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

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Flyers fan Ken Giusini of Philadelphia reacts after the Flyers covered the statue of Kate Smith after recordings of the singer containing offensive lyrics have come to light.
Chris LaChall/Staff Photographer

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…

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