Dear Fellow Fan,
It was wholly a pleasure to get your video of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America" as only she could -- and did. It rekindled childhood memories of listening to the Kate Smith radio show every school day morning at 9 in Miss Hinkle's fourth grade class. It was the best part of the day, not counting baseball at recess. It included a wrap-up of the day's news, and so fulfilled the Current Events requirement. But the show wasn't over till the fat lady sang. And did she ever, especially "God Bless America." Her version has no peers. Maybe because when she introduced it to the country in 1938, the country really needed it. You can still see her sing it and, more important, hear her sing it, on YouTube.
How she came to record it is a story in itself. She was looking for a song to fit the times. And the times were still tough at home, and another world war was brewing in Europe -- and Asia, too. Anybody with eyes to see and ears to hear knew we'd be in it before long.
The country needed a rousing song, and Kate Smith knew that if anybody could write one, it'd be Irving Berlin. When her manager went to see him, he dusted off an old one he'd written 20 years before, but it didn't seem saleable at the time. It sold this time, and how. (She and Berlin agreed that any profits would go to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.) I still tear up when I hear her version.
So did a lot of folks, including Frank Sinatra, who is supposed to have called Kate the best singer of her time. When he and maybe millions of other supposed hard-boiled types first heard Kate Smith's rendition, he said they'd pretend to have a speck of dust in their eye that needed brushing away. It was as if the song had been kept in reserve all those years to be reborn just when it was most needed.
Even now, I try to listen to it whenever another intellectual explains why this country isn't so exceptional after all, and why America should accept its decline in this now multi-polar world, and ... well, you know the rest. History is over, as Francis Fukuyama told us ("The End of History and the Last Man," 1992), and we might as well relax and enjoy it:
"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."
Intellectuals, like kids, say the darnedest things -- only without the kids' insight. Kate Smith knew better in 1938, and most of us surely now better today, as the latest, most postmodern totalitarian threat comes in the improbable form of a medieval Islam shorn of its civilizing elements. Evil never sleeps. It may ebb for a time after a high tide (1933-45), but only to swell again in strange and diabolical shapes.
The end of history? So much for Ecclesiastes. ("What has been, will be ... and there is nothing new under the sun.") Only the dead have seen the end of war.
Kate Smith was doing her part for the war effort even before that war was formally upon us. I try to listen to her "God Bless America" regularly, which is when it's needed. Just as a reminder of who we were, and who we still are, dammit, and, Lord willing, will always be.
You, kind sir and valued correspondent, seem to think Kate Smith's was an America that has passed. You're just sending me this video as a kind of historical souvenir. For our best days are over. It's a widespread misapprehension. But every day, on every front in this new war we didn't ask for, we're reminded that the American spirit is still very much alive -- and still fighting.
Don't give up on us yet, friend. Or ever. Or you'll get a stare from my immigrant mother, wherever Sarah Ackerman Greenberg is now, including in the vivid memory of her children. We kids called it The Look, and it could shatter stone. It'd knock your socks off and everything else. The Look was reserved for anybody and everybody who made a complaint, or even a grimace, about life in America. She'd had a tough enough time getting here from Poland, and from the back of the backwoods of Poland at that, and she wasn't going to put up with any of that, uh, stuff about how bad America was. From any source, including my father, who once complained about his taxes. Once.
"God Bless America." Sing it again, Sam, or rather Kate. I'm going to listen to it right now. It's even better than my favorite recreational drug (coffee), and I just wish I were listening to it once again in Miss Hinkle's room. I might appreciate it in a whole different way. Along with the aches and pains, age lends a certain perspective.
You be well, kind sir, generous friend, and fellow American. And keep the faith.
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