Year 199 Guest Post—Sheryl Kaskowitz on "Songs as History"

What can we learn from a song?

This is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as the 75th anniversary of the radio premiere of “God Bless America” (click here) was approaching. I’ve noticed press about a few other diamond anniversaries that put the song’s debut in historical context, recapturing significant moments from the fall of 1938:

  • October 30, 1938: Orson Welles’ radio drama “The War of the Worlds” is broadcast;
  • November 9, 1938: Kristallnacht, the Nazi’s coordinated attacks on Jews in Germany and its territories;
  • November 10, 1938: “God Bless America” premieres;
  • November 11, 1938: Armistice Day is commemorated as an official legal holiday, dedicated to “the cause of world peace.”

Each of these events from 1938 sheds light on a particular aspect of our history. “War of the Worlds” reflected (and exploited) the public unease in the face of growing violence in Europe and lingering economic Depression at home. The horror of Kristallnacht would signal a turning point for a growing American condemnation of Nazi Germany, but an Armistice Day holiday centered on peace reflects the lack of enthusiasm for U.S. involvement in the escalating conflict in Europe.
So what is a song’s radio premiere doing on this list? Seen in context, we can understand why “God Bless America” was so popular during this period—it had the power to calm an anxious public and served as a simple, direct expression of patriotism in the face of looming war. It was the perfect song for that particular moment, as its composer Irving Berlin noted:

I believe its great appeal is the fact that it comes at a time when people feel very keenly about their patriotism and want to express it. This song seems to say what we all feel. Personally, I make no great claims for the merit of the song itself. But, because of the circumstances and of its timeliness, I sincerely believe that those thirty-two bars of words and music are the most important I have ever written. Certainly they are closest to my heart. (“Story of ‘God Bless America,’” New York Herald Tribune, 27 October 1940.)

Understanding the history of songs can deepen our understanding of history writ large, providing students with another lens into American culture at specific moments.
But songs do more than this—they travel with us into the present, their meanings shifting over time. In his book Music as Social Life, Tom Turino calls this process “semantic snowballing”: as a song is sung again and again in different contexts over time, new associations are added while older ones are retained so that a song becomes more than just its words and melody—it becomes a powerful symbol of all of these accumulated associations. I trace this phenomenon in my book about “God Bless America,” but we can see it with a multitude of other songs. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, singing “The Star Spangled Banner”—with its reference to a siege on American forces during the War of 1812—took on an added significance, as one observer described in 1942:

Never has it been played and sung more often in so brief a period, never has it been heard by more people at once. . . . It opens every public gathering; the opera and the football game, the play, the fight and the dance, the banquet and the town meeting. Easily forgotten in days of peace . . . it now becomes, all of a sudden, a tremendously precious and important thing. (L.H. Robbins, “And the Song Is Still Here,” The New York Times, 4 January 1942.)

Students may have their own associations and memories of a particular song, allowing them to connect their personal experiences with the history of another era. Songs can be powerful tools for making history come alive in the classroom.

Sheryl Kaskowitz is the author of God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song, published by Oxford University Press (2012).

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