God bless America: Anthems for a troubled land

God bless America: Anthems for a troubled land
Blog: Jingoism and celebrating a flag are no match for recognising the diversity of immigration that has made America great, writes Hadani Ditmars.
6 min read
04 Sep, 2017
This machine kills fascists: Woody Guthrie offered a truly patriotic vision [US Library of Congress]

While the storm clouds gather for America - far across the seas as well as in its very heartland - my thoughts turn to American anthems, and what they reveal about the troubled nation's ongoing journey.

From Irving Berlin's classic God Bless America to Lee Greenwood's God Bless the USA - played at Trump's triumphalist, fascist-style rally in Arizona - it's instructive to ponder the nature of American patriotism.

How did the nation devolve from one that celebrated the rags to riches immigrant "American Dream" narrative, to one that demonised foreigners? From a nation that fought Nazis - albeit after American munitions factories had armed the German military - to one with a president who normalises neo-Nazism?

At what point exactly did the dream become a nightmare? How did it go from a place that welcomed and eventually lionised Russian Jewish immigrants like Berlin, fleeing pogroms, to one that celebrates the likes of concentration-camp-for-Latinos sheriff Joe Arpaio as "heroes", and refuses to make synagogues secure from armed thugs?

I'm certainly aware that a little nostalgia can be a dangerous thing - a danger evidenced by Trump's Make America Great Again pretext for fascism.

It's also a danger well captured by Peggy Lee, when she sang Longings for a Simpler Time ("that never was"). 

'Longings for a simpler time' - Peggy Lee

The song, by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, from the fabulous 1975 album Mirrors, was a product of the dark end-of-the-Vietnam-war era, when questioning the American dream was a national obsession, before the Reagan's 1980s ushered in a whole new decade of wars and foreign interventions.

Still, I challenge you to listen to Kate Smith sing Berlin's God Bless America - showcased in this Second World War-era trailer - and not feel moved.

Its celebration of diversity (families listening to the radio with sons and fathers in the war effort, including the owners of a Jewish deli) and unity makes one sad for today's America.

'God Bless America' - written by Irving Berlin,
performed by Kate Smith

The American Civil Liberties Union tweeted: "With his pardon of Arpaio, President Trump has chosen lawlessness over justice, division over unity, hurt over healing."

God Bless America would make for a fine national anthem, many have remarked, rather than the current one, "which is hard to sing and celebrates war", according to at least one YouTube commentator.

Berlin's revival of the song he wrote in his Tin Pan Alley Days was apparently inspired by his desire to "write a great peace song", as he told a journalist in 1938, and its lyrics - "While the storm clouds gather far across the sea, 
Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free, 
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, 
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer" - are a contrast to the violence of The Star Spangled Banner's more historically accurate "And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air.”

The video even features a cameo by Ronald Reagan, when he was still an actor and a Democrat. Reagan later supported the likes of Eisenhower, the president who famously warned in his 1961 speech of the looming dangers of the military-industrial complex.

Of course, God Bless America has its own history of jingoistic usage, and some Democrats initially objected to its lack of separation between church and state, questioning why God should bless America in particular over other countries - God bless American exceptionalism.

"This land is your land" - Woody Guthrie 

Woody Guthrie penned This Land Is Your Land as a more realistic rebuttal - some have even called it a "Marxist response" - offering a vision of a dystopic, corrupt country ending each verse with an ironic "This land was made for you and me."

Before the lyrics were sanitised and it became another alternative American anthem, Guthrie penned verses like the eerily prescient:

"There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said 'Private Property.'
But on the back side, it didn't say nothing. 
This land was made for you and me."


"One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
by the relief office I saw my people. 
As they stood hungry, 
I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me."

While Christian evangelical country singer Lee Greenwood's God Bless the USA, first penned in 1992, was popularised in the wake of 9/11 before being used by Trump, it makes an interesting comparison with both the Guthrie and Berlin anthems.

"If tomorrow all the things were gone
I'd worked for all my life
And I had to start again
With just my children and my wife

"I'd thank my lucky stars
To be living here today
Cause the flag still stands for freedom
And they can't take that away."

The chorus, with its ascending major scale, is quite catchy:

"And I'm proud to be an American
Where at least I know I'm free
And I won't forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me."

In some ways, all of these anthems celebrate a similar America, but Trump's cynical employ of the Greenwood hit not only reeks of self-serving jingoism, but his policies are anti-thetical to its very meaning.

Despite having an immigrant grandfather who made his fortune running bars and brothels in the gold rush-era Klondike before returning to Germany and unsuccessfully pleading his case with authorities not to be deported back to the US, Trump's America is no longer one where the flag stands for freedom a land where it's easy to start over again from scratch.

And it's certainly not a place that would welcome refugees fleeing violence like Berlin and his family, or Trump's grandfather.

But as Guthrie's original lyrics testify, the American underclass is not a new phenomenon. The gap between rich and poor is much closer to the dirty thirties dustbowl reality than post-war optimism with a chicken in every pot.

In these dangerous days, when politicians such as Trump exploit the same underclass with a false populism, Americans would do well to remember Irving Berlin, perhaps America's best song writer - a child refugee fleeing violence - and whose classic rags-to-riches story is today not only a distant pipe dream, but also at odds with Trumpian tendencies to build "big high walls" designed to stop the tired, hungry and huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

As even larger storm clouds loom on the American horizon, perhaps it's time to consider a new, more honest national anthem. Perhaps, The Land of the Rich and the Poor? The Star Spangled Wall? Or maybe, This Land Never Belonged to Us.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq. A former editor at New Internationalist, she has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. Her next book, Ancient Heart, is a political travelogue of Iraqi heritage sites.

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars