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Yes, It’s Perfunctory Now.

On father’s day, a singer named John Ogrodowczyk sang “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch at the Red Sox game at Fenway. Normally I change the channel during this little bit of baseball “tradition” because I feel like it was an arbitrary and fairly poor choice of songs, but I quite liked John “O’s” performance. He has a good voice and better IMHO that that Ronan Tynan guy. But, when it was over, my dad turned to me and said something like “wouldn’t it be great if they played Kate Smith’s version at Fenway? I mean, for the kitsch value?”


I don’t know how many of you have ever seen Kate Smith, but this is what she looks like:

…and this is what she sounds like, singing “God Bless America” before the 1974 Stanley Cup:


So, um, yeah. “Kitschy!” And I suppose it would be kind of kitschy and fun..if a) I hadn’t grown in the last few years to dislike this song, and b) if Kate Smith wasn’t the version they always always played at Yankee Stadium. It was a little hard to break it to him, but I told him. So yeah, they CAN’T do Kate Smith’s version at Fenway. Sorry, dad. (Although who knows, they probably do her version at Fenway too…living in New York it’s not like I’m getting to Fenway that much.)

As much as I’m not one for this whole “God Bless America” thing at baseball games, I really REALLY don’t like Kate Smith’s version. It simply doesn’t speak to me. And, as it stands, I’ve never been alone on this. By now, I suppose just about everyone knows that Woody Guthrie hated the popularity of Kate Smith’s version of “God Bless America” (“unrealistic and complacent“) and wrote a patriotic tune in reply called “God Blessed America for Me” which became the widely known “This Land is Your Land” in later drafts. I suppose too, that most everyone also knows the melody Guthrie used was that of a widely known Protestant religious song called “When the World’s on Fire” which the Carter Family once recorded in 1930, quite some time before TLIYL. Given this background, I find the song’s genesis a fascinating complex of religious and patriotic ideas that map well onto the history of America’s musical development in the twentieth century.

Take, on the other hand, “God Bless America.” Although he wrote it in 1918, Irving Berlin introduced it in 1938 for Kate Smith to sing on Armistice Day, a holiday to commemorate the end of World War I on which people take two minutes of silence as a sign of respect for those who died in the War. It became immediate hit, its popularity mushrooming from its inclusion in the 1943 patriotic war film This is the Army (a film, incidentally, in which later President Ronald Regan had a small role).   It too is a fascinating complex of ideas (with a little commercialism sprinkled in) that map well onto the history of America’s musical development in the twentieth century.  (By the way, in a neat Guthrie-esque twist, GBA’s melody was said to have been in part borrowed from a early twentieth century Jewish novelty song called “When Mose With His Nose Leads the Band.” Have a listen by clicking the link and tell me what you think in comments.)

What’s striking to me in this is the contrast here; that the new “tradition” (and let’s be honest, it’s not a good tradition) of singing the relatively complacent “God Bless America” at baseball games only started when we went into a new war, not as we were coming out of one, while “This Land is Your Land,” a song written to criticize complacent patriotism gets no notice. A song written to memorialize a war’s end is now being used to inspire support for a new one while the song by the guy with a sign affixed to his guitar that read “this machine kills fascists” (which could easily be rewritten as “this machine kills terrorists”) is overlooked. It sort of makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? (By the way, given its association as a “leftist national anthem,” how weird is it that George H.W. Bush used “This Land” in 1988 as his campaign song?)

What a bold move it would be for someone to play “This Land is Your Land” instead of “God Bless America” at a baseball game. Wow, how I wish it would happen. Theo?

I suppose all this is REALLY just a long way of asking when can we quit with the “God Bless America” business and get back to only singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the seventh? I’d like that quite a bit. Maybe we can even do the longer original version, too, the one that includes the verses in which the song’s female protagonist would rather have her beau take her to a baseball game (so she could tell the umpire he was wrong) than to a show? Yeah, that’d be cool. And retro, which is cool too.


[For those out there interested in a somewhat more in-depth look at these two songs, Dr. Adelaida Reyes did a very nice comparative analysis of them and their role in ideas about American identity in her book Music in America (pp. 42-8).]


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