06.17.2019

'A song is never just a song': The complicated history behind the controversy over Kate Smith's 'God Bless America'

'A song is never just a song': The complicated history behind the controversy over Kate Smith's 'God Bless America'

She was one of the most popular performers of her era — a patriotic woman who sang in a rich contralto and was, for a time, one of the most ubiquitous singers on radio.

Then, more than three decades after her death, she became a controversial figure in the world of sports, almost overnight.

Kate Smith and her popular rendition of "God Bless America" were cast aside by the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Flyers in April after the organizations discovered that she had previously performed songs with racist lyrics in the early 1930s. The Flyers also removed a statue of Smith that had been erected in front of their arena to honor her role as an unofficial good-luck charm for the team.

Smith's closest living relatives told USA TODAY Sports they were "heartbroken" by the developments. And her defenders said the Flyers and Yankees were wrong to judge the singer's actions in the 1930s by the standards of today.

But others point to the titles and lyrics of two songs she performed — "That's Why Darkies Were Born" and "Pickaninnies' Heaven" — as evidence of overt racism, for which they say Smith should be held accountable.

As the debate continues to simmer on social media — even nearly two months later, on the 33rd anniversary of Smith's death — music historians told USA TODAY Sports they believe the conversation is lacking context, from the sports owner who helped steer her career to disturbing musical tendencies at the time.

History, they say, offers a possible explanation for Smith's song selection — but it also illustrates the deep roots of racism and prejudice in American music.

For the full story, visit USAToday.com/Sports.