Irving Berlin was constantly writing songs, and didn’t slow down even after he was drafted. While he was writing the revue Yip Yip Yaphank (more about that later), he turned out a song that he called God Bless America. He had no specific need for a patriotic number in the show plus the patriotic music of the era was up-tempo and stirring, music you could march to. He told his colleague Harry Ruby that the work felt “just a little bit sticky”, and it went into his “trunk”.
Fast forward to the fall of 1938, when Berlin felt the times were right for a patriotic song. He wrote one called Thanks America and another called Let’s Talk about Liberty, but neither satisfied him, so he retrieved the 1918 God Bless America and made a few changes, most notably the line ‘to the right with a light from above’ which became ‘through the night with a light from above’. He arranged the song for CBS radio star Kate Smith and she debuted it on her show on November 11th. Woody Guthrie later said that he promptly wrote This Land is Your Land as a rebuttal to the religiosity of God Bless America.
Irving Berlin (Israel Isidore Baline) was born in Russia and came to New York in 1893. With little formal education he began performing at age 14 and published his first song in 1907. In 1911 he hit the big time with Alexander’s Ragtime Band. In 1914, his Broadway show Watch your Step, which starred Vernon and Irene Castle (more about them in a future post), was the first production to include syncopated dance routines, which quickly became the standard. Berlin went on to become a mainstay of the music genre known as ‘Tin Pan Alley’, writing hundreds of songs, many of which were hits, and some have been hits more than once. He also wrote and produced 20 Broadway shows and 16 movies in his 101 years.
Berlin was drafted in April 1918 and spent the war serving with the 152nd Depot Brigade at Camp Upton, NY (near the village of Yaphank on Long Island), which was the training camp for the 77th Division and later a transient embarkation center.
Berlin was used to late nights and sleep-ins, so disliked the Army routine. He composed Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning, which he described later as “a protest written from the heart out, absolutely without the slightest thought that it would ever earn a cent”. The most famous part:
Someday I’m going to murder the bugler,
Someday they’re going to find him dead;
I’ll amputate his reveille
and step upon it heavily,
and spend the rest of my life in bed.
The CO wasn’t amused and placed Berlin in charge of the buglers. He later related that the colonel wanted the Camp Upton buglers to play George M. Cohan’s hit patriotic song Over There, which is written outside the four-note range of the Army bugle. Despite Berlin’s best arranging effort, the colonel was disappointed and ordered ‘that thin little sergeant’ (Berlin) to have them practice until they could get the song right.
At Camp Upton Berlin wrote the musical revue Yip Yip Yaphank about life as a soldier in training camp, originally performed for the troops by a draftee cast of hundreds. In August, strings were pulled and the revue moved to Broadway, where it was allowed to run for about two months. Familiar songs from the show include Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning and Mandy. At the conclusion of the run the entire cast (and an army band) formed up and dramatically marched off the stage and west to the Hudson River Piers, where they were ferried to a troop ship headed for France, although Berlin stayed in New York.
In 1942 Berlin revived Yip Yip Yaphank as a show called This is the Army, adding additional music, including Puttin’ on the Ritz. He was allowed to do his casting and rehearsals at Camp Upton. After three months on Broadway and a 16 month national tour, Berlin’s show had earned over $2 million for The Army Relief Fund. A reduced version also played with USO tours in the Pacific Theater.
Observing the runaway success of the musical comedy movie Buck Privates, which starred Abbott and Costello and the Andrews Sisters, Berlin re-worked his show as a Hollywood extravaganza, with 17 musical numbers. The cast included Berlin (as himself), future President Ronald Reagan and, of course, Kate Smith, who sang an extended version of God Bless America that ran for five minutes. The movie version earned over $9.5 million, also for the Army Relief Fund.