Since the late 1960s, a rendition of “God Bless America” by Kate Smith, one of the most prolific and popular American singers of the 20th century, has been a good luck charm for the Philadelphia Flyers. “The team began to win on nights the song was played,” the New York Times wrote in Smith’s 1986 obituary. Smith sang the tune live during game six of the 1974 Stanley Cup finals, which the Flyers went on to win against the Boston Bruins, taking home the coveted trophy. But as Anastasia Tsioulcas reports for NPR, the Flyers recently announced that they will no longer play Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” at games. A statue of the singer that stood outside the team’s arena has been removed.
The sudden change of heart was prompted by revelations that Smith had recorded at least two songs with racist lyrics in the 1930s. Last week, the New York Yankees, which had been regularly playing Smith’s recording during the seventh-inning stretch since 9/11, decided to switch to a keyboard version of “God Bless America” after the songs were brought to their attention. “The Yankees have been made aware of a recording that had been previously unknown to us and decided to immediately and carefully review this new information,” a spokesperson told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. “And while no final conclusions have been made, we are erring on the side of sensitivity.”
Quickly following suit, the Flyers said in a statement on Sunday that while the team has “enjoyed a long and popular relationship with ‘God Bless America,’ as performed by the late Kate Smith,” it had recently learned that several of her songs “include lyrics and sentiments that are incompatible with the values of our organization, and evoke painful and unacceptable themes.” The statue of Smith that had been erected outside the Flyers’ Spectrum arena in 1987—and, when that venue was demolished, had been moved to the parking lot of Xfinity Live!—was cloaked in black and subsequently taken down.
One of the songs to come under scrutiny is “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which was written for a 1931 Broadway revue. The song was also performed by Paul Robeson, the famed African-American actor and bass baritone, and some have argued that it is a satire of racist attitudes. But for modern listeners, it is difficult to hear a white woman sing lyrics like, “Someone had to pick the cotton/Someone had to plant the corn/Someone had to slave and be able to sing/That's why darkies were born.”
Critics have also pointed to “Pickaninny Heaven,” which Smith performed for the 1933 film Hello, Everybody!, according to CNN’s Harmeet Kaur. Smith addresses the song to “a lot of little colored children, who are listening in at an orphanage in New York City,” and croons about a heaven filled with “great big watermelons.”
These tracks are two out of nearly 3,000 that Smith recorded over the course of her career. “God Bless America” was her most iconic hit. In 1938, Smith was reportedly searching for a song to perform on her CBS radio program on the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day. She reached out to composer Irving Berlin to find out if he had anything new to offer, and Berlin decided to finish a song that he had started writing one year earlier. “In a short time, the song supplanted ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as the nation's most popular patriotic song,” the Times reflected in her 1986 obituary, adding, “There were attempts—all unsuccessful—to adopt it formally as the national anthem.”
Following the outbreak of WWII, Smith belted out tunes for the troops and raised vast sums of money to support America’s war effort; during a single 18-hour broadcast, she helped sell more than $100 million in war bonds—which amounts to “more than $1.4 billion in 2019 dollars,” according to Tsioulcas. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
“Kate always sang from her heart, and so we always listened with our hearts,” Reagan remarked. “It's been truly said that one of the most inspiring things our GIs in World War II, Europe and the Pacific, and later in Korea and Vietnam, ever heard was the voice of Kate Smith.”
The singer’s relatives have expressed dismay over the Flyers’ moves to cut ties with Smith. “Aunt Katherine was probably one of the kindest people I’ve ever met,” her niece, Suzy Andron, told Matt Petrillo of CBS Philly. “She was certainly anything but a prejudice[d] person. She loved everybody.”
But Paul Holmgren, the Flyers’ president, defended the team’s decision. “The NHL principle ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ is at the heart of everything the Flyers stand for," he said. “As a result, we cannot stand idle while material from another era gets in the way of who we are today.”