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Music and the Spoken Word: ‘God bless America’

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Editor's note: “The Spoken Word” is shared each Sunday during the weekly Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcast. This will be given July 3, 2016.

Irving Berlin, one of America’s most successful songwriters, was born in a small Russian village near the Siberian border. Threats of violence forced his family to flee Russia when he was only 5 years old, and they eventually found a home in the United States.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that when the well-known singer Kate Smith asked Berlin to write a patriotic song for her, he wrote what he called “a ballad of home. It’s not a song about a flag, or liberty, or something like that,” he said. “It’s a song about home. Instead of the home being a little cottage, it’s America” (see "God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song," by Sheryl Kaskowitz, Oxford University Press, 2013).

“God Bless America” became an unofficial national anthem of the United States almost from the moment Smith sang it on the radio in 1938. It earned Berlin a Congressional Gold Medal, but it has never earned him a dime in royalties — all proceeds from the song are donated to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

It also became Smith’s signature song. In 1982, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. In bestowing the award, President Ronald Reagan said: “Those simple but deeply moving words, ‘God bless America,’ have taken on added meaning for all of us because of the way Kate Smith sang them. Thanks to her, they have become a cherished part of all our lives, an undying reminder of the beauty, the courage and the heart of this great land of ours” (see "God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song").

“God Bless America” is both an anthem and a prayer — a petition for God’s blessings upon the nation. Through nearly eight decades of good times and hard times, “God Bless America” has stood as a reaffirmation of the sacred truth that we need heaven’s blessing to see us through the days ahead.

Today, “God Bless America” is still sung at concerts, sporting and community events, patriotic celebrations and any time a spirit of hope and unity is needed. “When storms clouds gather,” as it seems they always do, we surely need that “light from above.” With hearts stirred with humility and gratitude for this “land that we love,” let us join in joyful prayer, “God bless America.”

Tuning in ...

The “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast is available on KSL TV, KSL Radio 1160 AM/102.7 FM, ksl.com, KSL X-stream, BYU-TV, BYU Radio, BYU-TV International, CBS Radio Network, Dish Network, DirecTV, Sirius XM Radio (Channel 143), mormontabernaclechoir.org and youtube.com/mormontabchoir. The program is aired live at 9:30 a.m. MDT on many of these outlets. Look up broadcast information by state and city at musicandthespokenword.org/schedules.