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Resource Guide for Educators: The World of the Play
November 14, 2016
“Not for Just a Year, but Always” The Immortal Irving Berlin
- Benjamin Fainstein, Literary Manager
Composer Jerome Kern once famously remarked that “Irving Berlin has no place in American music — he is American music.” Such an enviable distinction could only be bestowed upon a musician with far-reaching success and a diverse body of work, and Berlin certainly fits the bill. He was born Israel Berlin in 1888 and immigrated to New York from Belarus at the age of five. After years of literally singing for his supper as a busker, he leapt to international success with his 1911 hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Throughout his lengthy career, he explored a variety of styles, from the ragtime, jazz and balladeering of Tin Pan Alley to Broadway showstoppers like “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from his musical Annie Get Your Gun to Hollywood hits including Easter Parade, Holiday Inn and Blue Skies. Berlin’s song catalog contains nearly 1,500 tunes, more than two dozen of which topped the charts before his death in 1989. Hundreds of artists have recorded his work, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Merman, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Diana Ross, Patsy Cline, Celine Dion, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson, Cher, and the Muppets. His influence on American music is undeniable; his presence, ubiquitous. Here is a glimpse at the stories behind two of his most legendary songs.
Berlin’s song was first broadcast on December 25, 1941, less than three weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The wistful tone of “White Christmas” took on a particularly poignant significance as American soldiers found themselves fighting overseas in the years that followed. Crooner Bing Crosby’s iconic rendition of the tune became the best-selling song of all time by the end of World War II, and “White Christmas” has maintained that distinction in the Guinness Book of World Records. The song is also notable for being relatively secular, a fact which music scholars have pointed to as an engine for its universality. Berlin, a Jewish man, had a personal tradition that may have contributed to the yearning melancholy of the song: his infant son had died on Christmas Day 1928, and every year, Berlin spent the holiday visiting Irving Berlin, Jr.’s grave. Hundreds of musicians, from Elvis Presley to Destiny’s Child, have recorded the song since, but Crosby’s version is still the gold standard. The postwar era saw a shift away from the melodic keyboards of Tin Pan Alley toward the rebellious guitars of rock-and-roll. “White Christmas” stood at the apex of this transition, the pinnacle of an American moment that was, like a glowing yule log, slowly burning away.
“God Bless America”
On November 10, 1938 — the holiday then known as Armistice Day — popular singer Kate Smith debuted a new song by Irving Berlin that has endured as a kind of unofficial national anthem. Berlin began work on “God Bless America” twenty years before Smith sang it on the radio; he had intended it as a finale for a musical revue he wrote as a recruit in the U.S. Army. The song has been the subject of controversy over the years. Some have accused it of promoting war-mongering and xenophobia, while other groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, have condemned its patriotism because of Berlin’s status as a Jewish immigrant. But Berlin himself intended it as a peace song, and Kate Smith remarked on-air that she prayed “we shall never have another war” before she sang it. Despite mixed reactions from the public, “God Bless America” continues to be taught in schools, sung at sporting events, and performed in the wake of national tragedies. Berlin never made any money off of the song’s success, a fact which perhaps adds to the evidence that he felt the song belonged to his fellow Americans rather than to himself. Since 1940, all royalty payments have been directed to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.
Watch Irving Berlin in Performance:
Watch here:In one of his RARE few television appearances, Irving Berlin explains the workings of his "special" piano to Dinah Shore and Tony Martin, and plays an early composition.
Fanny Brice (1891-1951): American singer, actress and comedian of stage, radio and film fame, known as the star and creator of the popular radio comedy series, The Baby Snooks Show.
Stephen Foster (1826-1864): American songwriter of parlor and minstrel music, sometimes referred to as “the father of American music” and reportedly one of Berlin’s favorite composers. Foster is known for such songs as “Oh! Susanna”, “Camptown Races”, and “My Old Kentucky Home,” among others, noted as cornerstones of American musical identity.
Moss Hart (1904-1961): American playwright and theatre director, particularly known for his partnership with George S. Kaufman, which resulted in You Can’t Take It with You (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939).
J. Edgar Hoover (1935-1972): First Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hoover reportedly investigated Irving Berlin for the composer’s political involvement. Berlin frequently donated rights to his songs to serve as rallying points for causes, including support of Al Smith and Dwight Eisenhower as presidential candidates (“I Like Ike”), as well as songs opposing prohibition, defending the gold standard, helping the war against Hitler, and a 1950 anthem for the state of Israel.
Jimmy Kelly: An ex-prize fighter and proprietor of Jimmy Kelly’s, a popular show business hangout, where young Berlin wrote and sold songs until Fanny Brice performed his “Good-bye, Becky Cohen” in the annual Ziegfeld Follies in 1910, sparking Berlin’s prolific rise through the industry.
Ethel Merman (1908-1984): American actress and singer primarily known for musical theatre, designated the “First Lady of the musical comedy stage”. Merman originated the role of Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun (1946), from which the song “No Business Like Show Business” would become her personal theme song.
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