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The Gold Fields out in Nome
Written May 31, 2022


It's 1918.  At Camp Upton, located on Long Island at Yaphank, New York, America is organizing soldiers to fight over there in Europe.

You too are in camp, a young songwriter by the name of Irving Berlin.  You sit down to compose a finale for the show you're going to stage for the troops, Yip, Yip, Yaphank.

God bless America,
               land that I love!
Stand beside her
     and guide her
              to the right
              with a light
                   from above.
Make her victorious
              on land and foam.
God bless America,
      my home sweet home!

But this hymn-like tune doesn't seem to be an appropriate cap for the final scene of the determined departing soldiers.  After one rehearsal, you set it aside and replace it with “We're on Our Way to France.”

Now it's 1938.  Chamberlain has just tried to appease Hitler at Munich, but the clouds of another world war are threatening.  You try to write about your feelings.  The 20-year-old “God Bless America” would fit the bill.  A few revisions are necessary.

• “To the right” had implied the righteous road in 1918, but now it suggests the right-wing Fascists.  You substitute “through the night.”

• We had been at war in 1918, but now you want a song of peace, and “Make her victorious on land and foam” doesn't fit.  Perhaps instead you can boast of America's wide expanse, including its green agricultural lands as well as the riches from the Alaska gold rush you remember hearing about as a young Russian immigrant named Israel Beilin.

• Finally, the replacement line has to rhyme with “my home sweet home.”  A tall order.  What rhymes with home?  Foam no longer seems right.  Comb, chrome, dome, gnome, loam, roam, Jerome, aerodrome?

Wait a moment!  You recall that at the far edge of golden Alaska, there's a town called Nome!

From the green fields in Virginia
        to the gold fields out in Nome,
God bless America,
                   my home sweet home!

Well ... Alaska isn't even a state, not yet anyway.  You scratch out Nome and bring back the foam.  In a nod to “purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain,” you write,

From the mountains, to the prairies,
    to the oceans white with foam,
God bless America,
                my home sweet home!

That will do.

The “first lady of radio,” Kate Smith, needs a patriotic tune for The Kate Smith Hour on the eve of what we now call Veterans' Day, which commemorates the armistice that ended the previous world war.  You offer this song.  You also write a verse to precede the chorus.

While the storm clouds gather, far across the sea,
         Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free!
Let us all be grateful that we're far from there,
    As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.

Kate sings it all, even your original “green fields / gold fields” lyric in the final chorus.

Her performance is met not only with applause but with cheers and tears.  The response to “God Bless America” is overwhelmingly positive.  It becomes almost a second national anthem, and Kate's rendition becomes a tradition at Philadelphia hockey games.

Nowadays, we rarely hear the “storm clouds” verse.  And even that has been slightly rewritten.  Instead of giving isolationist thanks “that we're far from there,” meaning far away from the war in Europe, we now give thanks “for a land so fair.”

Listen to Kate introducing the song on November 10, 1938.



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