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The Story Behind 'God Bless America' - 2001-10-04

After the September 11 terror attacks on the United States, the song "God Bless America" became kind of a rallying cry in the United States - almost a second national anthem. It was spontaneously sung by members of the U.S. Congress. It's been sung at memorial services, and even at sporting events

Most people have probably never heard that opening part of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." It speaks of gathering storm clouds and raising voices to a land that's fair. And most people who have heard it probably assume that was written just prior to World War II, since that's when it became popular.

But according to Ed Jablonski, Irving Berlin's friend and colleague, "God Bless America" was written at the end of World War I for a revue called Yip Yip Yaphank. Yaphank was a small town close to where Irving Berlin was stationed in the Army.

But "God Bless America" never made it into that revue. Mr. Jablonski said, "In 1939, the war began in Europe, and he sort of felt that it could hit us. So he dug out this song from 1918, revised the lyrics a bit, and gave the song to Kate Smith, who was a very popular singer at the time."

Berlin's friend Ed Jablonski was glued to his radio for that first performance. "I remember I heard it on November 11, 1939," he said. "I was a kid in high school then. And I really loved it. It's simple. It's to the point. It's not war-mongering."

Today many actors, singers, sports figures and just ordinary people are giving generously in support of the victims of the recent terror attacks. But Mr. Jablonski recalled that this kind of generosity has a long tradition. Take, for example, Irving Berlin's royalties for "God Bless America."

"All the royalties that came in from that song, which became one of the most popular songs in the country for years, all the income from that song went to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and people never forgot it. This guy was one of the really true patriotic Americans that I have met."

Mr. Jablonski explained why he thought there was such a renewed interest in "God Bless America" at this specific time. "Of course," He said, "now it's even more memorable than before because of what happened. When something horrible happened, it's amazing how people worked together and helped one other. I've heard some wonderful things about what people are doing now. It happened after Pearl Harbor here. It happened in the Battle of Britain. And, it happened after the madmen ran into those towers."

Mr. Jablonski lives in New York City and witnessed the crumbling of the towers of the World Trade Center. He added, "My daughter said she was walking along the street somewhere in Brooklyn. She was closer to the thing that I was. And, she was breathing smoke and ash. She said the whole text of the song was written on a window."

Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" - a hymn to freedom, once again inspiring a nation.