What A Woman! What A Country!

A Front Porch Perspective

What A Woman! What A Country!

Kate Smith with Babe Ruth
Jim Atwell

Maybe it’s a part of “old-timers’ disease,” as the pun has it.I mean repeating myself. My poor wife puts up with a lot of it – and it’s partially the fault of my columns. In them I’ve recorded lots of my life’s last 25 years, most of them spent in Anne’s great company. And further, I’ve also drawn into them life recollections from 20, 40 and 60 years ago.

I’ve shaped all those stories pretty tightly, and that makes them easy for me to recall, easy to spin out across someone’s coffee table or over dessert at a dinner party. Poor Anne! She’s heard all the tales by now and must sigh sometimes resignedly. Bless her patient spirit.

I really try not to repeat myself – at least (Anne excepted) before the same audience. But I’m going to do it now, deliberately. I’m going to retell a story I told you, over a hundred columns ago. There’s good reason for doing it. For, in these times, the story has a new, special resonance. I hope you’ll agree:

At a meeting of the Fly Creek Area Historical Society, Dick Smith of Albany came back home here to speak about the early history of recorded sound. A fine informal lecturer, Dick talked about everything from the mechanics of the first talking machines to fierce warfare among early recording companies.

Dick illustrated his talk with machines and recordings from his own collection. Some of his recordings are 100 years old – the age of the Grange Hall in which we’d gathered. We sat in the old building, listening to a thin voice that had been shouted into a pasteboard cone a century before. The singer was long dead, all but forgotten. Maybe that’s why his reedy voice moved us. We leaned forward to hear it.
But we were to be moved still more. For among Dick’s last selections was something that brought lumps to throats of all of us who’d been alive during World War II.

Record technology had advanced greatly by the ’40s; and now a rich, full voice, backed by a full orchestra, filled the old room. That voice, and the song it sang, swept us back 60 years. Then, the song was almost a second national anthem. The woman who made it so, said Dick, once sang it 60 times in a single weekend—during a marathon war-bond drive.

And that voice! Who’d heard its match for blending force with vibrant human warmth? It belonged to a large woman with a soul to match her size. When she sang that song, she made it embody national confidence, optimism, strength.

The song was “God Bless America.” The singer, of course, was Kate Smith. When she sang that anthem, she was our Mother Courage. Why, it was as if the Statue of Liberty had burst into song.

That night at the Grange Hall, the audience didn’t just listen to Kate. It sang along, softly, voices were full of memories, and a kind of reverence. At the end of the last stanza, we let our voices slowly descend the final three notes – mi, re, doh: “home sweet home.”

Kate’s voice didn’t drop; we knew it wouldn’t. Through our own quiet voices, we heard hers rocket up an octave on “sweet,” pause for an instant. Then, on “home,” her voice burst above us like a fireworks chrysanthemum shell. It spangled the dark sky, hung there.

“What a song!” we said to ourselves. “What a woman! What a country!”

Jim Atwell, a Quaker minister and retired

college administrator, lives in Cooperstown.

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