Mr. Berlin Himself

By John ShawOctober 28, 2012

Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater by Jeffrey Magee
The Irving Berlin Reader by Benjamin Sears

IRVING BERLIN HAD A SOCKO surprise for the opening night audience of 1915’s Stop! Look! Listen!, his second full-length Broadway score. There was no bigger songwriter working the street than Berlin, then 27 years old and four years into his reign as Tin Pan Alley kingpin. He had established himself with several solid hits even before his first mega-hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” sold two million copies in 1911. In 1913, a profile in Green Book Magazine praised him as “beyond all question the world’s most consistently successful writer of popular songs,” whose consistent success was “absolutely without precedent.” By 1915, he had the clout to pull together a stunt so splashy that it’s hard to imagine its equivalent today.

Berlin and producer Charles Dillingham had packed Stop! Look! Listen! with such once lustrous, now-forgotten singers and comedians as Gaby Deslys, Walter Wills, Florence Tempest, Marion Sunshine, and Harry Fox. But on opening night, an even bigger star, not listed in the program, waited in the wings. With the closing number under way, “Everything in America Is Ragtime,” no less than John Philip Sousa marched his celebrated brass band onstage, playing the song. The house went wild. Gaby Deslys, the leading lady, was thunderstruck and stopped singing until Sousa urged her to continue. Berlin and Dillingham hadn’t let the cast in on the surprise.

The Sousa anecdote comes from Jeffrey Magee’s Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater, the first book-length study of his theatrical work; the Green Book Magazine piece appears in The Irving Berlin Reader, a career-spanning anthology of writings on Berlin edited by Benjamin Sears. Taken together, the two books suggest that we have barely begun to apprehend the scale and scope of Berlin’s career. Most people know Berlin as one of the top contributors to the Great American Songbook, a master of the love ballad and the rhythm song, and the author of “White Christmas” and “God Bless America,” ubiquitous cultural phenomena that transcend the status of “hit songs.” Usually considered alongside other Great American Songbook composers (such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Harry Warren, Hoagy Carmichael, and Fats Waller) and lyricists (like Ira Gershwin, Porter again, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, Yip Harburg, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields, Al Dubin, and Andy Razaf), Berlin certainly belongs in this company, perhaps even at the head of it. But even this picture fails to capture his dominance over the popular music of the 1910s and early 1920s — as a songwriter, vaudeville star, publisher, theater owner, and impresario — or the cultural authority he wielded later in his career.

Berlin’s longevity and adaptability were unique: he started before all of the above-named songwriters except for Kern, and outlasted most of them, too. The distance Berlin traveled from his first self-invention to his last may have been as great as any popular songwriter. His ragtime-era songs were the rough equivalent of early rock and roll.

“My Wife’s Gone to the Country (Hurrah! Hurrah!),” was as noisy, vulgar, and sexual in 1909 as Billy Riley and The Little Green Men bellowing “My gal is red hot / Your gal ain’t doodley-squat” in 1957. A Jewish refugee from the Russian pogroms whose family came to America in 1893 when he was five, Berlin came of age in an urban milieu of rowdy bars and vaudeville houses that was as disreputable in its day as the rural roadhouses and urban street corners that birthed rock and roll. Just as the mid-fifties and early sixties gave us the Stroll, the Twist, the Hully Gully, the Watusi, the Mashed Potato, the Jerk, and the Fly, Berlin’s early success coincided with a profusion of dance crazes. Though ragtime had been popular since the 1890s, it didn’t immediately inspire the nation to take up social dancing. But the turn of the decade brought a proliferation of animal dances — the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear, the Snake Dip, the Kangaroo Hop, the Wallaby Jump, and — to name the one that lasted — the Fox Trot, invented by Vernon and Irene Castle to fit the rhythms of W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues.” Berlin did his part: his “Grizzly Bear” was a hit of 1910, and his 1911 followup, “Everybody’s Doin’ It Now” (“it” being the Grizzly Bear, not, or maybe not, you know, it) was even bigger.

The lush canopy of Berlin’s oeuvre grew from scrappy vaudevillian roots, and the theater remained a prime venue for his work. Magee, who teaches music and theater at the University of Illinois and is the author of a previous book on swing pioneer Fletcher Henderson, is an apt reader of Berlin’s songs; at his best, he combines the lyric-oriented acuity of Philip Furia and the musical expertise of Charles Hamm (authors of excellent book-length Berlin studies). The book’s real contributions, though, are Magee’s fresh research and stimulating insights into Berlin’s stagecraft.

Magee brings the atmosphere of Berlin’s early shows to life. In revues and book musicals of the 1900s and 1910s, extravagantly unpredictable comedians would go off script and talk directly to the audience. If people laughed, the business stayed. Singers could add songs, unrelated to any plot, on any night of the show, but Berlin bucked convention: from 1914’s Watch Your Step, his first full-length production as sole songwriter, Berlin refused to allow the interpolation of other writers’ songs in his shows, unless the collaboration was agreed to from the start. One Berlin specialty that is rarely mentioned today was the extended, complex montage of classical tunes fitted with satirical lyrics. Watch Your Step featured the ghost of Verdi complaining — to a Verdi melody — of his treatment in the show. In such freewheeling surroundings, a surprise visit by the world’s most famous brass bands fit right in.


Before the advent of original cast recordings in the 1930s, many of the non-hit numbers from Broadway shows went unrecorded, making the newspaper reviews unearthed by Magee one of the only sources of information about how they might have sounded. Watch Your Step included another innovation with which the songwriter is rarely credited. The New York World called Berlin “this virtuoso of syncopation who introduced cow bells, tin pans, squawkers, rattles and other election-night musical instruments into the modern dance orchestra.” In 1914, tin pans and “squawkers” (whatever they may have been) made for successful novelty entertainment. The entertainment world didn’t shun the triviality that “novelty” connotes, and Berlin’s innovation was quickly forgotten — hit today, gone tomorrow.

Three years after Berlin brought the noisemakers into the Broadway pit band, the French composer Erik Satie wrote parts for typewriter, foghorn, and milk bottles into his score for the ballet Parade, the famous extravaganza by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes that boasted a scenario by Cocteau and sets by Picasso. The typewriter and foghorn remain one of Satie’s claims to fame as a pioneer of musical modernism, and the contrasting fates of Berlin’s techniques and their seemingly independent reinvention by Satie point up cultural differences between popular and classical music, or, as the distinction was known at the time, between entertainment and art. Since Beethoven, ambitious classical composers have worked on the stage of musical history, aiming for posterity by looking backward and forward simultaneously. This Janus-faced gaze suggests a gap, the possibility of something missing between history’s past and posterity’s future — namely, the present.

Which is precisely what Berlin kept in focus throughout his long career. Berlin worked at staying current, plundering the past or exploiting momentary fads as occasion demanded, with little or no apparent concern for his relationship to music’s past — or future. This is true of many other pop writers, but Berlin’s grit and resourcefulness meant that he succeeded longer than any of his peers, or anybody since. Staying up-to-date, in Berlin’s day as in ours, required continual engagement with ever-changing musical fashions. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” though hardly the first rag-themed popular song, won Berlin the nickname “King of Ragtime” on the strength of its commercial success. History hasn’t recognized this title as legitimate, justly giving the crown instead to Scott Joplin, the greatest composer of instrumental piano rags. The Berlin Reader includes a fine article by Charles Hamm that addresses the accusation that Berlin stole Joplin’s music for “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Hamm’s examination of the evidence ultimately confirms the judgment of ragtime scholar Edward Berlin (no relation to the songwriter): While several measures of Joplin’s “A Real Slow Drag” are similar to the verse of Berlin’s tune, “the resemblance is not extensive and could not [...] be called a theft.” And while Berlin was one of the many white songwriters to work in the originally African-American style of ragtime, no evidence supports the rumors that he paid a black ghostwriter to write his tunes.

In 1917, a few months after the first commercial recordings of jazz became available, Berlin wrote “Mr. Jazz Himself.” Jazz was now king, and Berlin’s tricky, infectiously syncopated tunes like 1921’s “Everybody Step” and 1922’s “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil” became known as quintessential “jazz songs,” which didn’t necessarily mean what history has come to call “jazz,” but instead signified, at the time, songs performed in the jazz style. When swing — considered a distinct style from jazz — came in the 1930s, Berlin contributed such standards of the repertoire as “Cheek to Cheek” and “Let Yourself Go.”

After World War II, keeping up sometimes meant looking back. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1943) started a fad for nostalgic shows on western themes; Berlin responded with Annie Get Your Gun (1946), which took place in the era of Berlin’s childhood and became the biggest hit of any of his stage shows. As late as 1962’s Mr. President, his last complete show, he was still making an effort to keep pace with the latest dances; five decades after “Grizzly Bear,” he wrote “The Washington Twist.” By this time, though, he had finally lost the country’s rhythmic pulse, and neither the song nor the show was a hit.

For Berlin, staying contemporary wasn’t only a matter of musical style. Current events saturated his work. His 1918 Army show, Yip Yip Yaphank, introduced the soldier’s perennial lament, “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” In 1932, near the peak of the Depression, he wrote “Let’s Have Another Cup O' Coffee,” with a lyric fashioned from such clichés of the time as “just around the corner,” “rainbow in the sky,” and “the clouds will soon roll by.” Another song from the same show laced similar bromides with vinegar: “Long as the best things in life are free, / I say it’s spinach / And the hell with it.” The heartrending “Supper Time,” written from the point of view of an African American woman who has to tell her children that their father has been lynched, came in 1933, six years before Billie Holiday first sang Abel Meeropol’s more famous “Strange Fruit.” But many of his 1930s successes made common cause with Hollywood’s escapist efforts to distract audiences from their economic troubles, most memorably in the hit-laden scores for the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicles Top Hat and Follow the Fleet.

Uneasy about a looming European catastrophe in 1938, he wrote about “storm clouds” gathering “far across the sea” in the little-known verse to “God Bless America.” (The complex, fascinating tale of the relationship between Berlin’s anthem — one of the few songs that Berlin claimed as being an expression of his personal feelings — and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Time” is a story for another occasion.) In 1940 he lamented the storm clouds’ breaking with “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow.” In 1942 he wrote another war show, This Is the Army. In his Broadway hit of 1950, Call Me Madam, he celebrated the post-war boom, confirming an earlier prediction with “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” and a year later he rewrote the same show’s Eisenhower number, “We Like Ike,” as “I Like Ike,” helping to popularize a phrase and a Presidential candidate.

For more than 40 years, Berlin addressed his present moment with up-to-date music and timely, often topical, lyrics, keeping up with the changing styles and tracking the innovations. In the introduction to 1943’s Penguin Book of Sonnets, editor Carl Withers wondered why “‘experimentation,’ which as a single cultural trait has come to be highly valued in science and mechanics, is still popularly undervalued, or unvalued, in the arts.” Withers was not talking about popular music, Broadway, or Hollywood. Those weren’t the arts, in the view of the time, they were entertainments. In the popular arts of the Hollywood film, the Broadway show, and the songs that went with them, however, innovations — new rhythms, new sounds, new ways of putting images together — have always been prized, as long as they went over with an audience, as the rattles and “squawkers" of Watch Your Step showed. Berlin was conscious of, and apparently comfortable with, the ephemerality of his achievements, and seems to have agreed with the distinction between art and entertainment. In 1939, he coolly assessed the inexorability of the march of musical fashion in the lines, “Ragtime is dead and so is jazz / And swing will leave us cold.” And 25 years earlier he he had written, “Popular song, you will never be missed / Once your composer has ceased to exist, / While Chopin, Verdi, Beethoven and Liszt / Live on with each generation.” Despite these predictions about the obsolescence of his songs, many have lasted, and some have made their way into the everyday fabric of contemporary life in a way that almost nothing from the twentieth century classical repertory has. So far, at least, Berlin lives on with each generation.


Magee and Sears treat seriously an aspect of Berlin’s art that hasn’t lasted: his attraction to blackface minstrelsy. When Berlin was breaking into show business, blackface — as used by white performers like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor and black ones like Broadway star Bert Williams and, early in his career, jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton — was an established part of the vaudeville scene, as were songs and routines ridiculing Jews, Irish, Germans, Italians, Native Americans, “rubes,” and Chinese. Like many of his contemporaries, Berlin wrote his share of this material. He didn’t exempt his own tribe, writing a breakthrough hit for Fanny Brice, “Sadie Salome Go Home,” which made fun of a Jewish stripper and her naïve boyfriend, along with other “Hebe” songs, as they were known in the trade. If they were popular, Berlin wrote them; when they stopped being so, he stopped.

Berlin appears not to have personally been a bigot. As the producer of This Is the Army, with its all-military cast, he led the first integrated Army unit in American history, and insisted on presenting the show in integrated theaters. He stood up for Ethel Waters, the African American star of his 1933 revue As Thousands Cheer, which featured her searing rendition of “Supper Time”; when her white co-stars objected to taking a bow with her, Berlin gave them a choice: Share the curtain call with Waters, or cut it altogether. The Berlin Reader includes a 1942 article from the Richmond Afro-American that objected to the word “darky” in his song “Abraham.” Berlin read it and ordered his publishing company to change the lyric.

But it was too late to change the word in the movie it appeared in, 1942’s Holiday Inn, or to remove the blackface makeup from the visage of Bing Crosby, the star who introduced it. According to a memo discussed by Magee, Berlin had originally conceived “Abraham” to be sung by an African-American singer or choir. Except for the word “darky,” the rest of the lyric — a celebration of Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves — wasn’t insulting. But the makeup was, which Berlin seemingly failed to understand. A year after Holiday Inn, the film version of This Is the Army again brought out the burnt cork for a staging of “Mandy,” a racially inspecific song that was already old-fashioned when Berlin introduced it in Yip Yip Yaphank, and which he had been keen on reprising in the new show. The scene could be taken as a self-referential nod to the showbiz conventions of an earlier era, but no amount of contextualization can evade the degrading nature of blackface, and Berlin’s inability to fully grasp its offensiveness reveals him to have been of his time in less than admirable ways.

Berlin’s own judgment was that This Is the Army was the biggest thing he ever did. To the extent that we can leave aside the antiquated racial attitudes that the “Mandy” number reflected, that assessment rings true. He volunteered to write and produce the show to raise money for the Army Emergency Relief Fund. From its Broadway run, its American tour, and the 1943 film adaptation, This Is the Army earned an estimated $10 million for disabled veterans and widows and orphans of soldiers. After its money-making run, Berlin toured with the show through Europe, North Africa, and Southeast Asia, playing for American and allied troops, often near the front lines, continually writing new material to address local circumstances. He added four songs for the London run (including “My British Buddy”), five in Italy (including “The Fifth Army Is Where My Heart Is,” in honor of the troops the company was performing for), a song for New Guinea radio (“I’m Getting Old in New Guinea”), and one for the Philippines (“Heaven Watch Over the Philippines”). Berlin was also one of the show’s stars, reprising Yip Yip Yaphank’s “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” in his World War I uniform, which still fit.

The show brought Berlin to the height of his cultural authority. Joshua Logan, who directed the Broadway run, wrote a hilarious account, included in The Berlin Reader, of the songwriter’s ability to cut through red tape where Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, couldn’t. No-nonsense, battle-seasoned commanders held Berlin in awe, and not just because they were star-struck. Berlin was raising money and morale on an unprecedented scale, changing the way the Army conducted business by integrating his unit, and donating not only his time and talents, but his copyrights. To this day, the royalties for the songs from This Is the Army and several others, including “God Bless America,” go completely to charity. Irving Berlin’s estate does not own them.


It says something about Berlin’s productivity, longevity, and significance that the only serious complaint that I can level at Benjamin Sears’s Berlin Reader is that it’s far too short. It omits fascinating, hard-to-find material, such as the eloquent introduction Kate Smith gave for the first performance of God Bless America. Sears, a professional singer who has released four CDs of Berlin’s songs, may not have had the authority to make the book longer. Oxford University Press published an indispensable Duke Ellington Reader in 1993; it weighs in at 500 pages. The same publisher’s Richard Rodgers Reader (2002) is 350 pages, their George Gershwin Reader (2004) is only 300 pages, and the present book is just over 200 — not an encouraging trend. It isn’t as though there’s a dearth of material to choose from: the Library of Congress holds uncounted thousands of contemporary articles and documents in its Irving Berlin Collection. Even given the limitations of length that Sears seems to have been working under, I would have liked to have seen more documentary sources and fewer latter-day analyses, which one doesn’t have to visit the Library of Congress to see. Similarly, while Irving Berlin’s Musical Theater runs to a relatively robust 394 pages, it’s still a chapter too short. In an otherwise thorough survey of Berlin’s stage career, why does Magee omit discussion of his 1949 Broadway show Miss Liberty? The book is also less readable than it might be, despite a wealth of engaging material: in accord with reigning academic style, Magee sometimes hides a charming anecdote or pithy quote in an endnote.

My complaints about both books are ultimately quibbles — when dealing with a life and career as capacious as Berlin’s, something is bound to be left out. What can’t be quibbled with is the standard line on Berlin: that he was a great songwriter, a wide-ranging, consistently inventive composer and lyricist. Despite his five-decade pursuit of the hit of the moment, many from the “classic era” of the 1920s through the 1950s, and even a handful of antique gems from the 1910s, have survived. While not neglecting the hits, both Magee’s book and Sears’s anthology give lively accounts — more detailed than conventional biographies have managed — of two fascinating moments when Berlin rose above the ranks of his peers: The 1910s, when he was the new pop phenom, and World War II, when he became an actor on the stage of world history in a way that no other American songwriter has.


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LARB Contributor

John Shaw's book on the history of Irving Berlin’s "God Bless America" and Woody Guthrie’s "This Land Is Your Land" is scheduled to be published by PublicAffairs in 2014. He lives in Seattle with his wife and children.


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