An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Kate Smith and “God Bless America”.

Mar 7, 2019 by

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Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Professor Elder, one famous American woman, who was somewhat “larger than life” was Kate Smith. When and where was she born? And how did she get into show business?

Kathryn Elizabeth “Kate” Smith was born in Greenville, Virginia, on May 1, 1907. She spent most of her early years in Washington DC, where her father owned a business that delivered newspapers and magazine throughout the nation’s capital and the surrounding areas.

By the age of five, she demonstrated an aptitude for singing, and during World War I she would entertain US Army troops as they trained at bases around Washington DC. Soon, she began to perform at amateur nights in the theaters in the capital, and continued to do so while attending Washington DC’s Business High School. Fearing that their daughter would pursue a career in the entertainment business, her parents enrolled her in the Nursing program at George Washington University. After attending classes for a year, however, Smith left school and took a job at Boston’s Keith’s Theater.

At that time, an entertainer named Eddie Dowling had started to assemble musical and dramatic acts for a review that he planned to produce, and after hearing Smith sing he put her under contract. Performing for the first time in August of 1926, Smith would continue in the entertainment industry for almost exactly 50 years before ill health forced her into retirement.

2. Kate Smith is most well known, I think, for her rendition of “God Bless America”. How did this song come about and what were the historical events going on at the time?

In 1917, the US Army drafted the noted songwriter Irving Berlin, and immediately asked him to use his talents to help raise morale by creating patriotic songs. Berlin son hit upon the idea of creating a musical revue that would feature members of the Amy singing songs that he would write.

While working on this project, Berlin wrote a song that he titled “God Bless America,” but he ultimately chose to leave it out of his production. Twenty years later, however, he had a change of heart about the song. As a Jew, he regarded the rise of Adolf Hitler with trepidation, and hoped to help the United States take steps to avoid involvement in a war that he thought would soon break out in Europe as a result of the dictator’s aggressive actions. Accordingly, he had the song released on Armistice Day in 1938. By this time, Kate Smith had her own radio show, and she often sang the song on her program.

Over the next few years, however, the song took on a new meaning. Berlin had written the song as a call for the United States to avoid European entanglements, but in 1941 the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war on us had forced the nation to become an active participant in the conflict. Thus, Americans began to regard “God Bless America” as a patriotic, as opposed to pacifist, song. The song retains that connotation to this day.

In that year, a movie titled “This Is the Army” appeared, featuring 19 songs that Irving Berlin had written, including “God Bless America.” Since Kate Smith had become associated with the song, the movie producers hired her to perform it in the film. This served to more closely identify her with the song, and for that reason she would continue to sing it on her radio, and later television, shows. “God Bless America” became increasingly popular after Irving Berlin introduced it in 1938, a trend no doubt aided by the increase in patriotism that had resulted from America’s involvement in World War II. Its use spread to popular culture, most famously in the movie “The Deer Hunter.”

That film ends up with the friends of the character played by Christopher Walken eulogizing him by singing “God Bless America” in the closing scene. In addition, the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers began in 1969 to use the song at the start of their home matches in place of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Indeed, before Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 1974, the Flyers had Smith sing “God Bless America,” and that day they won their first NHL championship.

3. What would you say were some of her other contributions to American culture and patriotism?

As we have seen, “God Bless America” became increasingly popular after Irving Berlin introduced it in 1938, a trend no doubt aided by the increase in patriotism that had resulted from America’s involvement in World War II. Its use spread to popular culture, most famously in 1943. In that year, a movie titled “This Is the Army” appeared, featuring 19 songs that Irving Berlin had written, including “God Bless America.”

Since Kate Smith had become associated with the song, the movie producers hired her to perform it in the film. This served to more closely identify her with the song, and for that reason she would continue to sing it on her radio, and later television, shows. Soon, the song began to appear in other manifestations of popular culture. This process culminated in the 1970s with two significant events that involved the song.

First, the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers had begun in 1969 to use “God Bless America” at the start of their home matches in place of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Before Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 1974, the Flyers had Smith sing “God Bless America” in person, and that day they won their first NHL championship.

Four years later, the song received an additional boost through its inclusion in the “The Deer Hunter.” That Oscar-winning film ends up with the friends of the character played by Christopher Walken eulogizing him by singing “God Bless America” in the closing scene. By the end of that decade, then, the song had become firmly entrenched within American popular culture.

4. How did she spend the final years of her life?

Smith remained musically productive into the 1970s (releasing a single titled “Smile, Smile, Smile” in 1974), but unfortunately her health began to fail, due primarily to diabetes. In 1976, a diabetic coma caused significant brain damage, and in January of 1986 she lost her right leg due to poor circulation caused by her condition. A few months later, she had to have a mastectomy. Soon after that, she died of respiratory failure.  

5. What have we neglected to say about this famous American woman?

Musical talent comes in all shapes and sizes. Today, for example, Christina Aguilera and Ariana Grande possess remarkably powerful voices, even though they stand five feet tall and weigh only 100 pounds. Smith, on the other hand, carried 235 pounds on her 5’10” frame when she first began to achieve her success in the entertainment industry. At that time, individuals (usually male) who appeared with her in musical reviews would often poke fun at her for her size.

When appearing in “Flying High,” for example, a comedian would comment on her weight in such a cruel manner that Smith would often sit in her dressing room after the show and cry. Surprisingly, the comedian in question—Bert Lahr—would later gain great fame as the lovable Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Smith thus illustrates how America judged women by exterior factors until comparatively recently in our history. Hopefully, a person as talented as Kate Smith will never be publicly shamed in a similar fashion moving forward.

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