This past weekend, American journalism commemorated the 100th birthday of one the nation’s greatest songwriters, Woody Guthrie. Many of the articles noted that Guthrie’s universally known national counter-anthem, “This Land is Your Land,” was written as a rebuttal of sorts to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” America had too much squalor, too much disparity of wealth, Guthrie believed, to be thought of as blessed, and his song includes a seldom-sung verse identifying “private property” as the culprit.
What’s far less known is that Guthrie was the second songwriter to have a critical take on “God Bless America.” The first, Harry Ruby, actually delayed its release for 20 years.
Berlin wrote “God Bless America” in 1918, while he was in the World War I army and stationed at Camp Upton, in the town of Yaphank, outside New York City. It was one of a number of songs he composed for his upcoming all-soldier Broadway review, “Yip, Yip Yaphank,” among them “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” a national anthem for the nocturnal. Harry Ruby, then a 23-year-old song-plugger and aspiring songwriter, was working as Berlin’s assistant. When Berlin played him “God Bless America,” Ruby wasn’t wowed. The patriotic-song market was already glutted with wartime songs like George M. Cohan’s “Over There.” As Ruby told the story many years later, “There were so many patriotic songs coming out at the time. Every songwriter was pouring them out. I said, ‘Geez, another one?’”
Berlin didn’t argue. The song, he allowed, was “just a little sticky.” He stashed it away in his trunk, and didn’t pull it out again until 1938, at which time Hitler had already begun his march across Europe, and the United States looked increasingly like the last refuge of democracy. Berlin changed the lyric just a bit, tightened one musical line, and gave the song to Kate Smith. We all know the rest of the story.
By 1938, Ruby, in collaboration with his songwriting partner, Bert Kalmar, had already written a national anthem of his own: “Hail, Hail Freedonia, Land of the Brave and Free.” Kalmar and Ruby wrote pretty much all the Marx Brothers’ songs (Ruby was Groucho’s best friend for more than half a century), including the magnificent “Going to War” mock-oratorio in Duck Soup, for which they also co-authored the script. Patriotism was fine in its place, Ruby believed, but it could be and often was carried to absurd lengths. And no American songwriter of the Tin Pan Alley/Broadway/Hollywood generation wrote better or as many deliberately absurd songs as Ruby (check out “Show Me a Rose,” “Father’s Day,” or “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It”).
Let’s close with a counterfactual: Suppose Ruby had told Berlin, “Yeah, that’s great” and Berlin had released the song in 1918. It would have been old news by the end of the Thirties. Would Guthrie even have written “This Land Is Your Land” if “God Bless America” had already been around for 20 years?
One more reason to be grateful for the life and work of Harry Ruby.