That Old Christmas Feeling: Irving America

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Irving Berlin

"And now it's going to be my very great privilege to sing for you a song that's never been sung before... It’s something more than a song — I feel it's one of the most beautiful compositions ever written, a song that will never die. The author: Mr. Irving Berlin. The song: 'God Bless America.'"

— Kate Smith on her radio show, November 10, 1938

On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, a group of Senators and Congressmen stood on the Capitol steps and sang that something-more-than-a-song. Two nights later, when Broadway turned its lights back on, the casts of "The Producers" and other shows led theatergoers in renditions of the same song.

The next day, at an official requiem at the National Cathedral in Washington, it was played by the U.S. Army Orchestra. The following Monday, to mark the reopening of the New York Stock Exchange, New York Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani joined traders in singing it. That evening, as major league baseball games resumed around the country, it replaced "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" as the theme song of the seventh-inning stretch. Over the next weeks, everyone — Celine Dion, Marc Anthony, N.Y.P.D. officer Daniel Rodriguez, the whole country — sang "God Bless America."

That was the September song, as catalogued in a USA Today story published a week after the attacks. Now that it's December, a lot of us are singing, humming or truculently enduring "White Christmas." Berlin wrote both those songs, and another hundred or so that still tinkle away on a rickety player piano in the attic of your memory. Berlin was born in the 19th century, but here it is the 21st, and we can’t put his music to rest.

In times of crisis, the nation loses its short-term cultural memory — puts aside idiot movie comics, suicidal rock lyrics, must-see reality TV and the pursuit of the moral triviality that is Gary Condit — and, like a senior citizen finding solace in the distant past, rekindles that old feeling. In pop culture, at least for a while, many Americans traded in cool pop culture for warm, sarcasm for sentiment, alienation for community. In the blink of a national tragedy, we went from jaded to nice, just like that.

And in that cozier place we retreated to, Berlin was waiting, hibernating. That old feeling? He surely had it No one could be older (Berlin died at 101 in 1989); and no one knew better how to set a feeling to music insinuate it in the public ear. If the musical sophisticates razzed him for writing candy corn, he public gobbled it up. If he never achieved the acceptance of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin or Richard Rodgers, well, hell, they needed someone else to write their lyrics; Berlin did it all himself. If he seemed an immigrant all-American, that's because he was: Israel Beilin, born in a Russian shtetl, brought to the U.S. at five and, for another few years, ignorant of the language whose emotional and musical contours he would help define.

In a career that spanned 60 years, Berlin wrote all kinds of songs, about 1,250 of them, which are now collected in "The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin" (Knopf, 530 pp., $65), a handsome tome edited by Robert Kimball and Berlin's second daughter Linda Emmet. The volume — fourth in an invaluable series that previously collected the pop poetry of Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin and Lorenz Hart — supplements all of Berlin's musical words with biographical data, short essays on the most important songs and several hundred unpublished works. It's a book you could live in, happily, for weeks; I did.

Of course, lyrics are naked on a page; if you don't know the tune and the setting for, say, "Anything You Can Do" from "Annie Get Your Gun," the words won't make it sing ("Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you. No you can't. Yes I can. No you can't. Yes I can. No you can't. Yes I can, yes I can!" Huh?) But the book makes the best case for what showbiz historian Ethan Mordden has described as a "casual timelessness" of Berlin's songs.

Berlin was in and out of vogue, and he often had so little self-confidence that he'd put a new number in his capacious trunk if anyone around him said it was less than fabulous. But he figured his songs would come back, because they always did, always do — some annually, like "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade," others in the musical-mothball equivalent of the Army Reserves. He was an astute observer of the national mood; he knew it is often changed by events over which Americans have no control, as when it is shocked into war. "There is a cynicism about patriotism and flagwaving," Berlin said, "until something happens. 'God Bless America,' for instance. It is simple, honest — a patriotic statement. It's an emotion, not just words and music."

There'll be a change in music,
A change in rhythm,
A change in dancing,
But I'll be right with 'em.
Watch me and you will find
That I won't be left behind...
You know that time marches on, and so do I.

— Berlin's "Marching Along With Time," 1938

Irving Berlin's songs have lasted almost as long as he did, and will someday outlive him. Consider the shelf life of these 10 hits, out of the 25 Berlin tunes that reached #1 on the pop charts:

"Alexander's Ragtime Band," 1911. It was a march, not a rag, and its savviest musicality comprised quotes from a bugle call and "Swanee River." But the tune, which revived the ragtime fervor that Scott Joplin had stoked a decade earlier, made Berlin a songwriting star. On its first release, four versions of the tune charted at #1, #2, #3 and #4. Bessie Smith, in 1927, and Louis Armstrong, in 1937, made the top 20 with their interpretations. In 1938 the song was #1 again, in a duet by Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell; another Crosby duet, this time with Al Jolson, hit the top-20 in 1947. Johnny Mercer charted a swing version in 1945, and Nellie Lutcher put it on the R&B charts (#13) in 1948. Add Ray Charles' brilliant big-band take in 1959, and "Alexander" had a dozen hit versions in a bit under a half century.

"Play a Simple Melody," or "Simple Melody/Musical Demon," 1914. This was Berlin's first contrapuntal tune: two melodies — one demure, one robust — that are sung consecutively, then one atop the other. (He did it again with "I Wonder Why/You’re Just in Love" for "Call Me Madam"). It was the biggest hit of his first Broadway score, "Watch Your Step," and spawned hit versions that reached #4 and #8. In 1950 the song did a Lazarus, or would have if he’d been a barbershop quartet. This time there were four hits, including Bing and Gary Crosby's #2, in 1950 — 36 years later.

"What'll I Do?", 1924. This ballad of love and longing has a clever bridge that repeats, then elaborates on the chorus; the entire song rises and falls with the mood (first mopey, then insistently desperate) of a lovelorn swain. It was a #1 hit for Paul Whiteman and had five other top-12 renditions in 1924. Twenty-four years later the song went to #22 for Nat Cole and #23 for Frank Sinatra. It was also a minor charter for Johnny Tillotson in 1962 — 38 years later.

"Always," 1925. In 1924 Berlin fell in love with socialite-journalist Ellin Mackay; as a wedding gift he assigned her the rights to this perennial. It transcends its waltz-schmaltz mood with a bridge that almost jumps off itself in ascending keys but manages to sound inevitable. The tune spawned two #1's (for Vincent Lopez and George Olsen) in its first incarnation. There were four more hit versions in 1944-45. In 1959 smooth Sammy Turner took the song to #2 on the R&B chart (#19 pop). Finally it became Patsy Cline's post-mortem anthem; the Virginia thrush's rendition hit #18 on the country chart in 1980, 17 years after her death. And still it didn't die: a tribute musical called "Patsy Cline ... Always," with the song as its emotional centerpiece, played a two-year Nashville run that ended in 1995 — 70 years after the song was introduced.

"Blue Skies," 1926. This slightly jazzy, plenty-perky number earned a #1 for Ben Selvin and registered five other hits in 1927; the same year it was the first song performed in the first talkie, Jolson’s "The Jazz Singer." In 1946, the year the Berlin oldies musical "Blue Skies" was released, the title tune returned to the pop charts, twice: #8 with Count Basie and #9 with Benny Goodman. Finally, Willie Nelson made the song a #1 country hit in 1978 — 52 years after it was written.

"Marie," 1929. The dawn broke for this genial lilter with a waltz-time hit (#2) by Rudy Vallee. Then the moon in all its splendor shone on Berlin in 1937, when a Tommy Dorsey version, in swingin' 4/4 time, reached #1. It was also a #13 charter for the Four Tunes in 1953 and a #15 for the Bachelors in 1965 — 36 years after its first appearance.

"Puttin’ on the Ritz," 1930. This instant standard, with one of Berlin's most intricately syncopated choruses, is associated with Fred Astaire, who danced to it in the 1946 "Blue Skies." But Astaire was the third star to sing it on film. First was Harry Richman, who had a #1 hit when he premiered the song in a 1930 film of the same name. Dear Mr. Gable "sang" it in "Idiot’s Delight," in 1939; then Astaire made it his own. For Mel Brooks fans, the definitive rendition is by Peter Boyle, as the top-hatted monster in the 1974 "Young Frankenstein." We have to wonder what Berlin thought of this interpretation, or of the jaunty techno-pop version that went to #4 in 1983 — 53 years after Richman first put it on.

"Say It Isn’t So," 1932. Berlin, suffering from a bout of self-doubt, had written, then written off this pleading ballad (along with another plaint, "How Deep Is the Ocean?"). Then a Berlin associate let megaphone man Rudy Vallee perform it on his radio show. The song was a #1 hit for George Olsen and awarded top-10 perches to versions by Connee Boswell and Ozzie Nelson’s band. In her pop-diva phase, Aretha Franklin had a minor flurry with her single of the song in 1963 — 31 years later.

"I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," 1937. A high-stepping replay of the reverse-weather-report love song "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)," which Berlin wrote for Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the 1935 film "Top Hat." Why didn’t he give it to Astaire, instead of handing it Dick Powell for the 1937 "On the Avenue"? Anyway, the song was a hit, with four top-12 versions (including Billie Holiday’s). It cuddled up and went to sleep for a dozen years; and then, when Les Brown revived the tune, it woke up #1.

"White Christmas," 1942. Berlin wrote his Yule offering for a New York revue he'd planned in 1938-39, then put it away until the Crosby-Astaire musical "Holiday Inn." The film required numbers for New Year’s Day, Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays, Valentine's Day, Easter (he’d already written "Easter Parade"), Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The framing song was "Happy Holiday," which has since been appropriated as an all-purpose year-end carol. At first, few liked Berlin's tune about sunbelt nostalgia for a snowbelt youth (the verse places the singer in "Beverly Hills, L.A."). A journalist friend told the composer that "White Christmas" wouldn’t be a hit because it was "too schmaltzy," and Berlin himself thought the movie's big hit would be the Valentine ballad "Be Careful, It's My Heart."

But Crosby's version was #1 on both the pop list — for 10 weeks (beginning in September!) — and the R&B. (The runner-up hit for many of those weeks was Frank Loesser’s more belligerent "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.") "White Christmas" also connected with World War II GI's in their first winter away from home. To them it voiced the ache of separation and the wistfulness they felt for the girl back home, for the innocence of youth and for a past — perhaps a future — without war. "Way down under this latest hit of his," said the poet Carl Sandburg that December, "Irving Berlin catches us where we love peace."

Crosby's hit was just the legendary beginning. His version returned to #1 in 1945 and 1947 and made it a top-30 charter in 14 subsequent Decembers. Sinatra’s rendition also had repeat visits to the top ten (#7 in 1944, #5 in 1945, #6 in 1946). The song worked for girl singers (Jo Stafford, #9 in 1946), for Nashville cats (Ernest Tubb, a #7 country charter in 1949) and for black artists. The Ravens had a #9 R&B hit in 1949, and Clyde McPhatter’s Drifters climbed to #2 R&B in 1954; this version, reissued the following two years, and went to #5 and #12 on the pop charts. With the freak exception of the 1997 Princess Diana remix of "Candle in the Wind," "White Christmas" has sold more records than any song in history. It was also the last Berlin song to achieve the #1 slot on its initial release.

"Songs make history and history makes songs. It needed a French Revolution to make a 'Marseillaise' and the bombardment of Fort McHenry to give voice to 'The Star Spangled Banner.'"

— Berlin in the New York Times, May 17, 1942

Berlin the composer had the ambition to write tunes that were timeless. Berlin the musical merchant was compelled to write tunes that were timely — topical songs, whose newsworthy subjects would help sell the music. His very first hit was "Dorando," inspired by a London waiter and long-distance runner: he was the leader in the 1908 Olympic marathon but was disqualified when his supporters helped him across the finish line. Over the years he produced musical editorials supporting Al Smith and Dwight Eisenhower, opposing Prohibition ("You Cannot Make Your Shimmy Shake on Tea"), defending the gold standard ("Debts," with the couplet "Uncle Sam will be in heaven/ When the dollar goes to hell"), salving the wounds of the Depression ("Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee") and, of course, fighting Hitler ("Till We Hang the Paper Hanger"). In the 1950s, he wrote an anthem for Israel.

And when the country was at war, there was Berlin banging the drum at the head of the parade. He had often used military metaphors to invigorate his lyrics — remember that Alexander's bugle call was "So natural that you want to go to war" — and thus was primed with jingoist jingles when America did go to war. In 1917, Berlin scored with "For Your Country and My Country," "I’m Gonna Pin My Medal on the Girl I Left Behind," "Let’s All Be Americans Now” and a mother’s fond lament about her wayward soldier son, "They Were All Out of Step But Jim."

In 1918, the country’s best known songwriter, now 30, was drafted into the armed forces. News of his induction was bigger than Elvis'; a tabloid headline trumpeted: "Army Takes Berlin!" The noted wag Wilson Mizner wondered, "What does the Army want with Irving? Up to now the Allies had a chance!" The Army wanted him to do what he did best: write songs. While serving at Camp Upton, near Yaphank, Long Island, he composed a musical for the boys to put on, and late that summer "Yip Yip Yaphank" transferred to Broadway. The show had a couple of hits: "Mandy" and "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," which Sgt. Berlin performed himself. The notorious night bird took special pleasure in the song’s wryly sociopathic lyrics: "Someday I'm going to murder the bugler;/ Someday they're going to find him dead./I’ll amputate his reveille,/ And stomp upon it heavily,/ And spend the rest of my life in bed."

One song, though, he junked; he decided that its elevating emotions didn't suit the urgency of the moment and replaced it with a more conventionally rousing finale, "We're on Our Way to France" ("There's not a minute to spare... You bet we wanna be there — Goodbye"). The rejected song was "God Bless America," and when it was composed, in the last months of the War to End All Wars, it had a more martial flavor: "Stand beside her/ And guide her/To the right with a light from above/ Make her victorious on land and foam..." America and her allies would win the war because God was on their side.

Even in this early form, "God Bless America" had the elements that would eventually make it compelling and enduring. Its long notes virtually force the singer to sing it loud. The powerful bass hand declares that this song is less a toe-tapper than a foot-stomper, suitable for marching in place. It's a short tune divided into four different, attractive musical phrases, none of them repeated; to hear each phrase again, you have to sing the whole thing over. "God Bless America" is thus a recruiting poster, not just for patriotism, but for itself.

Yet it might never have been heard outside the Camp Upton rehearsal hall. The song did a Rip Van Winkle, sleeping for 20 years until Ted Collins, Kate Smith's manager, asked Berlin if he had a patriotic song Smith might sing to mark the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day. Berlin had been in Europe a few weeks before and seen close-up the international cataclysm of the Munich Conference, where Chamberlain of Britain, declaring "peace in our time," capitulated to Hitler of Germany. Digging out his old song, Berlin demilitarized the lyric (no more "Make her victorious") and depoliticized it (no more "to the right" because, as he said, "in 1938, there was a right and a left and it had a different significance"). It was now a simple plea for divine protection in a dark time — a plangent anthem in just 40 words.

"God Bless America" never made it to #1; Smith's version went to #10, then #5 in a reissue the following year, when war erupted in Europe. But it quickly became the second National Anthem and, over the decades, has earned millions for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, to whom Berlin assigned all royalties.

Then the U.S. joined World War II (a phrase, incidentally, that was popularized by Time magazine), and Berlin produced a new slew of patriotic songs. At the request of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, he wrote "Any Bonds Today?" — best known in the Bugs Bunny rendition — that urged Americans to buy war bonds. Berlin assigned all royalties to the Treasury Department, then wrote a variation, for another fund-raising drive, called "Any Bombs Today?" Profits from his song "Angels of Mercy" went to the American Red Cross; from "Arms for the Love of America," to the Army Ordnance Department; and from "I Paid My Taxes Today," to the Treasury again.

Berlin's largest contribution to the war effort was a revue called "This Is the Army." The War Department had asked him to consider reviving "Yip Yip Yaphank," but the project soon became grander, and kept growing as the show moved from Broadway to Washington (where President Roosevelt attended a special matinee) to legit theaters and military bases around the world. Berlin eventually wrote nearly three dozen songs for various permutations of the 300-man show, refining some as the war mood changed ("Dressed Up to Kill" was softened to "Dressed Up to Win"). He not only supervised the production but traveled with it, singing "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" at each performance, as well as in Michael Curtiz' lively film version. Berlin again waived all royalties from his tireless work, and "This Is the Army" raised more than $10 million for the Army War Relief.

The film "This Is the Army" — which uniquely features a future U.S. Senator (George Murphy, as a song-and-dance man and Berlin surrogate) playing the father of a future U.S. President (Ronald Reagan) — gave "God Bless America" an impressive mounting. Smith sings the number over a poignant montage of families anxious over the coming war. Murphy hears the song on the radio and says, "You know, I threw that song out of 'Yip Yip Yaphank' 22 years ago. Sounds better now."

Berlin could twist his lyrics to make fun of himself and others. During the Vietnam War, the Republican composer wrote a new version of his anthem to tweak his left-wing friend, the lyricist E.Y. Harburg: "God bless America,/Land I enjoy,/ No discussions with Russians/ Till they stop sending arms to Hanoi." He also knew that, at the right moment, patriotism could sell songs.

But he was, I bet, an uncomplicated lover of the country that had adopted and enriched him. His feelings were most directly expressed in “This Is a Great Country," from his last musical the 1962 "Mr. President":

Hats off to America,
The home of the free and the brave —
If this is flag waving
Flag waving
Do you know of a better flag to wave?

Next time: a Berlin biography.