berlin. Ira and George Gershwin were born into the Brooklyn, New York tenement area populated by Jewish/Yiddish immigrants from all over Europe. Central to that community was Yiddish theater which instilled music with a message into the young. Like Berlin, the family surname changed from Gershowitz, its European form Gershvitz or Gershwine, to an Americanized version, Gershwin.

A piano was bought for first-born Ira, who was greatly relieved when his younger brother George, then ten years old, took a strong interest in playing it. Ira would later become the lyricist for many of George’s compositions. George’s skill on the piano landed him jobs “plugging” songs and creating the player piano rolls popular in the early 1900’s. At the age of 21, George wrote “Suwannee,” which became Al Jolson’s signature song. Five years later he created “Rhapsody in Blue” which was, and is, a revolutionary classical and jazz blend.

Many of the Gershwin orchestral and opera formats revolved around American themes. Perhaps most notable was Porgy and Bess which blended American popular music of the 1930’s with African-American music styles and speech dialect. A far cry from Yiddish theater, but not really!

George Gershwin summed up his music this way: “True music must reflect the thoughts and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans…my time is today.”

This is where much of our most beloved all-America and patriotic music came from, those immigrants and outcasts, the huddled masses yearning to be free, with little other than hope and a little music in their hearts!

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!