- Historic Sites
A singer’s journey through the life of Irving Berlin
November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
His modest, heartfelt song “God Bless America’ drew hostility from critics left, right, and center.
Any show about Irving Berlin had to include at least a few bars from two of his best-known songs, “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.” To hear the original version of “White Christmas” I rented the video of Holiday Inn and was delighted to discover all the holiday songs he wrote for it that didn’t become hits. With my pianist, I put together a medley called “A Calendar Year of the Holidays According to Irving Berlin.” The Lincoln’s Birthday song, “Abraham,” is both fervent and funny, featuring lines like “The country’s going to the dogs / They shouted loud and strong / Then from a cabin made of logs / The right man came along.” The Washington’s Birthday song, “I Can’t Tell a Lie,” strikes me as one of Berlin’s most contrived and worst executed ever both lyrically and melodically, but its very awkwardness endeared him to me. I could imagine him struggling to come up with a song idea for a holiday nobody needs a song for—and Bing Crosby trying to keep a straight face as he performed it in a powdered pigtail wig and period costume. I love the hot-jazz Fourth of July song, “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers.” “Plenty to Be Thankful For,” the Thanksgiving song, is heard only as a brief instrumental in the film, but the sheet music reveals a lilting melody and graceful lyrics—a real find. I ended with “Let’s Start the New Year Right,” another good number. The Valentine’s Day song, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” was expected to be the big song of the movie, but it was “White Christmas” that swept the country. It quickly became the number one hit in Europe too, as GIs stationed abroad during World War II responded to one of the great homesick songs of all time. When he wrote it, Berlin was homesick himself, stuck out West writing a film score and missing his wife and daughters in New York, which may be the reason for the little-known but very appealing verse: “The sun is shining, the grass is green / the orange and palm trees sway / There’s never been such a day / in Beverly Hills, L.A. / But it’s December the twenty-fourth / And I’m longing to be up north.”
Jazz musicians and the sociologist-song buff Sam Kaplan are not the first people I’ve ever heard criticize the Jewish Berlin for writing songs for Christian holidays, but I don’t believe, as they do, that he did it out of crass commercialism. His holiday songs are so evocative both to hear and to sing, I felt sure he really enjoyed special occasions. His daughter told me he and his wife liked to celebrate every single holiday, religious and secular, major and minor, with their children. “They seemed to understand the importance, particularly in childhood, of the special day, the same every year, the special stories, foods, and decorations and that special sense of well-being that accompanies a holiday. … We had a double set, Jewish and Christian, along with all the national and folk days. …”
Barrett describes her father as a religious agnostic. “He was consumed by patriotism,” she told me. It does seem that patriotism rather than religion was the driving moral force in his life. He often said, “I owe all my success to my adopted country,” and once rejected his lawyers’ advice to put his money into tax shelters, insisting, “I want to pay taxes. I love this country.” His passionate faith in the American way inspired dozens of his songs and transformed him from an Al Smith Democrat and ardent admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt into a pro-war Republican during the Vietnam years. One of his proudest achievements was the public’s spontaneous acceptance of his patriotic song “God Bless America,” which immediately became a populist national anthem as well known as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful.”
I couldn’t conceive of leaving out so famous a Berlin song as “God Bless America,” so I sneaked it into the holiday medley on the pretext that it had been introduced on Armistice Day. Berlin originally wrote it for a World War I military revue, then decided it was wrong for that show. When the singer Kate Smith asked him for a new song for her Armistice Day broadcast in 1938, he dug it out from his files, wrote a new verse, and made a few changes in the chorus. The day after she sang it, people swarmed music stores, clamoring for sheet music and the record. Thrilled, Berlin immediately acted to distance “God Bless America” from his commercial songs by donating all royalties in perpetuity to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.
In the 1960s and 1970s the song became a rallying theme of the American right. It was during these years that many of us who opposed the war in Vietnam groaned at its very sound and wrote off Irving Berlin as an old reprobate.