One of the benefits of living a long time is that a person can mentally retrieve many recollections of people and places and events that were significant to him and to many others, once upon a time. More and more I find myself drawn to an era and its unique remembrances that has just about disappeared from our people’s mental histories, a time that is almost as unknown to today’s younger Americans as the time of our great-grandparents was unknown to us. That time, for me, was the World War 11 era, from the late 1930’s up through the late-1950’s. That was my “golden age”, and those who shared those halcyon years with me know that in many respects it was a much different, and far better, country then compared to the one in which we live today. I’m saddened for those of you who will never know how wonderful it truly was.
Although one of my earliest conscious memories is of the “traumatic” day that my mother “abandoned” me to my first day in Mrs. Post’s kindergarten in McKinley School in Lakewood, Ohio way back in early September of 1941, when I still had not reached my 5th birthday, I can recall a few memory flashes from, perhaps 1940, but I can recall many events from 1943 on, that special time when most Americans were united in the common cause of defeating the enemies of liberty—the far leftwing forces of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. My parents were not especially communicative regarding the horrors of WW11 (I learned much about the war by looking at the pictures in Life Magazine every week), even though I shared the hardships of “rationing” of basic food items with them, and I commiserated with my father over the difficulty he had in getting sufficient rationed gasoline for our old car, a 1937 Buick Special that he had until 1949 (my learn to drive car), and for which he paid a whopping $850, brand new.
Living in an urban area as we did, I recall the many air raid precautions that citizens were forced to take. All light from our homes on the southern shore of Lake Erie had to be “blacked out” with heavy curtains so that no light would shine from our windows and give German or Japanese bombers a target. Air raid wardens on every street patrolled our neighborhoods, looking for that tell tale sliver of light that might bring destruction from the air, even though it never came. Our neighborhoods were dark at night, without street lights or porch lights. I don’t know what the penalty for “unauthorized lights” might have been at that time, and I’m certain that no one wanted to find out. TV was still a decade or more away, so radio kept all Americans connected to each other and to the government, and news about the “war effort” came out of those poor quality speakers every night. But interspersed with news and melodramas was music, mostly music from that wonderful “Big Band Era”, with the orchestras of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James, and Artie Shaw bringing us the latest “hits”. Often there were singers who would bring their songs to the people, singing with those long-gone orchestras, reminding us of necessary sacrifices, lost loves, and that better days were ahead—popular female singers like Jo Stafford, Margaret Whiting, Helen O’Connell, Dinah Shore, Lena Horne, and male “crooners” like Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby. But of all of the singers that people “adored” in those far away days, two stood out as being THE ones that people listened to the most, in war-ravaged England and the U.S.
VERA LYNN, the great “songbird of England”, who is age 102 as of this writing, was long known in England as the “Forces’ Sweetheart”, and she was, by far, the most popular singer of that era to the distressed people of Great Britain as they struggled for survival against the Nazi hordes. I heard her occasionally in our home, and her renditions of “The White Cliffs of Dover”, and “We’ll Meet Again” became her ‘signature songs’. She even had a No. 1 hit in the U.S. in the early 1950’s, with her song, “Auf Wiedersehn Sweetheart”, which I remember well (back in those great days when music was “musical”). Vera travelled endlessly to entertain British and Allied troops, even going once to the very dangerous country of Burma to sing for the British forces who were still battling the occupying Japanese there, and she was greatly loved for several generations of English people.
KATE SMITH (1907-1986), long known as “The Songbird of the South”, was undoubtedly the most popular American balladeer of the 1930’s through the mid-1950’s. She also sang “The White Cliffs of Dover” for the first time in 1941, and it was her beautiful and powerful voice singing that poignant and hope filled song that I heard so often in those long-gone war days. Kate was on the radio for decades, it seemed, and I can still hear her greeting, “Hello, Everybody”, that she opened every show with. Kate had many hits over the years, especially, “Seems Like Old Times” (1946), the beautiful and tear inducing, “Now Is The
Hour” (1947), and “How Great Thou Art” (1965). But there was one very special song, written by the great songwriter, Israel Baline (better known as Irving Berlin) back in 1918 for one of his musicals, but discarded by him and not used in that show. He resurrected it in late 1938, changed the lyrics a bit, and gave it to the great patriotic singer, Kate Smith, to inspire not only her generation but generations yet unborn. Who would have believed that that song would become Kate’s greatest hit, and would become such a part of our American consciousness that at one time it was proposed to be our National Anthem?
KATE SMITH FIRST SINGS “GOD BLESS AMERICA” ON NOV. 11, 1938
In our time, ‘God Bless America’ is mostly sung at patriotic and pro-America events and in support of America’s military and our war efforts. But GBA was originally conceived by Berlin as a “peace” song, his response to what was then a rapidly escalating conflict in Europe. Berlin gave GBA to Kate Smith on the eve of the celebration of the first official “Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1938, to promote world peace and honor the veterans of World War 1 (then called ‘The Great War’), who had participated in the first “Armistice Day” on Nov. 11, 1918, when the guns went silent and “Johnny came marching home”. The “peace part” of that holiday would be changed in 1954 when it became “Veteran’s Day”, and GBA would become identified with American patriotism forever after, and rightly so.
If you call up “Kate Smith sings God Bless America” on U-Tube, you can see a 1943 movie recreation of her singing GBA for the very first time on her daytime radio show on Nov. 11, 1938. Before singing she originally said, “As I stand before the microphone and sing it with all my heart, I’ll be thinking of our veterans and I’ll be praying with every breath I draw that we shall never have another war.” (Those words were not included in the film version). Then she sings that now-immortal song with her studio orchestra, and I urge all my readers who can to watch Kate’s performance on that long gone historic day, over 80 years ago, when Americans (not all of whom approved of the song), celebrated with Kate their deep feelings of love of country, a belief that seems to be going out of style in our time. Kate’s prayer for ‘no more war’ went unfulfilled at that time, but it’s a prayer that all Christians, and people of good will and patriotic fervor, can endorse. (Note, though, as I mentioned above, that the UTube version you’ll see is a recreated rendition of her original Nov. 11, 1938 broadcast from the patriotic musical film called, This Is The Army, available on Amazon, and was made in 1943 as part of an effort to raise funds for the military and to keep patriotism burning during a brutal war that seemed to go on forever.) Here are those immortal words FIRST SUNG BY KATE SMITH on Nov. 11, 1938:
“While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a SOLEMN PRAYER:
God bless America, land that I love, Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies, To the Oceans white with foam,
God bless America, My home sweet home…….. God bless America, MY home sweet home”!
Some gullible, ignorant, and hate-filled Americans have recently castigated Kate Smith as some kind of “racist”, an un-American bigot who disliked black people just because she sang a song or two, back in the 1930’s, that contained lyrics that some perceive as “racist”, or disrespectful towards black people. If they were, they were the words that millions upon millions of Americans at the time also used, so understanding and forgiveness needs to be extended to them, particularly to Kate Smith, a sincere American patriot and, from what I know of her, not a racist at all! We Americans need to rise above the racial “bad mouthings” and recriminations of our past and put that era behind us, be united in the love and support of our seemingly disintegrating nation, take the hands of our fellow countrymen of all races who sincerely love this land, and do all we can to overcome the purposely induced hate and mendacities that are threatening to destroy us!
Some Americans and some Christians can no longer voice that prayer sung in GBA, and want God to FORGIVE America for what our country has become. There is validity to that sentiment, I know, for I also have prayed for that. BUT the blood of countless American patriots-- from the starving colonists at Jamestown, to the starving and disease plagued yet God-trusting Pilgrims at Plymouth, to all the men and women who bled and sacrificed and died from the French and Indian War, to the War of the Revolution, to the “Uncivil War”, to the Spanish American War, to World Wars 1 and 11, to the freezing and dispiriting Korean War, to the disuniting and patriotism-destroying Vietnam War, and to all of the wars or “police actions” in the Middle East where Americans have tried, usually in vain, to combat the soul shredding and Satanic doctrines of Islam, and to all Americans everywhere who have sacrificed and bled and died in freedom’s cause from April 19, 1775 to this very moment—from ALL of these, their shed blood cries out to all the rest of us that our country IS worthy of being “blessed” by the Creator of all. Perhaps it is up to US, now, to prove to all of these, our honored and remembered countrymen, that their sacrifices and shed blood were NOT in vain.
Oh God in Heaven, how I pray that Americans who love at least the IDEA AND THE MEMORY of the America that once was will do that! And how I pray that our Heavenly Father will forgive our land for all of the evils we have allowed and have committed—and that if He deems us worthy that He will, someday, once again, Bless America! Will you pray that with me? Will you—please?