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The Immortal Irving Berlin

Photo by Eighty Eight Entertainment.
Photo by Eighty Eight Entertainment.

by Benjamin Fainstein
Literary Manager | Portland Center Stage at The Armory

Composer Jerome Kern once famously remarked that “Irving Berlin has no place in American music — he is American music.” Such an enviable distinction could only be bestowed upon a musician with far-reaching success and a diverse body of work, and Berlin certainly fits the bill.
He was born Israel Beilin in 1888 and immigrated to New York from Belarus at the age of 5. After years of literally singing for his supper as a busker, he leapt to international success with his 1911 hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Throughout his lengthy career, he explored a variety of styles, from the ragtime, jazz and balladeering of Tin Pan Alley to Broadway showstoppers like “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from his musical Annie Get Your Gun to Hollywood hits including Easter Parade, Holiday Inn and Blue Skies. Berlin’s song catalog contains nearly 1,500 tunes, more than two dozen of which topped the charts before his death in 1989. Hundreds of artists have recorded his work, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Merman, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Diana Ross, Patsy Cline, Celine Dion, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson, Cher, and the Muppets. His influence on American music is undeniable; his presence, ubiquitous. Here is a glimpse at the stories behind two of his most legendary songs.

Berlin’s song was first broadcast on December 25, 1941, less than three weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The wistful tone of “White Christmas” took on a particularly poignant significance as American soldiers found themselves fighting overseas in the years that followed. Crooner Bing Crosby’s iconic rendition of the tune became the best-selling song of all time by the end of World War II, and “White Christmas” has maintained that distinction in the Guinness Book of World Records. The song is also notable for being relatively secular, a fact which music scholars have pointed to as an engine for its universality. Berlin, a Jewish man, had a personal tradition that may have contributed to the yearning melancholy of the song: his infant son had died on Christmas Day 1928, and every year, Berlin spent the holiday visiting Irving Berlin, Jr.’s grave. Hundreds of musicians, from Elvis Presley to Destiny’s Child, have recorded the song since, but Crosby’s version is still the gold standard. The postwar era saw a shift away from the melodic keyboards of Tin Pan Alley toward the rebellious guitars of rock- and-roll. “White Christmas” stood at the apex of this transition, the pinnacle of an American moment that was, like a glowing yule log, slowly burning away.

On November 10, 1938 — the holiday then known as Armistice Day — popular singer Kate Smith debuted a new song by Irving Berlin that has endured as a kind of unofficial national anthem. Berlin began work on “God Bless America” twenty years before Smith sang it on the radio; he had intended it as a finale for a musical revue he wrote as a recruit in the U.S. Army. The song has been the subject of controversy over the years. Some have accused it of promoting war-mongering and xenophobia, while other groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, have condemned its patriotism because of Berlin’s status as a Jewish immigrant. But Berlin himself intended it as a peace song, and Kate Smith remarked on-air that she prayed “we shall never have another war” before she sang it. Despite mixed reactions from the public, “God Bless America” continues to be taught in schools, sung at sporting events, and performed in the wake of national tragedies. Berlin never made any money off of the song’s success, a fact which perhaps adds to the evidence that he felt the song belonged to his fellow Americans rather than to himself. Since 1940, all royalty payments have been directed to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
November 30 — December 30, 2016
Previews are Nov. 30 – Dec. 1 | Opening night Dec. 2
By Hershey Felder
Directed by Trevor Hay