The 5-year-old and his family had traveled thousands of miles to escape. When they finally arrived on American soil, free from the marauders who had burned their house to the ground, the boy was placed in a holding pen with his brother and sisters, while immigration officials decided their fate.
From this story, a classic piece of music emerged. The family, fleeing religious persecution in Russia in 1893, was soon reunited and allowed to enter the country. And that little boy, born Israel Beilin, would grow up to become Irving Berlin. Twenty-five years after emigrating, the same year he became an American citizen, he composed “God Bless America.”
The song, which rings out with special fervor each Fourth of July as a kind of unofficial national anthem, is turning 100 this year, and at a fraught moment in America’s relations with would-be immigrants, it is worth remembering its origins. Berlin said he first heard the title phrase from his mother, who frequently spoke the words with an emotion he later said “was almost exaltation,” despite their poverty. His daughter Mary Ellin Barrett later wrote that Berlin meant every word: “It was the land he loved. It was his home sweet home. He, the immigrant who had made good, was saying thank you.”
It was a desire to serve his adopted country during World War I that impelled the 30-year-old Berlin, already a successful songwriter, to be naturalized as a citizen in February 1918. That May, he began his military service as an army private at Camp Upton in Yaphank, N.Y., where he was asked to write a soldier show as a fund-raiser. “God Bless America” was originally conceived as the finale for the revue, “Yip, Yip, Yaphank,” but Berlin ultimately decided not to include it. It was shelved and forgotten for 20 years, until he rediscovered the song and provided a revised version to the radio star Kate Smith, who sang it on Nov. 10, 1938, and reprised it weekly.