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Irving Berlin - History

Irving Berlin - History

Irving Berlin


American Songwriter

Irving Berlin was born on May 23, 1888, at Tolochin, Vitebsk Governorate, Russian Empire. In 1893 his family moved to New York. At eight he began to sell newspapers to help the family. His father was a singer and he began singing to earn a living. He taught himself to play the piano and started writing songs. His first breakthrough song was "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911 and continuing through a stream of hits that included "Puttin' On The Ritz," "Easter Parade," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "White Christmas" and "God Bless America." Though he never learned to read or write music, Berlin wrote over 1,500 songs, in addition to 19 musicals and scores for 18 movies.

Irving Berlin

An icon of Tin Pan Alley, Irving Berlin was one of the most popular and beloved American songwriters of the first half of the 20th century. A co-founder of performance-rights organization ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), his hits included such ubiquitous tunes as "God Bless America" and "White Christmas." Written for Bing Crosby for the 1942 film Holiday Inn, the latter became the best-selling record in history. It's also the most-recorded Christmas tune of all time. Many of Berlin's songs were originally penned for stage musicals and films, often outlasting their popularity.

Israel Beilin was born in the Russian Empire on May 11, 1888, and while his birthplace is unknown, his family immigrated from Tolochin (in latter-day Belarus) to New York City in 1893. At Ellis Island, the family's name was changed from Beilin to Baline. The Balines lived briefly in a one-room basement apartment on Monroe Street on the city's Lower East Side before eventually moving to a three-bedroom tenement on Cherry Street. His father died just a few years later, and, at 13, Baline began taking odd jobs, including busking and later working as a singing waiter in Chinatown, where he would stay after hours to use the establishment's piano. A self-taught pianist who wrote in the key of F sharp, he relied on secretaries to transcribe his songs and favored transposing pianos (which adjust pitch by moving the whole keyboard with a lever). Finding work first as a lyricist, he published his first song, "Marie from Sunny Italy," in 1907 and changed his name from Israel Baline to Irving Berlin. Berlin's first Broadway contributions were to Ziegfeld Follies of 1910, and, still in his early twenties, he had his first big hit in 1911 with "Alexander's Ragtime Band."

In 1912, Berlin married Dorothy Goetz, sister of songwriter E. Ray Goetz. Sadly, she died six months later of typhoid fever, prompting Berlin's first popular ballad, "When I Lost You." A steady flow of work in Tin Pan Alley and on Broadway continued for the songwriter, including more Ziegfeld Follies shows, and 1921 marked the opening of the Music Box Theatre on West 45th Street, a venue Berlin built with producer Sam Harris for his own Music Box Revues.

Berlin married heiress and author Ellin Mackay in 1926, and in 1927, his songs appeared on-stage in The Cocoanuts, written by George S. Kaufman for the Marx Brothers. He also published "Blue Skies" that year. A hit for bandleader Ben Selvin, it was also featured in the 1927 Al Jolson film The Jazz Singer, the first full-length sound film with synchronized singing and dialogue.

In 1930, Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz" debuted in a film of the same name and became a number one hit for Harry Richman. (The song landed in the Top Five again in 1983 when it was covered by Dutch pop singer Taco.) A collaboration with writer Moss Hart, the 1933 Broadway musical As Thousands Cheer marked the debut of "Easter Parade," a song that was reprised by Bing Crosby in 1942's Holiday Inn and got its own film starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire in 1948. Other career highlights include the 1935 Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicle Top Hat, which included "Cheek to Cheek," a number one that was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song. Three years later, a musical film inspired by and titled Alexander's Ragtime Band was released with a cast that included Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Ethel Merman. It featured several of Berlin's biggest hits to date.

Holiday Inn opened in movie theaters in the summer of 1942, marking the premiere of "White Christmas" and "Happy Holiday," among other seasonal tunes. "White Christmas" went on to become the best-selling record of the century, with over 100 million units sold. This Is the Army opened on Broadway on July 4, 1942 and included Berlin himself in the role of Sgt. Irving Berlin. He also appeared in the 1943 film adaptation, which featured Kate Smith singing "God Bless America." Originally written by Berlin during World War I, he revised the lyrics in 1938, and Smith's version became an American hallmark of World War II. He was awarded the Army's Medal of Merit from President Truman in 1945, and the song endured as an unofficial alternate national anthem for decades to come.

Late in 1945, when his good friend Jerome Kern died suddenly, Berlin took over as songwriter for the 1946 musical Annie Get Your Gun, which became his longest-running stage hit. Several of its songs charted, including "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "They Say It's Wonderful." A film version starring Betty Hutton followed in 1950, and in 1954, the CinemaScope musical There's No Business Like Show Business featured a selection of Berlin's best-known hits. Also in 1954, Bing Crosby performed "White Christmas" again for the Paramount Pictures film White Christmas, 12 years after the song first became a hit. That same year, he was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal by President Eisenhower for his patriotic songs. After attempting to retire, Berlin returned to Broadway in 1962 with the musical comedy Mr. President. Aside from a song for a 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun starring Ethel Merman, he then officially retired from songwriting while remaining in New York City.

Berlin's centennial was celebrated worldwide in 1988 and included a tribute to benefit Carnegie Hall and ASCAP. The special, which aired on CBS, included such music legends as Frank Sinatra, Leonard Bernstein, and Willie Nelson. That same year, Berlin's wife of 62 years passed away, leaving behind her husband, and three daughters and their families. Irving Berlin died at home in his sleep a year later at the age of 101.

With George Gershwin having called Berlin "the greatest songwriter that has ever lived," and Jerome Kern remarking that "Berlin has no place in American music -- he is American music," appreciation for the tunesmith extended into the next millennium. In 2002, Berlin was commemorated with a U.S. postage stamp. Two years later, a stage musical based on the 1954 film White Christmas called Irving Berlin's White Christmas debuted in St. Louis. It opened on Broadway in 2008 and the West End in 2014. Based on the 1942 film, Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn followed on Broadway in 2016.

Irving Berlin: This Is the Army

By today's standards, some of this story will sound old-fashioned, if not racist or at least archaic, but keep in mind that it took place in a much different era, in a much different America, and belongs to its time and place.

It is a story about the biggest and best-known morale-boosting show of World War II--Irving Berlin's This Is the Army, which began life as a Broadway musical designed to raise money for the military. It then toured the nation, and later the world, and was eventually made into a movie, starring the handsome young Lt. Ronald Reagan. I discovered the story when I had the great luck to catch up with many of the soldiers who had belonged to the show's company when they converged on New York's Theater District to hold their fiftieth--and final--reunion. They had faithfully convened every five years, ever since the company disbanded at the end of the war, but now the men were getting too old and their numbers too small to justify any more gatherings. As you can imagine, it was a deeply moving experience for all, an opportunity to savor victory, but also an opportunity to bid a final farewell.

At the time, I was researching my biography of Irving Berlin, As Thousands Cheer, and was eager to learn more about this important but forgotten episode in Berlin's career. So I talked to as many of the men as I could, and with tears in their eyes, they described their experiences in the wartime show and with Irving Berlin. They told me what he and his work had meant to them and how the experience of working with him had transformed their lives.

This is their story and Irving Berlin's story, the story of This Is the Army.

Irving Berlin was fifty-three when President Roosevelt declared war on Japan. By Tin Pan Alley standards, the songwriter hovered on the verge of extreme old age. Had he never written another film score, another Broadway show, another lyric, another note, his reputation as the leading popular American songwriter was secure. The list of his enduring creations included "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "God Bless America," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "All Alone," "Remember," "Cheek to Cheek," and "Let's Face the Music and Dance." They defined the nation's musical language. Holiday Inn, the movie containing "White Christmas," would be released the following summer, and Berlin would be able to sit back and watch the money roll in.

Always the zealot when it came to work, Irving had a different notion of what he should be doing with himself at this juncture in his life. The prospect of war sent a shudder of dread through the American people, but it also created a thrill of excitement. Berlin the showman responded to that quickening of the national pulse. "Songs make history and history makes songs," he said. "It needed a French Revolution to make a 'Marseillaise' and the bombardment of Fort McHenry to give voice to 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'" The war simplified everything for him. Now he knew exactly what to do: restage the surprise hit of his youth, Yip! Yip! Yaphank. Previously, he had sung of personal dramas--romance and woes and funny little incidents--but now he struggled to give a voice to national and even international issues, to locate himself in history, and to make a place for himself in what publisher Henry Luce termed "The American Century."

To set the wheels in motion, Berlin called Gen. George Marshall in Washington to propose his new all-soldier show. General Marshall approved Berlin's plan to stage a new morale-boosting revue on Broadway, and the production was under way. Irving promptly decided to call it This Is the Army. And in case the army didn't like it, he had another title in reserve: This Is the Navy. Or the Air Corps. Whatever. But his heart was with the army.

This Is the Army included tributes to all branches of the armed services. Here, the cast performs the navy finale during the revue's run at the Broadway Theatre in New York City. (NARA,111-SC-140525)

The next person to feel the force of Berlin's personality was Ezra Stone, whom the songwriter chose for the pivotal job of stage director. The twenty-four-year-old Stone was nationally known as the star of the radio program "The Aldrich Family," which had begun as a Broadway hit in 1938. When he met Berlin, Stone--a serious, heavyset man--was already in the army, engaged in morale work. Sensing leadership potential in Stone, the songwriter did his best to inspire him with a sense of mission.

Berlin anticipated composing the complete score for the revue at his customary breakneck pace: one month. And he planned to hold rehearsals at Camp Upton, New York, where he had overseen the creation of Yip! Yip! Yaphank a generation before. Once rehearsals began in the spring of 1942, Stone and Berlin were thrown together as weekday residents of Camp Upton. "On Sunday nights I would pick Berlin up at his house on the East Side," Stone said of the arrangement, "and we'd drive out together in my car. We'd spend the week at Upton and leave on Friday afternoon. So I was able to spend my weekends at home, and so was Berlin."

The building in which they worked was called, simply, "T-11." It was an old Civilian Conservation Corps barracks at one end there was a large common room with a stone fireplace. "That's where Berlin wanted his special piano," Stone said. "It was right next to the latrine, which had a hot water tank that Berlin loved to lean against to warm his back. As he was doing this one night, he said that he could easily be a Bowery bum and let his beard grow. He hadn't shaved that morning, and he was in that kind of mood."

So far, Berlin's choice of personnel relied heavily on professional entertainers. He displayed real daring, however, in his decision to include black performers in the unit. At the time, the armed forces were segregated, and as a result of Berlin's insistence, the This Is the Army unit became the only integrated company in uniform. This extraordinary gesture derived not so much from Berlin's social beliefs as from his show business background and savvy. In the show business milieu, blacks had long been stars, popular with both African-American and white audiences. By integrating the revue, Berlin was simply importing the conventions with which he was familiar into the army. However, he was not blind to appearances he knew his gesture would at the least be progressive, and probably controversial. But he believed the armed forces was the great leveler in American society. In his youth, he had seen the Great War reduce barriers separating Jewish, German, Irish, and Italian ethnic groups in the United States. Yet blacks had been excluded from this quiet revolution even in Yip! Yip! Yaphank, the black numbers had been performed by whites in blackface in the manner of a minstrel show.

Eventually, black and white members of This Is the Army lived and worked together. His advanced ideas on how his men should live notwithstanding, Berlin clung to outdated conventions concerning the material he wanted the black actors to perform. Initially, he expected the first half hour of This Is the Army to recreate a minstrel show, which was the way he had kicked off Yip! Yip! Yaphank--110 men sitting on bleachers, and everyone in blackface. Ezra Stone, the director, was indignant. "Mr. Berlin," he said, "I know the heritage of the minstrel show. Those days are gone. People don't do that anymore."

"No, no, that's nonsense," the songwriter replied.

After considerable discussion, Stone adopted another approach to convince Berlin to skip the minstrel segment: "How can we have 110 guys in blackface and then get them out of blackface for the rest of the show?" Berlin hesitated. Stone's argument gave him a way of backing down while saving face.

To give This Is the Army the contemporary feel that Stone wanted, the songwriter devised a new song for his black soldiers, something, he declared, "with a real Harlem beat." At first, Stone and the others had no idea what he meant by all this talk of Harlem. All they knew was that when they were trying to get some sleep in "T-11," Berlin would plunk away at the piano, night after night. One endless night he played the melody for "Puttin' on the Ritz"--his ode to high-fashion blacks strutting along Lenox Avenue--over and over again, and gradually the song evolved into something new: a different melody with the same tempo.

When reveille sounded, he announced to the groggy men, "I finally got the number for the colored guys--'That's What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear.'" Turning to a bleary-eyed Ezra Stone, he said, "I want you to call Helmy Kresa." Stone pulled the phone into the hall and held the receiver as the songwriter played and, in his way, sang to Helmy on the other end. Stone was astonished by the procedure, and he realized with a shock that Irving Berlin could neither read nor write music.

Members of the This Is the Army unit rehearse "That's What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear." The cast was the only integrated World War II company in the armed forces.
(NARA, 111-SC-140528)

By the end of April, Berlin had completed most of the This Is the Army's rousing score. Although the songwriter had no official rank in the army and was technically a civilian, he trembled before senior officers as though he were an enlisted man. Berlin's anxiety over confronting military authority soared when Gen. Irving J. Phillipson notified Berlin that he wanted to hear the show. "What if they don't like it?" the songwriter kept asking before the audition. "What if they decide not to go forward?" The audition took place on Governor's Island in New York harbor, and immediately afterward, Berlin received word of approval. End of crisis.

The story of "White Christmas"

"White Christmas" is a holiday tradition beloved by millions.

It's also the most popular song, ever.

The classic was written by Irving Berlin, one of the most prolific American composers in history.

He penned more than 400 hits, among them, "Easter Parade," "No Business Like Show Business," and "God Bless America."

But, says CBS News Sunday Morning anchor Charles Osgood, "White Christmas" is his most enduring legacy.

No song, says Osgood, captures the spirit of the season better than "White Christmas."

Trending News

The legendary Berlin, one of Americas greatest, was a Russian, Jewish immigrant who, though he couldn't even read or write music notation, managed to compose over 1,000 songs, the very foundation of our American songbook.

But it's "White Christmas," one of his simplest, just 54 words and 67 now classic notes, that remains his most popular.

"I think," reflected Linda Emmett, the second of Berlin's three daughters, "for my father that Christmas was an American holiday more than anything else. It was certainly nothing he was exposed to, to say the least in -- in Russia."

Emmett was speaking in the former Berlin residence in New York. It is now the Luxembourg consulate.

In the Berlin household, she says, Christmas was "the typical secular Christmas, with a Christmas tree, and Christmas stockings, and a turkey, and a plum pudding, and general cheery atmosphere, and something that as children we --- we looked forward to tremendously."

Many think Berlin was inspired to write "White Christmas" during a stay in Beverly Hills while working on a movie. He was homesick for his family.

"And it wasn't until -- a couple years later . over the Christmas season of 1940 into 1941, I believe, that he -- kind of took the song, the half-finished song out of what he called his song trunk," says Jody Rosen, author of "White Christmas: the Story of an American Song."

"And," Rosen continued, "over the Christmas season that year - (Berlin) rewrote the lyric . and it was then that after he'd written it, that he came into his -- his-- song publishing offices and -- and announced to his musical secretary, 'I've just written a new song. Not only is the best song I've ever written, it's the best song anybody's ever written.' And that song was 'White Christmas.' "

"White Christmas" premiered on radio at Christmastime in 1941, just 18 days after Pearl Harbor. The song aired on Bing Crosby's radio show. Only eights months later, moviegoers would see and hear Crosby sing it in the film "Holiday Inn."

"It was . kind of the centerpiece of the film, the center," Rosen says. . "But critics didn't take much notice of it. And it was only when Armed Forces Radio began to play the song overseas and for American troops who found its images of kind of Christmas on the home front so appealing. . It was 1942, the first winter that American troops had spent overseas. So, these images of . snowy American, New Englandy Christmas really spoke to the longing, nostalgia and homesickness of the troops for their homeland and for the sweethearts and wives and mothers and fathers they'd left behind. It was the enthusiasm of these troops that really propelled the song and made it a hit."

There are now hundreds and hundreds of versions of "White Christmas," recorded by scores and scores of performers, says Osgood. Still, it is the definitive Bing Crosby rendition that makes us stop, listen, and dream along, as it has for so many Decembers.

For information on "White Christmas: The Musical Tour," click here.

A valuable property

Though it has become a symbol of freedom, “God Bless America” is not free, financially speaking. It is a copyrighted song, and anyone performing or playing it in a commercial setting must pay for the rights.

A representative from Ascap, the music licensing agency that Berlin helped found, said the money earned by any particular song, including “God Bless America,” was confidential. But a spokesperson from Concord Music Publishing, which handles publishing rights for Berlin’s music, said the use of the song “continues to be strong across all media,” adding that some sports venues no longer playing Ms. Smith’s version have replaced it with other recordings.

Smith’s version may have been the top — and only — choice when the song made its radio debut, but plenty of other versions have taken hold in the 80 years since. Charles Bradley’s soulful interpretation (which includes only the song’s refrain, preceded by a monologue) is the most-streamed rendition on Spotify, followed by a stadium organ instrumental version and one by the country artist Martina McBride. Smith’s is in 10th place.

The song has notched about 6.5 million all-time streams on Spotify. By comparison, Taylor Swift’s most recent single has roughly 10 times that after about two weeks.

Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks show might be one of the biggest recurring national platforms where the song can be heard, but it won’t be included in this year’s setlist — a decision made long before Ms. Smith’s racist songs came to light , a Macy’s representative said in an email.

The show alternates which songs are performed each year, and last year’s fireworks included a “God Bless America” performance from Kelly Clarkson to commemorate the song’s 100th anniversary. (“America the Beautiful,” “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” all made this year’s cut.)

Behind The Song: “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin

It’s one of Irving Berlin’s most famous and beloved songs, and so iconic in this country as to resonate like a national anthem. But one which is more singable than our official one, and with more understandable lyrics.

However there is a unique aspect to this song which is hardly known and rarely mentioned: a key part of the melody is not entirely original to Berlin, and comes from an unlikely source. Whether his usage of it was intentional or not is uncertain.

Much more on that to follow, But first some history:

Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline in Russia in 1883. Everyone called him Izzy. He and his family came to America when he was five in 1888.

When he was 18, like all Jews in show-biz, he Americanized his name so as to be included. But he never hid the fact that he was not born here, and the song is very much the true expression of his gratitude for his life in America.

Unlike most songwriters then who wrote only lyrics or music, Berlin did both. From early on, he had an ingenious knack for writing songs, even though his limitations as a musican were pronounced he could only play in one key on piano.

(Which was not C, as some assume, but F#. Years later he got a transposing piano, so he could change keys while staying in the same fingering – the black notes, essentially.)

Yet like all songwriters working within such a short form with only twelve tones of music, he mastered the art of transcending limitations, which is at the heart of this art. Even working only in one key, he could write every kind of song.

Sometimes he’d write an approximation of a song. When ragtime became the radical craze of the day, as popularized by Scott Joplin and other black composers, Berlin got in on the fad by writing several hit songs with ‘ragtime’ in their titles, although musically they weren’t ragtime at all. Which didn’t matter. They were hits, though, such as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” the biggest of them all.

It’s true that a good many of his famous songs were written to be hits, but were not directly connected to the songwriter. Phillip Roth saw this as pure brilliance, and wrote that Berlin was the ultimate Jewish genius because he took the blood out of Easter, and made it about fashion (in his song “Easter Parade,”) and took Christ out of Christmas and made it about snow. (“White Christmas.”)

So while he had no real attachment to the idea of Easter or Christmas, his feelings about America were genuine. It gave him the life he could never have had in Russia. His understanding of the meaning of America to the “huddled masses” who came here for a better life was direct and real. He became not only a wealthy, successful man, he was famous and beloved. That truth, for which gratitude is expressed, is woven into the fabric of the song.

He wrote it in 1918 at the age of 25, some twenty years after arriving in America. By then, he was in the American Army, training for World War I at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York. But even in the army, he was mostly busy writing songs, and wrote a review called Yip Yip Yaphank. It was while writing songs for that show that he wrote the first version of “God Bless America.”

Perhaps sensing this song was meant for other purposes, and elected to not use it in the show.

Being a savvy songwriter, he knew that rhyming ‘America’ would be problematic. So he structured the song so that the phrase doesn’t end with the title, but with a word easier to rhyme – ‘home.’ – “God Bless America my home sweet home.” (It’s the same reason why Sammy Cahn, when writing the lyrics to a song about Chicago – also a tough rhyme – used the more easily rhymable title, “My Kind of Town.”

For Berlin to set up the phrase “Home sweet home” though was easier, but still offered few options. He needed a rhymed word to precede it in the song, and settled on ‘foam.’:

From the mountains to the prairies/To the oceans what with foam
God bless America/My home sweet home

He folds that nicely into the phrasing and the melody, so it goes by without calling much attention to itself. Although when one thinks of America, ‘foam’ is not one of the first words that comes to mind. It’s a set-up, but done artfully enough to conceal its function.

It’s interesting to see the earlier version of the song completed at Yaphank, in which this famous set-up line was still in formation. Originally, he had “Make her victorious/ on land and foam, God bless America…”

He also changed this line, which originally was “Stand beside her and guide her to the right with the light from above.” To avoid the impression that ‘to the right’ was a political suggestion, he revised it.

Written during WWI, with the rise of Hitler in the late-30s, he revised it as a prayer for peace, and was popularized by the singer Kate Smith, who performed it on her radio show and recorded it. For this he wrote a new introduction, which is rarely used now but which she sang always:

“While the storm clouds gather far across the sea Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free / Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, / As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.”

It was her rendition of the song at this time – the very start of what became WWII – that forever changed the status – from hit to standard and to its current status as one of America’s most beloved anthems.

Yet it remains somewhat tainted by Berlin’s “habit,” as the writer Jody Rosen phrased it, of “interpolating bits of half-remembered songs into his own numbers.” If this was a habit, it was an unfortunate one, though less risky legally then as copyright law pertaining to song authorship had yet to be established.

Rosen writes that it’s something Berlin did often, borrowing melodic phrases from other songs, almost always from obscure, novelty songs that few if anyone would ever remember. How intentional this was, if at all, is not easy to discern. All songwriters at some point accidentally use parts of existing melodies when writing their own. The hope is that we each get better in time at discerning this, and do our best to avoid it.

This “habit” impacted “God Bless America” profoundly. In what has become one of America’s most iconic, almost sacred, melodies. Remarkably, the opening six-note melodic phrase of the song (on “God bless America…”) is identical to a melodic passage in a novelty song from 1906 about a Jewish musician known as the “Jewish Sousa.”

That song was written in 1906 by three Irish songwriters, Bert Fitzgibbon, Jack Drislane, and Theodore Morse. The name of the song that seeded “God Bless America”?

“When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band.”

It was recorded by Collins & Harlan, who were quite popular then at the dawning of the recorded era of music. This is no joke! That is where the roots of “God Bless America” are planted: In a song by a Russian immigrant borrowing the tune of a joke song about a Jewish musician written by three Irish songwriters called “When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band.”

It adds a whole other dimension to “God Bless America.” And yet it’s perfect, for this is the nation we are in, a land of constantly changing diversity, and our popular songs reflect this diversity while also unifying us.

Berlin was 18 then when the song was a hit, working as a singing waiter at the Pelham Café in New York’s Chinatown. Referring to the songwriter’s tendency to use melodies from other songs, Rosen wrote that “this is what [Berlin] did in 1917, when he sat down to write a patriotic tune, and plopped the exact melodic phrase that opens the `When Mose With His Nose’ chorus into his new song.”

“Listen to Collins & Harlan’s weather-beaten 100-year-old recording, and it’s unmistakable: the six notes that accompany the lyric `Abie then starts to play` are instantly recognizable as the opening strains of `God Bless America.’ It’s an irony to relish, and not a bad metaphor for the alchemy of Jewish-American musical assimilation.”

The recording of that song is below. It is at exactly 0.41 – which starts the chorus – that the famous six-note phrase we know begins.

“When Mose With His Nose Leads The Band” At 0.41 exactly is the melodic phrase that led to “God Bless America.” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” is the song Irving Berlin sings during an interview in Berlin’s New York office, July 16, 1942. Besides appearing in the army relief show, “This Is The Army” which he wrote and produced, the noted composer has written several new songs for a movie. (AP Photo/Murray Becker)

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Despite his all-American rocker image, Van Halen was born in the Netherlands. The son of a classical musician, he emigrated to the United States as a child and fit in at school. He soon found solace when, despite being unable to read music, he learned to play classical piano and, eventually, electric guitar. Van Halen eventually lent his name to the rock band known for songs like &ldquoJump&rdquo and &ldquoHot for Teacher&rdquo&mdashsongs that earned him and his brother, Alex, a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of fame.

Read more about Van Halen, here in the TIME Vault:Heavy Metal Goes Platinum

For many of her fans, the name &ldquoJoni Mitchell&rdquo will forever be identified with songs about New York and California. But Mitchell came by her folk roots via small towns in Canada, in rural Saskatchewan. In 1965, the young folk singer met an American and went with him to the United States, marrying and divorcing him and honing her craft in Detroit, New York City and of course Los Angeles&rsquo iconic Laurel Canyon. She eventually became an American citizen and has written songs like &ldquoHoly War,&rdquo a song about wars fought for religious reasons that is widely interpreted as critical of George W. Bush and American foreign policy.

Read more about Mitchell, here in the TIME Vault:Rock Women

If you&rsquove heard of Yahoo!, you&rsquove probably heard of Jerry Yang&mdashbut you might not know that he only knew a single word of English when he arrived in the United States from Taiwan as a child. Yang, whose mother brought him to the United States because she feared Taiwan would soon be annexed by China, changed his name from Chih-Yuan to Jerry and eventually enrolled at Stanford. Math and computer science became one of Yang&rsquos love, and in the early 1990s he began a website directory called &ldquoJerry and David&rsquos Guide to the World Wide Web.&rdquo The directory, which eventually became Yahoo!,was one of the Internet&rsquos first popular web portals and eventually became a multi-billon dollar search engine (playing a big part in modern American technological and business history, and qualifying Yang for this list). Yang, who was ousted from Yahoo! in 2009, went on to become a tech investor and is currently worth about $1.82 billion

Read more about Yang, here in the TIME Vault:Click Till You Drop

The Story of Irving Berlin for Kids

Have you ever thought about how music is made? Some of the classic hits that we all hear regularly were once ideas in someone’s head. How do these turn into the songs we hear on the radio today?

Tonight we are going to learn about an immigrant named Irving Berlin who later became one of America’s greatest songwriters. America has always been called a “land of immigrants” because ever since the beginning of our nation, immigrants have come here to start new lives with their families.An immigrant is someone who moves from one country to another.

Irving Berlin was born May 11, 1888 in Russia. Irving Berlin’s family were of the Jewish religion. It was not an easy thing to be Jewish in Russia when Irving was little because Jews were persecuted for their beliefs. Persecuted means to not be treated fair or nice. Some were beaten, made fun of, and even had their things taken from them and destroyed. One of Irving’s first memories is sitting on the side of the road watching his house burn down. It was a scary time, so when Irving was only 5 years old, his Mom and Dad decided to move away from persecution and move to America in 1893.

Back in those days, the only way to get across the ocean to the United States was to sail on big steamships. These journeys were very dangerous and could take several weeks. Many times they would run into big storms and the ship captains had to watch for icebergs along the way. People would get seasick on the boat and some of the passengers would even die. But Irving‘s parents knew that if they could make it to America they would have a chance for a better life so they took the risk and took their young family across the ocean.

Irving’s family settled in the big city of New York. New York was a bustling city even back then, and had lots of people and crowded streets. Life was hard for Irving and his family. It was a new place they had never been before they had to learn a new language because they

didn’t speak English. They were very poor and lived in a basement of a small apartment. Irving’s dad had a hard time finding a job to earn money and did anything he could to earn money to support his family. Everyone in the family had to work hard just to get enough money to buy food. When Irving was only 8 years old, he went to work as a newspaper boy. He had 3 sisters that had to work too. Can you imagine having to work a real job at 8 years old?

On the way home after his first day on the job, Irving decided to go to the shipyard and look at the big ships that were getting ready to set sail. A big swinging crane that loads up the ships with cargo accidently swung around and knocked him into the water. When the men that worked at the shipyard pulled Irving out of the water, he was still holding onto the 5 pennies he had earned that day. He had worked so hard for that money, that he did not want to let it go.

When Irving was 13 years old, his father died. He was sad but he also worried about his family. Irving felt like he needed to move out of the home and support himself so his mom wouldn’t have to worry about taking care of him and feeding him. So at 14 years old, Irving left home and slept in a homeless shelter with other newspaper boys.

Irving always loved to sing and was taught to sing at an early age by his father. His dad was a cantor. A cantor is someone who leads the singing and prayer at a synagogue, which is the name for a Jewish church. When Irving was selling newspapers on the streets he learned lots of different songs and sometimes he would sing on the streets and in the saloons, café’s and restaurants. Customers would throw him pennies because they liked his songs.

Irving paid close attention to the people who threw money for him and figured out what kind of songs people liked best. He was very smart and figured out which songs would give him the most money and he would sing more of those songs. Pretty soon, Irving was singing full time as a job. He worked hard and long, and he later said one of the reasons he did was so he could buy his mother a rocking chair. He knew she didn’t have the money to buy one for herself and he thought it would make her happy.

In his spare time and when the restaurants were closed, Irving would ask the owners if he could play their pianos. Irving taught himself to play the piano, and soon was singing, playing and putting on shows in the restaurants, music halls and city squares. He also learned from others how to make up new songs and write music.

Irving’s first big hit was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. Ragtime music was very popular back then. It was music that marched and bounced. People loved his song. Irving’s music was being made into records and people loved to buy them because his music was great to dance to. After this hit song, people knew Irving’s name and he became famous.

In 1917, America entered a big war that was going on in Europe. This war was called “the Great War” and later became known as World War I. Irving Berlin was asked to do a special mission for the United States Army to write songs for a group that would perform for soldiers. The Army and Country’s leaders knew that music helped to keep the soldiers happy and inspired.

One of the songs he wrote at this time was a song called “God Bless America”, but he didn’t add it to the show. Not until 20 years later, he released the song to the public for the first time It was

during the Great Depression and right before World War II. A depression is a time when there are not very many jobs and lots of people are poor and hungry. “God Bless America” became very popular and it meant a lot to people who had been struggling for years. The people felt that even though they had lived through hard times, God still helped them and loved them. Today, the song is still beloved and sung at very special events like the 4th of July.

Irving Berlin loved America. To love your country is to be patriotic. He once said he owed all his success to his adopted country. He also said he wrote “God Bless America” as “an expression of my feeling toward the country to which I owe what I have and what I am.”

Irving Berlin wrote many many more very popular songs. He wrote songs for the radio, movies, musical plays, Broadway and other shows. People sang his songs everywhere. He was the most successful songwriter of his time and people still sing his songs, many not even knowing who wrote them. One of his other most famous songs is the very popular Christmas tune “White

Christmas”. There are lots of beautiful versions of this song, but the one we hear most today is the version sung by the famous singer Bing Crosby.

Irving Berlin knew that music can be very powerful. Music can tell stories and music can make us feel better. It can lift us up when we are sad. It reminds us of people we love and places we

want to visit. Music sparks imagination and creativity. Irving Berlin understood that music is very important and he wanted to fill the world with good and uplifting music. He won several awards for his music and many historians call Irving Berlin, “America’s Songwriter” because of how his music has changed and influenced America.

Irving Berlin died in New York City at the age of 101 years old. He had lived a long and happy life, and had blessed many lives with his music. Even though Irving became very famous and rich, he never forgot his childhood and living on the streets. He felt that having those hard experiences and not always getting what he wanted made him a better person it made him grateful for what he had. He believed that America was the land of opportunity. From Irving Berlin we learn that with hard work and dedication you can better your life and make a difference.

Do you enjoy singing to music you hear on the radio? Have you ever thought of writing your own songs? These are things that Irving Berlin because he loved music and was inspired to learn how to make it himself. He taught himself to sing and play piano and write songs. If he taught himself to do that, you can too! We are all capable of great things if we are dedicated to our goals and strive to reach them.

“White Christmas” Is Actually the Saddest Christmas Song

The slow, wistful and almost melancholy tune of "White Christmas," written by Irving Berlin, stands in contrast to all the unabashedly happy songs of the season. (Think of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.") "And I think that’s one of the reasons why people keep responding to it, because our feelings over the holiday season are ambivalent," author Jody Rosen told NPR.

Related Content

Linda Emmett, one of Berlin’s daughters, also has thoughts on one of her father’s most popular songs. "It’s very evocative: the snow, the Christmas card, the sleigh, the sleigh bells," she says. "It’s very evocative, and it’s entirely secular."

The song has been played again and again, sung for soldiers far from home and covered by many different artists. But we know only know a little about its origins. Emmett thinks it was written in 1938 or 󈧫. Rosen speculates that it was over Christmas 1937, when Berlin was away from his family for the first time and making the movie "Alexander’s Ragtime Band."

But the likely sentiment behind the song makes it sadder. NPR reports:

Berlin's own feelings about the holiday were certainly ambivalent. He suffered a tragedy on Christmas Day in 1928 when his 3-week-old son, Irving Berlin Jr., died. Every Christmas thereafter, he and his wife visited his son's grave.

"The kind of deep secret of the song may be that it was Berlin responding in some way to his melancholy about the death of his son," Rosen says."

Most Christmas songs have less melacholy origin. Kristy Puchko collects the stories behind 10 popular carols at Mental Floss. Here are a few interesting tidbits:

  • The "Deck the Halls" line "Don we now our gay apparel" used to be sung as "Fill the mead cup, drain the barrel."
  • "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" is another song based in a tale of woe — songwriter James "Haven" Gillespie was struggling financially and his brother had just died. During a subway ride, he thought of his mother’s admonishments to his brother when they were young to be good because Santa was watching. But the song "became a big hit within 24 hours of its debut."
  • "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth" was inspired by real children — but they didn’t necessarily request teeth. Rather, grade school teacher Donald Yetter Gardner was "charmed" by the lisping Christmas requests from a group of second-graders.
About Marissa Fessenden

Marissa Fessenden is a freelance science writer and artist who appreciates small things and wide open spaces.

11 Surprising Facts About Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin is famous for writing classic American songs such as “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” "Puttin' on the Ritz," and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Known as the King of Tin Pan Alley, he wrote more than 1000 songs that appeared in movies, TV shows, and Broadway musicals. In honor of what would be Berlin’s 130th birthday, here are 11 facts about the legendary songwriter.


Israel Isidore Baline was born May 11, 1888 in Mohilev, Russia. In the early 1890s, Berlin’s parents moved their family of eight (Israel, who was 5 at the time, was the youngest of six) from Russia to New York City’s Lower East Side to escape anti-Jewish pogroms. He went by Izzy in America in an attempt to assimilate, and when his first composition was printed, it bore the name "I. Berlin." Berlin allowed a rumor to circulate that it was a printing error that created his pen name, but biographers tend to note that he chose it because it closely resembled his birth name, but sounded less ethnic. In 1911, he legally made the change from Izzy Baline to Irving Berlin.


Berlin's father, Moses Baline, had been a cantor (one who leads prayer songs) in Russia, but had trouble finding steady work in America. He died of chronic bronchitis when Berlin was just 13. Though the young boy had already been selling newspapers to try to help his family make money, Berlin quit school and, in an attempt to lessen the financial burden for his mother, he also moved out and lived in a ghetto on the Bowery, beginning when he was just 14 years old. To support himself, he busked on the streets and in back rooms of saloons for money, hoping that passersby and bar regulars would give him their spare change. He later worked as a singing waiter in Chinatown.


Wikimedia Commons

In 1907, Berlin sold the publishing rights to his first song to a music publisher for 75 cents. Because he co-wrote the song, called “Marie from Sunny Italy,” with a pianist, Berlin only received half (approximately 37 cents) of the payment for the piece.


Long before the Macarena or the Harlem Shake, Berlin’s song “Alexander's Ragtime Band” (1911) topped the charts and sold more than 1 million copies of sheet music. Although it wasn’t an authentic ragtime song, it inspired people across the world to hit the dance floor. Over the decades, different singers including Ray Charles recorded versions of the song.


In 1912, Berlin married Dorothy Goetz, but his new wife caught typhoid fever on their honeymoon in Cuba and died five months later. He wrote his first ballad, “When I Lost You,” about the experience: “I lost the sunshine and roses / I lost the heavens of blue / I lost the beautiful rainbow… When I lost you.” The song sold more than 1 million copies.


In 1917, during World War I, the U.S. Army drafted Berlin to write patriotic songs. In order to raise funds for a community building on his Long Island army base, he wrote Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, a popular musical revue performed by actual soldiers that later went to various theaters around New York. It included the popular song "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," which Berlin sang at each performance.

During World War II, Berlin wrote This Is The Army, which became a Broadway musical and 1943 film starring Ronald Reagan. Berlin chose not to personally profit from the show—he gave all the earnings, over $9.5 million, to the U.S. Army Emergency Relief Fund.


Despite Berlin’s incredible songwriting success, he was neither classically trained nor educated in music theory. He only knew how to play the piano in F sharp, so in order to write songs that didn’t all sound the same, he bought transposing keyboards. These special keyboards changed the key, allowing him to play the same notes but produce different sounds. Berlin also paid music secretaries who notated and transcribed his music.


Getty Images

In 1925, Berlin met and fell in love with a Roman Catholic debutante named Ellin Mackay. Her father, a financier named Clarence Mackay, disapproved of Berlin because he was Jewish. The couple’s interfaith relationship attracted major press attention, and Mackay’s father reportedly disowned her when she married him in a secret ceremony in 1926. One biographer noted that though Irving was Jewish and Ellin was Catholic, their three daughters were raised Protestant, "largely because Ellin was in favor of religious tolerance." Mackay’s father came around several years later, and the Berlins were together for 62 years until Ellin's death in 1988. He died the following year at age 101.


Although Berlin originally wrote “God Bless America” during WWI for Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, he didn’t use the song until 1938. Through its lyrics, Berlin expressed his gratitude to America for giving him everything, and “God Bless America” became an instantly recognizable, patriotic song.

He decided that 100 percent of the song’s royalties would go to the Boy and Girl Scouts and the Campfire Girls. Thanks to Berlin’s God Bless America Fund, which assigned royalties from “God Bless America” (plus his other patriotic songs) to the Scouts, the organizations have received millions of dollars over the years.


In 1945, composer Jerome Kern (best known for Show Boat) started working on the score for a new Rodgers and Hammerstein-produced musical, Annie Get Your Gun. But when Kern died unexpectedly within a week of starting to write, Berlin took over scoring duties. Berlin’s music and lyrics for the musical, which included songs such as “There's No Business Like Show Business” and “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” helped make Annie Get Your Gun a massive success.


“White Christmas” has become a Christmas classic, selling more than 100 million copies. But Christmas was a time of sadness for Berlin and his wife: their only son, also named Irving, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome on Christmas Day in 1928. The baby was three weeks old when he died, and the Berlins, along with their three other children, mourned his death each holiday season.

Watch the video: History of Irving Berlin (December 2021).