'God Bless America': Are Supporters of the Kate Smith Version Trying to Protect the Song—or the Singer?

Kate Smith, singing “God Bless America” before a Stanley Cup playoff game between the New York Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers in Philadelphia, May 13, 1975.
Photo: Associated Press

For years, anyone attending a New York Yankees game would be subjected to the voice of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.

Smith, who died in 1986, was heralded in her day as the “Songbird of the South,” an uber popular songstress whose 1938 version of Irving Berlin’s song was so popular, the Yankees, as well as hockey’s Philadelphia Flyers, made the song their own patriotic anthems decades later.

But last week, after Smith was revealed to have recorded some wildly racist songs during the 1930s, both the Yankees and the Flyers decided to part ways with Smith’s version of “God Bless America.”

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Some critics of the teams’ decision see it as political correctness gone wild, saying it’s unfair to judge Smith by today’s norms. In the New Jersey seaside town of Wildwood, where Smith’s “God Bless America” is blared along the boardwalk every summer morning around 11, the mayor says he has no intention of altering tradition.

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“Eighty-eight years ago, she did something that was, at the time, an acceptable means of conversation,” Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. told the New York Times. “I’m not saying it was right, but the times were different.”

But others say the move to move away from Smith’s rendition is the right one, as it clearly defines what we as a society no longer find acceptable.

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“There’s no statute of limitations when it comes to racism,” Morris Robinson, an African American opera singer who has had the experience of singing the national anthem at ballparks, told the Washington Post.

As the Post noted, Robinson concedes:

... that “the mind-set of 1931 is not the mind-set of 2019 — at least, not openly.” And yet there must be clear signs that certain things will no longer be tolerated. “We have people now who have things on Twitter from three, four, five years ago who can’t host the Oscars” because of what they wrote then, Robinson points out.

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And to those for whom parting with “God Bless America” is just such sweet sorrow? As another opera singer, Lawrence Brownlee, pointed out to the Post:

“We’re not losing the song. There are other people who have sung it who can do it.”

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Exactly. Some things (or people, in this case) just need to stay in the past, and not get dredged up from the dead at every home game.

So, sing the song. If you want. It’s a free country. You don’t have to. First Amendment rights and all.

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But ditch the singer.

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