Chester Design Associates, Chicago
Jerome Kern was asked to define Irving Berlin’s place in American music. “Irving Berlin has no place in American music,” Kern replied. “Irving Berlin is American music.” Berlin, who had no formal music training and could play piano in only one key, told people that his earliest memory was of shivering in a blanket on the side of a road when he was four or five years old and watching his home burn down in a pogrom. Berlin (1888–1989) began his New York musical career as a busker (performing songs for tips) and a singing waiter in a Chinatown restaurant. He proved himself the most versatile of songwriters—one of the very few who wrote both the music and the words and was equally adroit at both.\
Able to state his themes directly and without artifice, Irving Berlin wrote modern anthems. In “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade,” he secularized the two most important Christian holidays. While the songs are full of sentiment and may be sung with piety, what they truly celebrate is a nondenominational American religion. In a riff in his novel Operation Shylock, Philip Roth exclaims that Berlin, “the greatest Diasporist of all,” turns Easter into a fashion show (“O, I could write a sonnet / About your Easter bonnet”) and Christmas into a snow holiday on the home front in the bitter December of 1942. “This is Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments,” Roth writes. The riff ends with a hearty endorsement of another “Jewish” Christmas song, this one by Jules Styne (music) and Sammy Cahn (lyrics): “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”
Panel photo captions:
Kate Smith singing “God Bless America”, Courtesy of Photofest ©Warner Bros. Pictures. America needed a patriotic anthem to counter Nazi propaganda as war clouds gathered in Europe. So Irving Berlin fished an old melody out of his trunk, tinkered a little with it, and handed the result to Kate Smith, who sang it on the radio for the first time on Veteran’s Day, 1938.
The Boerneplatz synagogue in flames during Kristallnacht, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, November 10, 1938, Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Kristallnacht was a pogrom raised to a genocidal level. With the anti-Semitic atrocities of November 9 and 10, the Nazis’ hate campaign against the Jews entered its most virulent and destructive period.
Sheet music for “White Christmas”, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, with permission of The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, on behalf of the Estate of Irving Berlin and the Trustees of the God Bless America Fund. A number of cherished Christmas songs were written on hot summer days by American Jews: “The Christmas Song” (Mel Torme and Robert Wells, 1944), “Let it Snow! Let It Snow! Let it Snow!” (Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne, 1945). Irving Berlin wrote the all-time champ in 1942. The Bing Crosby recording of “White Christmas” is one of the topselling hits of all time.
Berlin believed in America with the enthusiasm of a frightened refugee boy who finds acceptance, makes good, and takes the country’s charter ideals to heart. “God Bless America”—a hymn reprised whenever a crisis erupts—made its debut on November 11, 1938, sung by Kate Smith on the radio. On that day, the twentieth anniversary of the armistice ending World War I, Americans could read in their morning newspapers about Kristallnacht in Germany and Austria the night before. Nazi-inflamed crowds burned down synagogues, smashed store windows, and beat and humiliated Jews as uniformed police looked on. Though Berlin had written “God Bless America” twenty years earlier—he rescued a draft from his trunk of discarded songs—it represented a vital counterforce to the Nazis’ martial cadenzas.
Not everyone was happy that a Jew had written the nation’s patriotic anthem of choice. One critic demanded that Berlin turn over all royalties from “God Bless America” to the public. Berlin rejected such challenges. Then he, a true believer, turned around and donated the proceeds to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Berlin fashioned morale-boosting songs of simple sincerity and sentiment: Let’s have another cup of coffee, Let’s take an old fashioned walk, It’s a lovely day today. In Cole Porter’s estimation, “the Berlin ballad” was the top of its field: “What’ll I Do?”; “How Deep Is the Ocean?”; “Always.” But Berlin could do so much else. If it’s wit that you want, he will give you a sultry beauty, who can incite a “Heat Wave” by “letting her seat wave.” Berlin wrote for Fred Astaire and partners in Hollywood and for Ethel Merman and cast on Broadway. In 1945 Berlin inherited Annie Get Your Gun when Jerome Kern died. In record time he turned out one of the most memorable scores in theater history: “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun,” “I Got the Sun in the Morning,” “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly.”
He didn’t make songwriting look easy. One observer said that watching Berlin work on a song was like watching a woman in labor. But he was fast enough when he had to be. At a Saturday meeting it was decided that Annie Get Your Gun needed one more song. Rehearsals were set to begin on Monday. Shortly after the meeting ended, Berlin phoned in the words and music of the competition song, “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better.” He had written it in the cab going home.
Panel photo captions:
Letter from Irving Berlin to President Dwight Eisenhower, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, with permission of The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, on behalf of the Estate of Irving Berlin and the Trustees of the God Bless America Fund. Berlin became friends with President Dwight Eisenhower and even coined the phrase “I Like Ike,” the most successful campaign slogan in American history. Here, Berlin autographs the lyrics of “God Bless America” for the President.
Ethel Merman in Annie, Get Your Gun, Courtesy of Photofest. Merman, the last of the old-time belters, could reach the theater’s last row with no need of artificial amplification. She played Annie Oakley in Irving Berlin’s 1946 crowd-pleaser.
Marilyn Monroe sings “Heat Wave” in There’s No Business Like Show Business, Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Television/Photofest ©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Berlin (“I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”), Cole Porter (“Too Darn Hot”), and Harold Arlen (“Right as the Rain”) were among those who demonstrated that the weather could provide the pretext for a tune. Marilyn Monroe brought out the natural sexiness in Berlin’s “Heat Wave.”
Berlin, Irving, 1888-1989, Kern, Jerome, 1885-1945, Styne, Jules, 1905-1994, Cahn, Sammy, Porter, Cole, 1891-1964, Arlen, Harold, 1905-1986