Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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"God Bless America" and other patriotic icons of the Far Left

"God Bless America" and other patriotic icons of the Far Left

If you're reading this blog, you probably associate "God Bless America" with one of two things: The Flyers and their now-ancient history with the Stanley Cup, or getting woken up after a long night on the boadwalk in Wildwood. But west of the Exton Mall, they apparently associate the Irving Berlin/Kate Smith standard with rising conservatism dating back to the social unrest of the 1960s. But it wasn't always thus: Once, according to what sounds like an interesting new book, both the Right and the Left claimed "GBA" as their own:

The chameleon-like lyrics of “God Bless America” made it a powerful vehicle for a wide range of meanings during the 25 years after its debut. In its early years, the most common use of “God Bless America” within protest contexts served an anti-Communist message, likely drawing on the song’s invocation of religion and patriotism as a symbolic weapon against “Godless Communism.” A group of teenagers sang it to disrupt a Communist meeting in a downtown Milwaukee park in 1941, and in 1947 war veterans broke up a Communist party rally in Bridgeport by singing it. But “God Bless America” was also embraced as a protest song on the left during this period, sung by striking garment workers in Brooklyn in 1941, and by subway workers protesting a lockout in 1956. Civil rights activists also used the song frequently in the early 1960s. Within a two-day period in early summer 1963, young African-American students sang “God Bless America” at school segregation protests in Jackson, Miss., and Baton Rouge, La., hinting, perhaps, at a strategic, unified use of the song by the movement. After all, what could be threatening about schoolchildren, some as young as nine, peacefully singing that staple of elementary school music programs, declaring their love for God and country in support of their right to an equal education?

Because it's the 4th of July and what not, the good liberals at The Nation thought this a good time to re-run a piece on how a lot of America's patriotic pledges, songs, poems, etc., came from the political left, even from socialists and Communist sympathizers. One example it cites:

The words to "America the Beautiful" were written in 1893 by Katharine Lee Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley College. Bates was an accomplished and published poet, whose book America the Beautiful and Other Poems includes a sequence of poems expressing outrage at US imperialism in the Philippines. Indeed, Bates identified with the anti-imperialist movement of her day and was part of progressive reform circles in the Boston area concerned about labor rights, urban slums and women's suffrage. She was also an ardent feminist, and for decades lived with and loved her Wellesley colleague Katharine Coman, an economist and social activist. "America the Beautiful" not only speaks to the beauty of the American continent but also reflects her view that US imperialism undermines the nation's core values of freedom and liberty. The poem's final words--"and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea"--are an appeal for social justice rather than the pursuit of wealth.

This isn't all that shocking -- the Founding Fathers were actually pretty liberal dudes. Unfortunately, Glenn Beck was absent from school that day. One interesting footnote to all this is the story of how "God Bless America" came to be associated with the Flyers in the first place. You might think it has something to do with the uber conservativism of the Flyers' Ayn-Randian owner Ed Snider, but not really. The then-Flyers vice president Lou Schienfield was irked that fans were ignoring the Star Spangled Banner, so on Dec. 11, 1969, they decided to mix things up with the Kate Smith recording. Of course, people were possibly ignoring the anthem because of anger over the Vietnam War, a liberal cause.

Which just proves that with "God Bless America," it's never simple.

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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