The Other National Anthem

By Carl Zebrowski

Kate Smith didn’t start out making her living as a singer. Her parents coaxed her into nursing, because they feared she wouldn’t be able to find a husband and knew nursing was a career that could support her. She didn’t like it, though, so she quit and headed to New York City in the mid-’20s to chase her childhood dream of singing on the stage.

Things didn’t go well at first. In one Broadway musical, she realized she’d been hired to be the butt of scripted fat jokes. But her voice and personality eventually saved her from that sort of humiliation. So did a Columbia records executive named Ted Collins, who saw her potential and became her manager. By 1931 Smith had recorded a string of hits and was hosting her own weekly one-hour radio show. Each episode of the show opened with her singing the theme song “When the Moon Comes over the Mountain,” and her record of the song ended up in two-thirds of the nation’s homes.

Smith was not yet a legend, though. It took the combination of her booming contralto, a good-versus-evil war, and a moving patriotic song to make her that. The song came from Russian-born New Yorker Irving Berlin, who had written it while in the army during World War I. Record producers rejected it at the time, and Berlin shoved it into a trunk with other failed manuscripts. It remained there for 20 years until Collins asked him to write a song for Smith to record for the 20th anniversary of the end of World War I. Berlin dug it out, changed a few words, and delivered the improved version.

Smith premiered “God Bless America” on her radio show on November 10, 1938. The shy Berlin was invited to appear, but declined. After the show aired, however, his office was deluged with phone calls. He promptly visited the studio for the airing of the show’s West Coast edition and got a hug from Smith when she finished singing. The song was a best-seller that year, and a grassroots movement rose up to have it made the new national anthem. Smith politely quashed the effort, saying “The Star-Spangled Banner” was too great to be replaced.

With US entry into World War II imminent in 1940, Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” hit the Billboard charts again. It hit once more in 1942. All the while, Smith sang the song almost every week on her show. The next year, she performed it in the movie This Is the Army, re-creating its radio show premiere. Now, she was a legend. President Franklin Roosevelt was barely exaggerating when he introduced her to the king and queen of England: “Your Majesties, this is Kate Smith—this is America.”

Carl Zebrowski is the managing editor of America in WWII magazine. This article originally appeared in the August 2006 issue of the magazine. Order a copy of this issue now.

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