Always

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Last year I started giving workshops in American popular song to kids at Lincoln Center. To prepare for the class, I made a list of ten classic pop songs I thought would best capture young ears and imaginations. Half of them turned out to be by Irving Berlin. I begin the hour by reassuring the kids that I’m not trying to talk them out of liking their own music, I just want them to know that down the road there’s a big bunch of old songs with beautiful melodies and good words that they should know about, not just because this music is loved all over the world but because as you get older, they are such good company when you’re thinking about love and life. I tell them I’m going to sing a song about how wonderful it is to dance close with somebody you like a lot and promise them that if they haven’t experienced the sensation yet, they soon will. Then I sing them “Cheek to Cheek.” I tell them about the man who wrote it, a five-year-old child whose family was driven out of Russia after soldiers burned his house down, a boy who had to quit school in the sixth grade when his father died, a teenager who might easily have done nothing with his life but instead did everything. I sing them the hit song he wrote when he was only twenty-three, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and they often start clapping along spontaneously to its irresistible beat. Then I ask, “Has anyone here ever heard of Irving Berlin?” No hands go up. “You may not know his name, but you know three of his songs,” I tell them. They shake their heads skeptically. “I’m going to start humming. Call out the name of the song the second you guess what it is,” I say. It never takes more than eight notes before I hear the heartening sound of a hundred young voices shouting out: “‘Easter Parade’!” “‘White Christmas’!” and “‘God Bless America’!”