From its film debut in 1947 to being sung on the Capitol steps on September 11th, 2001, “God Bless America” has served as a patriotic symbol throughout American history. (Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)
July 3, 2013

Lewis L. Gould is professor of history emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Creating the Modern First Lady.”

On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, amid the trauma of that horrible day, members of Congress began singing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps. This moment of communal, bipartisan song, however transient, illustrated the ability of a patriotic anthem to bring Americans together as only music can do. Such songs become what Abraham Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory” that reverberate at ballparks, rallies and concerts to evoke a sense of national wholeness.

Interpreting the meaning of songs in our lives has generated probing and insightful studies, such as these books on two classic American melodies. These examinations of “God Bless America” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” not only reflect the growing interest in how songs have affected U.S. politics and culture, they are also lively narratives in their own right.

Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” has the shorter chronological arc. Written for a patriotic show in 1918 and then put aside, the tune reemerged from Berlin’s trunk in 1938 and began a journey that has never ended. Sheryl Kaskowitz, an independent scholar, has constructed an engaging portrait of how the song infiltrated patriotism, business and sports.

Kaskowitz skillfully traces the mixture of myth and reality that gathered around “God Bless America” from the moment of its identification with the popular singerKate Smith. Berlin did not write the song for Smith, but he and the tune benefited from the publicity she gave it on her radio show. In fact, Berlin and Smith’s manager, Ted Collins, vied to get credit for allocating the royalties from “God Bless America” to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.

The song also figured in the debate over American involvement in World War II. At first, Berlin’s lyrics spoke to disillusionment over the nation’s participation in World War I. As the threat of Nazi Germany mounted in 1939 and ’40, “God Bless America” took on new meaning, especially for its Jewish composer — who faced anti-Semitic criticism, including from the future chaplain of the Senate, Peter Marshall of Washington. As the threat of war intensified, Berlin’s words seemed to become an argument for greater U.S. involvement n the fight against totalitarianism.

In the years that followed, “God Bless America” evolved into a tune associated with political conservatism. Protesters against liberal causes sang it as a way of emphasizing their patriotism and drowning out their enemies. Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan made the song or its title an integral part of musical performances in their campaigns and of their presidential speeches. Kaskowitz’s treatment of these developments is illuminating and thoughtful.

Some of the most interesting pages in her sprightly narrative concern the recent fusion of sports and patriotism in “God Bless America.” The events of Sept. 11 gave the song new resonance, especially at baseball games, where it is still sung in the middle of the seventh inning.

Telling the story of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” provides complex intellectual challenges for two authors, John Stauffer of Harvard University and Benjamin Soskis of George Mason. The familiar melody was first heard as a hymn called “Say, Brothers” and went through several other versions before becoming “John Brown’s Body” (about the death of the famed abolitionist) and then, with Julia Ward Howe’s lyrics in the 1860s, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The authors have traced this intricate process with wide-ranging scholarship that lays out the many ways in which the melody evoked strong passions among Union soldiers during the Civil War. In time, the harder edge of “John Brown’s Body” gave way to the millennial sentiments of the “Battle Hymn.”

Stauffer and Soskis bring subtlety and depth to their treatment of the “Battle Hymn” in the years after the Civil War and into the next century. They are attuned to the currents of historical thinking about Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, and they show how each period adapted a version of the “Battle Hymn” for contemporary purposes. For example, Theodore Roosevelt and the impassioned delegates at the Progressive Party convention of August 1912 used the “Battle Hymn” as one of the rallying melodies for their program of economic and political reform.

In a more overtly religious context, 20th-century revivalists such as Billy Sunday and Billy Graham employed the words and melody to help bring potential converts forward during their crusades. With equal passion and moral intensity, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s explored the many ways in which the hymn could evoke and amplify devotion to racial justice.

By drawing these disparate responses together, Stauffer and Soskis connect the shifting meaning of the melody and Howe’s lyrics to the changing nature of American politics and culture. The authors help readers understand how a pro-Union version of the “Battle Hymn” with the title “Solidarity Forever,” as well as King’s use of the line “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” in letters to civil rights protesters and at his rallies, derived from emotional and political impulses as strong and urgent as the conservatism of Sunday and Graham. Throughout the political battles and social turbulence of the ’60s, groups at both ends of the political spectrum sought to surround their causes with the aura of authentic patriotism that the “Battle Hymn” conveyed.

The ambiguity and multiple meanings in the song resonate throughout the complex story that Stauffer and Soskis tell so well. Three days after members of Congress sang “God Bless America” on Sept. 11, the White House incorporated the “Battle Hymn”into the nationally televised memorial service for the victims of the attacks. Whether an anthem that pulsed with Christian imagery was quite the right note to strike at the time counted less than the evocation of American martial fervor. Militant and millennial, open to contrasting interpretations about American values and exceptionalism, the “Battle Hymn” resists any single interpretation or ideological pigeonhole.

These two books set a high standard for efforts to trace the impact of deeply felt melodies on the national life. They are well grounded in primary manuscript sources and reflect a mastery of the secondary literature on a range of relevant topics. Because of the more linear nature of her subject, Kaskowitz is a shade more readable and involving than Stauffer and Soskis are in their more academic treatment. Nonetheless, any reader seeking to understand how music echoes through American politics and government will do well to add these well-crafted and exemplary volumes to their reading list.

Lewis L. Gould is professor of history emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Creating the Modern First Lady.”

GOD BLESS AMERICA

The Surprising History of an Iconic Song

By Sheryl Kaskowitz

Oxford Univ. 210 pp. $29.95

THE BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC

A Biography of the Song That Marches On

By John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis

Oxford Univ. 380 pp. $29.95