The following article is an excerpt of “The Music’s Debt to Nonbelievers” by Dan Barker, one of 41 articles from the Disinformation anthology I edited, Everything You Know About God Is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Religion. For more on Dan Barker, check out the Freedom From Religion Foundation (ffrf.org).
Irving Berlin (1888–1989)
How many patriotic Americans know that “God Bless America” was written by a man who did not believe in God? Or that it was intended as an anti-war anthem?
Irving Berlin is by any measure the greatest composer of popular American music, with hundreds of enduring hits, such as “White Christmas,” “Anything You Can Do,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “I Love a Piano,” “Always,” “Blue Skies,” “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Marie,” “Play a Simple Melody,” “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” and “Easter Parade.”
Born in 1888 into a Russian-Jewish family who came to New York City in 1893 to escape religious persecution, he quickly shed his religious roots and fell in love with America. “Patriotism was Irving Berlin’s true religion,” notes biographer Laurence Bergreen.
“Though he is not a religious person,” his daughter Mary Ellin Barrett writes in her family memoir, “doesn’t even keep up appearances of being an observant Jew, he does not forget who his people are.” Irving and his nominally Catholic wife, Ellin, were married in an unannounced secular ceremony at the Municipal Building, not a church or synagogue. They had three daughters. Mary Ellin recalls:
Both our parents would pass down to their children the moral and ethical values common to all great religions; give us a sense of what was right and what was wrong; raise us not to be good Jews or good Catholics or good whatever else you might care to cite, but to be good (or try to be) human beings…. When we grew up, she [my mother] said, we would be free to choose—if we knew what was best for us, the religion of our husband…. It wouldn’t quite work out, when we “grew up,” as my mother hoped. All three of us would share our father’s agnosticism and sidestep our husbands’ faiths.
The man who wrote “White Christmas” actually hated Christmas. “Many years later,” Mary Ellin writes, “when Christmas was celebrated irregularly in my parents’ house, if at all, my mother said, almost casually, ‘Oh, you know, I hated Christmas, we both hated Christmas. We only did it for you children.’” (This also had something to do with the fact that they had lost a baby boy on December 25.)
Why did an agnostic humanist who loathed Christmas write the song “White Christmas”? Because he needed a number for the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, which called for a song for each major holiday celebrated in the US. “White Christmas” is not religious; it is not about the birth of a savior-god. It’s about winter, the real reason for the season.
“God Bless America” was originally written in 1918 for Yip, Yip, Yaphank, a WWI show about the US Army. As he was finishing the musical, Berlin added a patriotic melody that he imagined the soldier characters would sing. Bergreen writes:
But even as he dictated it to [his pianist Harry] Ruby, Berlin became insecure about its originality. “There were so many patriotic songs coming out everywhere at the time,” Ruby recalled. As he wrote down the melody, Ruby said to Berlin, “Geez, another one?” Deciding that Ruby was right, that the song was too solemn to ring true for the acerbic doughboys, Berlin cut it from the score and placed it in his trunk. “Just a little sticky” was the way he described the song. “I couldn’t visualize soldiers marching to it. So I laid it aside and tried other things.”
The song was forgotten for two decades. During those years, Berlin’s attitude toward war evolved.
In 1938, while the United States was resisting joining the new European conflict, Kate Smith was looking for a “song of peace” for her Armistice Day broadcast. Irving Berlin tried writing a couple of songs, but they were “too much like making a speech to music,” he said. It then occurred to him to dig up that discarded composition from 1918.
“I had to make one or two changes in the lyrics,” Berlin said in an interview,
and they in turn led me to a slight change and, I think, an improvement in the melody…. One line in particular; the original line ran: “Stand beside her and guide her to the right with a light from above.” In 1918 the phrase “to the right” had no political significance, as it has now. So for obvious reasons I changed the phrase to “Through the night with a light from above,” and I think that’s better.
Just as “White Christmas” is not about Christ, “God Bless America” is not about God. It is about love for America. “‘God Bless America’ revealed that patriotism was Irving Berlin’s true religion,” Bergreen writes. “It evoked the same emotional response in him that conventional religious belief summoned in others; it was his rock.” His choice of “God bless” was his picking up an American idiom, not expressing a personal belief.
Irving Berlin sometimes poked fun at faith. In 1922, confronting censors, he wrote “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil in Hades” for his Music Box Revue. During the show, a comedienne in a red devil suit dispatched jazz musicians to hell, singing, “They’ve got a couple of old reformers in Heaven, making them go to bed at eleven. Pack up your sins and go to the devil, and you’ll never have to go to bed at all.” The song is the perfect antidote to “God Bless America.”
Irving Berlin died quietly at home at the age of 101. He did not believe in an afterlife, but maybe he did jokingly wish for a hell, because “all the nice people are there,” his lyrics report.
Read the entire article in the Disinformation anthology Everything You Know About God Is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Religion, edited by Russ Kick, available on Amazon and in all good bookstores.
About The Author: Dan Barker is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (ffrf.org) and author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist (FFRF, Inc., 1992). He is also a professional jazz musician and songwriter living in Madison, Wisconsin. He has produced two freethought musical CDs for FFRF: Friendly, Neighborhood Atheist and Beware of Dogma.