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Smith's God Bless America


God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War.

Smith, Kathleen E. R. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2003. 274 p., $45.00, hardcover. ISBN: 0813122562.

So Strike Up the Band!: A Review of God Bless America

Matthew (Hattie) Hein

<1> When America's Top 40 starts counting down, are those best-sellers of popular music the results of clever top-down marketing ploys and mass-psyche machinations, or do those lists reflect vox populi, making itself heard with its purchasing dollars above the din of preplanned propaganda? Kathleen E.R. Smith doesn't seem to care. Perhaps it isn't her place to consider such possibly unsolvable questions. Smith's place, apparently, is to research the records "in disarray" that detail an interesting phenomenon: that of the top-down attempt to create and popularize a great American fight song (assuming the role "Over There" filled during WWI) and the American public's disdain for said project.

<2> The moniker "Tin Pan Alley," as used by Smith, works as a sort of metonymy for the related Manhattan-based professions of songwriting, song publishing, and song promoting. The pop song of the early 1940s was still in the throes of the very formulaic (if successful) frame that had held sway for two decades. Most of Tin Pan Alley's contributors considered themselves closer akin to craftsmen than artists, and prided themselves on their collective capacity to produce songs on command within the established armature. To some contemporaries, the stiffness of the formula demanded satirization - Dorothy Parker's response when asked to write a lyric for the theme song for the film "Dynamite," wrote "Dynamite, I love you" on a piece of paper and considered her work done [1 ]. The proto-Mad Libs world of fill-in-the-blanks mid-century songwriting should have lent itself easily to the propagandist requirements of President Roosevelt's Office of War Information.

<3> As Kathleen Smith's research exposes, hundreds of songs resulted from "songwriters strain[ing] to write the Great American War Song" within days of the Pearl Harbor attack. "We'll Knock the Japs Right into the Laps of the Nazis," "We Did It Before and We Can Do It Again," and "The Sun Will Soon Be Setting for the Land of the Rising Sun" were among those entries that saw the light of day within 24 hours of the bombing [2 ]. Despite the alacrity of their appearances, neither these nor any of the many other entries were accepted by the listening and purchasing public as the sort of martial and hummable, stern and confident anthem qualified to be the de facto theme song of America's WWII military experience. The Office of War Information and assorted cultural commentators continually demanded such a song of Tin Pan Alley from 1942 to 1945, and the songwriters produced hundreds of titles that might have done the job. Smith documents these efforts through government memos as well as articles in Variety, Billboard, and Radio Broadcast News. She declines, however, to declare precisely why this propaganda failure occurred.

<4> Smith suggests several plausible reasons for the phenomenon she describes. At times, they seem to contradict each other. Although the primary thesis of her book is that the Great American War Song never got anywhere during WWII, Smith often suggests (in agreement with Irving Berlin) that regardless of lyrical content, a song's "popularity during wartime made it a war song" [3 ]. At times the author emphasizes the inherent aesthetic quality of those songs that did become popular, presenting unsuccessful tunes as "hastily written" with bad rhymes. At other moments Smith points to promotional strategies and disseminatory practices as the factors that could make or break a song. Within the range of two paragraphs Smith notes that "Advertising to put a song before the public cost between $10,000 and $25,000 per song," then denies the importance of this expenditure by concluding, "the public would not buy war songs" [4 ]. The ascendance of the teenager as a demographic group receives a full chapter, yet the book's conclusion is that teenagers shared the rest of America's distaste for war songs. Readers are apt to feel that they are being presented with a list of possible hypotheses from which to select the proper thesis.

<5> Two of those hypotheses which the author briefly presents and abandons might interest any interpretive historian or cultural theorist looking to build on Smith's research. One is composer Harold Arlen's belief that the "mechanized" nature of WWII made it unlikely to produce rousing tunes. Arlen's status as a great American songwriter ought to make his opinion interesting to those of the "truth, beauty; beauty, truth" school of moral aesthetics. Similarly, Frank "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" Loesser noted that any popular war song would have to appeal to the woman on the home front and "give her hope without facts; glory without blood. You give her a legend neatly trimmed." In Smith's words, "Both Loesser and Arlen saw the lack of a war song as stemming from the actualities of war and not the failure of songwriters to produce" [5 ]. The author is probably wise to avoid the quagmire of such aesthetic questions; her research ought to provide a good starting point for a wide-eyed scholar willing to dive in all the way.

<6> Another thesis option - one that seems altogether reasonable if simplistic and unoriginal - is the idea that Americans were simply too burned out on ideology after the Great War, the ensuing great depression, and the great failure of the League of Nations. It wouldn't be hard to set Smith's book alongside Farewell to Arms, the disappearance of heroic iconography and a little late modernism when making the case for national disillusionment.

<7> Such a scholar must be warned, however, that Smith's text contains a few minor errors and vague moments that one of her colleagues at Louisiana State should have cleaned up. A broadcasted wartime contest between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants was probably a baseball game, not "pro football" [6 ]; a subcommittee of the Music War Committee that included Howard "That's Entertainment" Dietz should not be said to include "no professional songwriters" [7 ]; and it isn't always clear whether Smith communicates the difference between composer and lyricist. Smith has certainly done the grunt work, locating and sifting through previously ignored records and recordings of the Office of War Information and a great number of wartime periodicals. First-person memoirs by songwriters themselves, however, are curiously underrepresented in God Bless America's bibliography. These oversights, though certainly avoidable, don't detract too much from the book's overall integrity, especially when one considers that tomes approaching Tin Pan Alley often do so without footnotes, bibliographies, peer review, or any attitude other than unedited gushing.

<8>God Bless America is a pretty weird title for this book, considering that nearly three years after the election that (eventually) propelled George W. Bush to office and almost two years after the Twin Towers became a different kind of international symbol than they had previously been, that eponymous Irving Berlin anthem joins the National Anthem at American sporting events. Certainly the ticket-buying fans of baseball, basketball, and football games aren't clamoring for the opportunity to sing one of Irving Berlin's lesser achievements, any more than the record-buying public of WWII demanded such swiftly-forgotten titles as "On the Old Production Line," "I Like a Man Who Comes to Work on Time," "Let Your Mother Be Your Sweetheart," "Missing in Action," and "Here's My Boy, Dear Uncle Sammy." Kathleen E.R. Smith's timing, at least, couldn't be much better. In the words of Ira Gershwin's 1927 lyric, "We're in a bigger, better war/ For your patriotic pastime./ We don't know what we're fighting for--/ But we didn't know the last time!/ So […] Strike up the band!" [8 ]


[1 ] Furia, Philip. The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. p. 231. [^]

[2 ] Smith, Kathleen E.R. God Bless America. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2003. pp. 12, 13. [^]

[3 ] ibid. p.37. [^]

[4 ] ibid. pp. 128, 129. [^]

[5 ] ibid. pp. 121-2. [^]

[6 ] ibid. p.7. [^]

[7 ] ibid. p. 120. [^]

[8 ] Gershwin, Ira. Lyrics on Several Occasions. New York: Limelight Editions, 1997. pp. 224-6. (1957). [^]