I thoroughly enjoyed Edgar Allen Beem’s column, “Nationalism is not patriotism,” right up until he made that gratuitous and misguided swipe at “God Bless America,” a wonderful patriotic song (yes, Mr. Beem, it fits your definition of that term) by the United States’ greatest songwriter, Irving Berlin.
Berlin, born Israel Baline in Temun, Russia, in 1888, emigrated to this country with his family when he was 5 to escape pogroms. Like many Jewish immigrants, he survived and prospered because his extraordinary talents – those of a composer and lyricist (in his adopted language) – enabled him to transcend the nationalistic barriers intended to exclude foreign nationals from the American Dream. “God Bless America” (which, granted, has been misinterpreted and misused, indeed abused, by far-right political interests), is not a paean to small-minded nationalism, but rather must be understood from the immigrant’s perspective: composed in 1918, it is grounded in Berlin’s conviction that his adopted culture valued ability and fairness above national or ethnic origin. (The verse, added later, includes the line “Let us all be grateful for a land so fair.”)
I am as fond as Mr. Beem of “This Is My Song” – as music director at a YMCA camp in the late 1960s, I programmed it on Sundays, and I still love what it stands for – but it is neither as memorable as “God Bless America,” nor does it encapsulate the particular gratitude of an ethnic outsider who broke down cultural walls of exclusion. Please, Mr. Beem, don’t let your heartfelt patriotism blind you to the true significance of a great American song.
Paul Machlin, Falmouth
Arnold Bernhard Professor of Arts and Humanities Emeritus
Professor of Music Emeritus