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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 813

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This is the grave of Kate Smith.

Born in 1907 in Greenville, Virginia, Smith grew up pretty well off. Her father was a newspaper and magazine distributor in the DC area. The family was very big into singing and Kate picked that up immediately. During World War I, she was singing for Army camps located in the area. But for the family, this was supposed to be a hobby, not a career. So when Smith decided to go into singing full-time, her father kind of flipped out and forced her to go to George Washington University for a nursing degree. But that didn’t last. She dropped out and singing it was.

She was almost immediately popular. Her voice was so strong and she was such a great singer that she was on Broadway by 1926 with great reviews in the Times. At this stage in her career though, she was quite vulnerable. And that vulnerability had to do with her size. Smith was a very large woman. Nearly 6 feet tall, she weighed around 235 as a younger woman and more than that as she aged. She owned it. But as a young singer, she was frequently insulted and made the butt of jokes, which horrified her and she later spoke of weeping in the dressing room over all of this. People’s sizes and shapes aren’t something that I prefer to talk about, but with Smith, it simply was an important part of her life, especially in an era where thin woman were very much in vogue. It was the age of the flappers after all. This was especially true of her stagework in Bert Lahr’s show, as he constantly used her as a punching bag for cheap laughs.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that Smith’s was able to consistently find work. That meant she took what she could get for awhile. That included roles where she performed in blackface, which was still incredibly common at this time. More on this in a moment.

It was in 1930 that Smith’s career really took off, when Columbia executive Ted Collins saw that she was a hitmaker and started promoting her as such. Collins also told her to stop worrying about her weight and start making great music. She later credited him with really helping her out with her own self-image. She immediately became a big radio star after Collins promoted her. She got her own show and then a series of shows. She became so popular that she was a vehicle for other artists to make it big. The Kate Smith Hour had a lot of comedy bits and this is where both Abbott and Costello and Henny Youngman became popular.

Smith had her first #1 hit in 1931 with “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain.” Somewhat surprisingly, she only ever had one more song hit #1, 1932’s “River Stay Away From My Door.” But she was a consistent top fifteen performer and that made everyone a lot of money, including her. Unfortunately, among her hit songs was 1931’s “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which reached #12. It’s just a sad state of affairs that this kind of material was still tremendously popular among white audience at this time. The song was protested by Black organizations and this was close to the end of the blackface period in American popular entertainment. After World War II, you just couldn’t present this kind of thing publicly, as racist as the nation remained.

What we most know Smith for today is “God Bless America.” I personally can’t stand this song, as it is fascist-friendly in fact if not necessarily in intention. Interestingly, it charted on three separate occasions, in 1939, 1940, and 1942, but never hit #1. Her last big hit was in 1948, with “Now Is the Time,” which topped out at #12. But she was still a big deal at this time. She had consistent radio shows of her own until about 1960. She also had a couple of television shows in the 50s, including The Kate Smith Hour from 1950-54, which introduced both James Dean and Audrey Hepburn to American audiences. The famous footage of Hank Williams–the only television footage we have of him–was on The Kate Smith Evening Hour. She had another show briefly in 1960. She made a ton of money. She was very popular for advertisements and commercials and did a ton of them. She dedicated herself to selling war bonds during World War II and was a huge benefit to the government in this goal.

By the 1960s, Smith wasn’t really having charting hits, but she was a consistent album seller and so recorded a lot of long-play albums that may well have been purchased by older audiences instead of the young people the music industry targeted, but their money spent too. In the late 60s, Smith again came to the limelight because during the Vietnam War, the Philadelphia Flyers decided to play “God Bless America” instead of the “Star Spangled Banner” in order to avoid protest. It was a one-time thing, but people liked it so they used it on occasion during big games. That included in 1973, when Smith herself showed up to sing it. She did this a couple of times.

Now, probably my real hatred for “God Bless America” comes from the New York Yankees. Personally, I oppose playing any national song during a professional sporting event. Why? Did we forget what country we are in? What is the purpose of pointless performative patriotism in sporting events? I get it in international events, but not for regular sports. So it’s bad enough. But then after 9/11, the Yankees inserted the damn song into the Seventh Inning Stretch. So now we had not one but two moments of pointless performative patriotism in the middle of our sporting events. The Yankees did every single game between 2009 and 2019. That then became a thing around professional baseball. I hated it.

That ended in 2019 because the nation decided to start taking its racist past seriously for the first time in its entire history. Smith’s blackface routines became unacceptable as someone to honor and the pressure came to stop singing it. Cancel culture for the win! Seriously, I have mixed feelings about holding figures such as Smith up to modern standards in terms of playing their music. But if it allows the purging of “God Bless America” from sports, I am all for it.

Smith was also a person all-in on patriotism. After that moronic douchebag Jim Morrison showed the audience his penis and was arrested for indecency, the forces of decency were outraged and set up a concert for Good Americans who did not expose themselves to the audience. That concert included Kate Smith, Anita Bryant, Jackie Gleason, and The Lettermen. I’m not sure which concert would have been worse to attend. Richard Nixon publicly praised the concert, because of course he did. Ronald Reagan gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1982.

Smith’s health declined starting in the late 70s. Her weight became a serious problem. Diabetes set in. She suffered brain damage during a diabetic coma in 1976. Her leg was amputated in 1986. She then had to get a mastectomy. This was close to the end. She died in 1987 in Raleigh, North Carolina. I’m not entirely sure why she was down there, as she had homes in New York, the DC area, and Lake Placid. Anyway, she was 79 years old.

Let’s listen to some Kate Smith.

Kate Smith is buried in St. Agnes Cemetery, Lake Placid, New York.

This grave post was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other writers and performers of classic American patriotic songs, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Woody Guthrie, who of course wrote the vastly superior “This Land is Your Land,” is in Okemah, Oklahoma and Francis Scott Key is in Frederick, Maryland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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