Sam Cree’s “God Bless America”

Grave of Marion “Sam” Cree, Mapleton

Over the years I have made numerous trips up the Thousand Steps Trail, which is located in Jacks Narrows between Mapleton and Mount Union, and every trip has been a new learning experience. On this particular trip it wasn’t history or geology I was learning, but a piece of regional history.

I was sitting at the view overlooking Mapleton when I was joined by a trio of hikers. I soon discovered they were from Harrisburg and had made the trip to do the trail. In the process of our conversation, the trio said they were headed into Mapleton once they were done with the trail. Curious, I asked why they were headed there and they told me about an interesting grave they wanted to see.

Giving me the name and rough location, they headed back down the trail. I finally stood up and after descending the mountainside, headed towards the IOOF Cemetery. Entering the cemetery, I drove to the top of the hillside and parked. Getting out of the vehicle, I walked over to the large, flat stone that marked the grave of Marion Samuel “Sam” Cree.

The stone, which is three foot wide by six feet long, has the words “God Bless America / By / Marion Samuel Cree” chiseled at the top and beneath it are the following lines

“Verse 1 / From the May-flower’s cargo human / Housed in virgin timber hewn; / God has led his people onward / Zealous of his love pursuing / They the sleeping soil turned in labor / And no lock nor bar stayed their door / For with trust toward man eternal / With this their faith they graced our shore

“Chorus / God Bless America land that I love / Stand beside her and guide her / Thro’ the nights with the light from above / From the mountains to the prairie / To the oceans white with foam / God bless America my own sweet home

“Verse 2 / From the minute-men of Lexington / Thro’ Valley Forge’s crimson snow / From liberties freedom justice honor / Sold hard their lives white-heat algo / Tho’ a civil-war’s canker shrouded / Still freedom triumphant yet prevailing / As a-cross the seas defense of honor / Our glorious symbol flag unveiling / So may

“Verse 3 / Rich in cities and in hamlets / Built strong with churches schools and mills / Mines and farms that make an abundance / Ores and giant forests in her hills / Beauty of her lakes and rivers / With their untold power and meat / God has filled and stomped our measure / Rim-fill over-flowing to our feet / So may”

As I stood there, the chorus was the one I was familiar with, the lyrics were different than those I knew. I recalled the words of one of the trio – “Irving Berlin stole the work of Sam Cree.”

Marion Samuel “Sam” Cree was born March 25, 1895 in Mapleton to William and Emma Cree. At the age of three, his father died and when his mother remarried, the family moved to Brownsville, Pennsylvania. Sam was allowed to stay with his aunt until his finished elementary school and at the age of twelve, he moved westward to join his family. After graduating from Brownsville High School, Cree attended the Chalfant Business College.

On July 31, 1917, Cree enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was a member of the 462nd Aero Squadron. The unit was formed in the summer of 1917 and was sent to France in October of that year to serve during World War One. The 462nd was the construction squadron formed for overseas duty and the first to be sent to Europe. Once the unit landed in Europe, they were tasked with building airdromes – small airports – in the French countryside. Their most noted airdrome was the Issoudun Aerodrome, which was the largest one in the world at the time of its construction. Cree honorably served and was discharged in August 1919. When he returned stateside, Cree would open a welding shop and would work for the Jessup Steel Company in Washington, Pennsylvania.

In the years after the war, Cree became noted around Washington, Pennsylvania for his singing ability. He would be invited to sing his patriotic compositions at picnics and veteran events. His most popular song was “God Bless America.”

At some point after he had written the song, Cree saw an advertisement in a magazine for a patriotic song to replace “The Star Spangled Banner.” He submitted his composition to the publishing house, which was owned by Irving Berlin.

He heard nothing about the song he submitted until his coworkers told him they heard his song on the radio being sung by Kate Smith.

Although the words in the lyrics were different, the melody and the chorus were nearly identical. Sam Cree sued the publishing house that ran the competition for credit of having written the chorus. The ownership of who owned the rights to “God Bless America” was stuck in the court system for more than fifteen years. Sam Cree would loose the suit when the courts agreed with the defense, stating that all entries in the competition became property of the publishing house.

Note: Here’s where things don’t add up with Berlin’s argument about the authorship of “God Bless America.” In the courts, Berlin’s defense was “God Bless America” – along with any other song submitted during the contest – was owned by his publishing house, which means they were acknowledging that Cree had indeed submitted it as part of the contest. As a result of submitting it, the song was now owned by the publishing house and they – Irving Berlin – could do with it was they pleased.

However, at the same time, Berlin publicly states in many newspaper interviews a story that differs from the argument used in the courts. Berlin claims “God Bless America” had been written in the 1918 and he had put it on the shelf until the time was right – it was just a coincidence that it came out in the aftermath of Cree’s submission to the competition. If this version is true, then why wasn’t this version of the origins of “God Bless America” used in his legal defense?

The toll of fighting for recognition took its toll on Cree. In the summer of 1957, Cree returned to Mapleton, where he purchased the stone that was to be placed on his grave. On November 4, 1957, he passed at his home in Washington, Pennsylvania and his body was returned to his boyhood home and buried in the grounds of the IOOF Cemetery. The monument with his lyrics to “God Bless America” was placed on his grave.

I finished paying my respects to the man who honorably served his country during World War One. Thankful for his service, I was sadden that he never received the recognition he deserved for “God Bless America.” With those thoughts in mind, I left him to rest on the hillside of his boyhood home.

Note: Whether or not you believe Berlin composed all his songs, I need to say this was not the first time he was accused of plagiarism, nor would it be the last. In fact, it’s not the only time that he was accused of plagiarism with “God Bless America.” He was also accused of stealing part of the reworked lyrics from Robert Montgomery Bird’s 1840 “God Bless America.”

Over the years, Berlin has also been accused of stealing from African-American composers, with the most infamous being the music for “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was plagiarized from Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha.

In 1926, Berlin was sued for pirating “Always,” a song written and performed by Frederick Bowers. Bowers’ song came out seventeen years before Berlin wrote his own, only slightly different, version of it and claimed it as his own original work. Like “God Bless America” Berlin claimed throughout the years that he had actually written this in the 1910s – it was a coincidence it came out after Bowers’ song achieved popularity and the two songs just coincidentally sounded the same, a theme that often appears when Berlin defended his songs.

In 1930, Berlin was sued for $500,000 by Earl Taylor in the California court system. This case stated the Irving Berlin pirated Taylor’s “Walkin’ Home” when he published “Waiting at the End of the Road.”

The saddest part of these accusations against Berlin is only a handful of them were taken seriously. Those cases that made it to court were often dismissed by the courts as being “coincidental.” The newspapers of the time actually defended Berlin’s actions of of “borrowing” lyrics or melodies from unknown composers. These newspapers either 1) blamed the original composer of having no or little talent or 2) claimed those accusing Berlin were running a con game to take advantage of Berlin’s success.

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