Kate Smith, a popular Depression-era American singer whose career would continue for nearly five decades, is most famous for her version of “God Bless America.” The song is played often at sporting events, including national and professional leagues and teams.
Not anymore. At least for the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Yankees.
In reports and statements, both teams have said that having recently learned about Smith’s history of racist songs, she’s been dumped.
Smith, who died in 1986, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1982 by then-Pres. Ronald Reagan.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Originally Written in 1918 & Revised For Smith in 1938, ‘God Bless America,’ the Irving Berlin Anthem & ‘Solemn Prayer,’ is Revered & Is Smith’s Signature Song. But Far From Her Only Famous Song
Smith premiered the song in 1938, on Armistice Day. Composer and songwriter Irving Berlin first wrote a version of the song in 1918. He’d two decades later revise it and, as Kate Smith said, wrote it for her to sing.
“…a song that’s never been sung before by anybody …one that was written especially for me …a song that will never die,” Smith says before the performance on Nov. 10, 1938.
Rarely ever heard, Berlin, a Russian-born Jew who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 5, wrote a spoken-word introduction to his song. Smith included the introduction in her radio show performance.
“While the storm clouds gather far across the sea / Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free / Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, / As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.”
‘God Bless America’ is the standard-bearer for popular patriotic anthems and has been sung for 80 years at countless public events, most notably, sporting events.
2. The Philadelphia Flyers’ Had a Memorial Statute of Kate Smith Erected at its Stadium. Smith Herself Sang the Song at Flyers Games. Now, the Smith Version Will No Longer be Played & the Statute Has Been Removed
Decades before the terror attacks of 9/11, Smith’s version of the song was often heard played at NHL and MLB games. The Philadelphia Flyers in particular were huge fans of the song and Smith, so much so they erected a memorial statue of the singer at the stadium.
And, Smith on occasion even sang ‘God Bless America’ for the Flyers’ home games, most notably at the 1974 Stanley Cup game.
On April 21, the Flyers issued a statement saying, “The Flyers have enjoyed a long and popular relationship with ‘God Bless America,’ as performed by the late Kate Smith, a woman who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor for her patriotic contributions to our nation. But in recent days, we learned that several of the songs Kate Smith performed in the 1930s include lyrics and sentiments that are incompatible with the values of our organization, and evoke painful and unacceptable themes.”
The Flyers added, “While Kate Smith’s performance of ‘God Bless America’ cannot be erased from its place in Flyers history, that rendition will no longer be featured in our game presentations. And to ensure the sentiments stirred this week are no longer echoed, earlier today we completed the removal of the Kate Smith statue from its former location outside of our arena.
Flyers President Paul Holmgren said in a statement, “The NHL principle ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ is at the heart of everything the Flyers stand for. As a result, we cannot stand idle while material from another era gets in the way of who we are today.”
The New York Yankees are another example of a sports team that has long used the Smith version at home games, especially after September 11, 2001. And, the Smith “God Bless America” has long been played during the 7th inning stretch.
But no more because of Smith’s history of racist songs, which many will find offensive.
3. The Song Deemed Racist, ‘Pickaninny Heaven,’ Was Sung by Smith in 1933 in a Movie Where Black Children Were Featured in an Orphanage
“And now folks, I’m gonna sing this next song for a lot a little colored children listening in an orphanage in New York City. Here ya are, kids.”
The song is from the 1933 movie “Hello Everybody.”
“Great big watermelons” and “pork chops right outside your door,” with a “Suwanee River made of real lemonade,” in the heaven that’s made just for “pickaninnies.”
She sings to the orphans, “…though the good lord took your mammy, she’ll be waiting there for ya.”
4. ‘That’s Why Darkies Were Born,’ Is Another of Smith’s Songs With Racist Lyrics & Images & Smith’s ‘Mammy Doll’ Too is Considered a Racist Symbol
Kate Smith recorded “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” in 1931 and it was among her biggest records. The lyrics include specific racist language and racial stereotypes. Some argue that the song is an homage, in part, to the “spirit” of African-Americans and point to his lyric: “sing when you’re weary and Sing when you’re blue, Sing, sing, that’s what you taught, All the white folks to do…” And claim that since singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson also recorded the song, it was not racist.
But the song begins with the statement that black people were born to be slaves and to sing.
“Someone had to pick the cotton,
Someone had to pick the corn,
Someone had to slave and be able to sing,
That’s why darkies were born;
Someone had to laugh at trouble,
Though he was tired and worn,
Had to be contented with any old thing,
That’s why darkies were born;
Sing, sing, sing when you’re weary and
Sing when you’re blue,
Sing, sing, that’s what you taught
All the white folks to do;
Someone had to fight the Devil,
Shout about Gabriel’s Horn,
Someone had to stoke the train
That would bring God’s children to green pastures,
That’s why darkies were born.”
In ‘Envisioning the American Dream,’ racist stereotypes in American popular culture are explored. One is Kate Smith’s “Mammy Doll,” as seen in this comic from the 1940s.
5. Never Married, Smith, Born in Virginia in 1907, Was Known as the ‘Song Bird of the South’
Kate Smith was born in Greenville, Virginia in 1907. Her father was a periodical distributor. She grew up in Washington D.C. and never took a singing lesson. Her decades long career included more than 3,000 recordings with most during the Great Depression, she sang for troops in WWI as a very young child and later as adult for troops in WWII. Smith never married and is reported to have earned more than $30 million in her lifetime. She died in 1986 after suffering from debilitating diabetes which claimed a leg and led to brain damage following a diabetic coma.
Smith was award the Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed by Reagan, who said in part, that Smith’s singing of ‘God Bless America’ is a “reminder of the beauty, the courage and the heart of this great land of ours. In giving us a magnificent, selfless talent like Kate Smith, God has truly blessed America.”
Smith’s niece artist Suzy Andron, told USA Today she was “saddened that a woman who has been dead for almost 35 years would be attacked in this way.”
“Aunt Kathryn really did not see color,” Suzy Andron said. “She didn’t see a person’s color. She was very in tune with a person’s character. I’ve always thought that was a model, to not see a person’s color but to see their character. And this is why I’m incredibly sad,” Andron told the outlet.
This post has been updated to correct that Smith performed ‘That’s Why Darkies Were Born’ but did not author it; Ray Henderson and Lew Brown are the songwriters.