News that George Zimmerman (a “white Latino”) got away with shooting and killing Trayvon Martin, a black teenager armed with nothing more than a bag of Skittles, brought joy to many conservatives. Some went so far as to say “God Bless George Zimmerman.”
Less than 24 hours before the Zimmerman verdict, Grammy-winning singer Marc Anthony, a dark-skinned Latino, was viciously lambasted — for having had the audacity to sing ‘God Bless America’ at Major League Baseball’s All Star Game. One tweeted “Why is some Spanish fuck singing ‘God Bless America’ at the all-star game?” Another wrote, “C’mon MLB. How you gonna pick a Mexican to sing ‘God Bless America’? Was Castro unavailable?”
Anthony happens to be a born-and-bred American citizen of Puerto Rican descent.
This was as ironic as it was painful, seeing as how Irving Berlin, one of America’s greatest songwriters — Jerome Kern said Berlin is American music — wrote the song in question as a celebration of America’s inclusiveness. In her new book God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song, ethnomusicology scholar Sheryl Kaskowitz traces the history of a song written in 1918 but not published until 20 years later. She argues that the broad appeal of “God Bless America” stems from the ambiguity of its lyrics. Whose God was Berlin, a Jew, talking about?
Initially, “God Bless America” served as an apolitical anthem — it was the theme song for the 1940 presidential campaigns of both FDR and his Republican challenger Wendell Willkie. During the ’40s, Kate Smith sang it every week on her extraordinarily successful radio show and popularized it to the extent that it’s often been put forward as a replacement for the difficult-to-sing “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Over the past half-century, the right has used “God Bless America” as an all-purpose signifier of the God-given superiority of All-American values over those of the secularists, socialists, anarchists and malcontents of the left.
Kaskowitz credits Ronald Reagan for making especially potent political hay from the song. She adds, “It is a satisfying and intriguing coincidence that Reagan, who would become so strongly associated with ‘God Bless America,’ was the star of the 1943 film This Is the Army, in which the song made its movie debut — in fact, Reagan first appears on screen while the song is playing, during a reenactment of Kate Smith’s premiere of the song on her radio show.”
Not everyone loved “God Bless America.” Progressive hero Woody Guthrie, another of America’s greatest songwriters, wrote an angry response to what he considered the schmaltz of Berlin’s tune in what would become his best-known song. “This Land Is Your Land” — originally titled “God Blessed America” — includes a verse that evokes an America that could not be shouted out of sight by right-wing polemics: “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.”
If the mushy lyrics and the conservative hijacking of “God Bless America” leave you cold, Mark Kurlansky’s new book Ready For A Brand New Beat offers an alternative: If Kaskowitz’s book focuses on the ambiguities of “God Bless America,” Kurlansky goes all in with praise of the 1964 Martha and the Vandellas’ classic “Dancing in the Street,” which, he says, became “the anthem for a changing America.”
“Dancing in the Street,” the smash hit that blasted nationwide from car radios and record stores during a steaming summer of protest riots by blacks in every major American city, was a product of black culture with a message that appealed to everyone. Its writers, singers and musicians were mostly black, and the record was released on Motown, the wildly successful label owned by Berry Gordy, a black entrepreneur who adopted the inclusive slogan “The Sound of Young America.” Co-writer Marvin Gaye reportedly came up with its title when he saw inner city black, white and Latino kids playing together in the street.
Both “God Bless America” and “Dancing in the Street” aim to celebrate a spirit rather than a particular God — and certainly not the God George Zimmerman invoked when he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity that Trayvon’s killing was God’s plan.
Our species rolls on — never, as Martin Luther King Jr. observed, on the wheels of inevitability, but in the brave actions of men and women who can see the promised land from here. Asked on a TV talk show about those who declared him and his All-Star game performance un-American, Marc Anthony showed the real meaning of “stand your ground.” In the spirit of “God Bless America” and “Dancing in the Street,” he said, “I’m more New York than ever. I’m more Puerto Rican than ever.”
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