Irving Berlin created music without formal training. And by himself. In 1918, while serving in the U.S. Army, he wrote the one and only “God Bless America.” When at first he couldn’t sell the song, he did what many songwriters do when such things happen: He stuck it in a drawer.
Berlin dusted the tune off in 1938 as Adolf Hitler was rising to power — and tried to sell it again. This time, there was a buyer. Kate Smith recorded it, and the rest is history. “God Bless America” became this country’s unofficial national anthem, right up there with “America The Beautiful.”
Writing one anthem would be enough for most songwriters, but in 1941, Berlin wrote another one. “White Christmas” would go on to sell over 100 million copies for Bing Crosby. It also became one of America’s — and the world’s — most beloved Christmas songs of all time.
‘It’s That American.’ If you turned Irving Berlin’s personal story into a movie, critics would say it was too improbable and too ridiculous — it’s that American.
Berlin died on Sept. 22, 1989, in New York City, but he came into this world with a different name and in a different country. Israel Beilin was born in the Russian Empire on May 11, 1888, one of eight children. His father, Moses, was a cantor in a synagogue, the source of Berlin’s musical talents, but being Jewish in Russia during that time was hard.
Anti-Semitism was rampant and it was ugly — so ugly that Berlin’s family was forced to move after his village was destroyed in a violent anti-Semitic pogrom.
His family fled religious persecution and came to America, settling in New York City in 1893.
His family fled religious persecution and came to this country, settling in New York City in 1893. Like millions before and after them, they didn’t come here to change America; they came here to have America change them. And theirs was a family in need of change.
According to his biographer, Laurence Bergreen, Berlin admitted to no memories of his first five years in Russia, except for one of his father “lying on a blanket by the side of a road, watching his house burn to the ground. By daylight the house was in ashes.”
There would be more tragedy to come. Indeed, Berlin’s early life had more sad stories than in the Old Testament, none worse than the loss of his father when he was eight. He had no choice but to take to the streets of New York to help support his family.
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The poverty there was so bad that writer Rudyard Kipling thought the conditions he witnessed when he visited the tenements of the Lower East Side were worse than anything he’d seen in the slums of Bombay. He was, however, impressed by the young Jewish families in those neighborhoods, especially the young immigrant boys saluting the Stars and Stripes. Kipling wrote, “For these immigrant Jews are a race that survives and thrives against all odds and flags.”
As a young man, Berlin had stumbled upon his life’s work. He took a job as a waiter in Chinatown, where he discovered that his tips skyrocketed when he hummed various songs of the day. Singing cover tunes a capella at dinner tables soon turned into a stint at songwriting.
He collaborated with friends at first, and soon got his break as a staff writer with a music publishing house in New York. His meteoric rise as a songwriter in Tin Pan Alley and then on Broadway started in 1911 with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which would become a hit by various artists, including Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. The song topped the charts when Bing Crosby recorded it.
But ragtime music was not where Berlin’s heart was. He wanted to create his own version of American music, one that appealed to the diversity and richness of his adopted nation. He once described the audience he was trying to reach with his music like this:
My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American, not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew, which is the real soul of the country. The highbrow is likely to be superficial, overtrained, supersensitive. The lowbrow is warped, subnormal. My public is the real people.
Berlin made good on his mission, creating the richest catalogue of popular music by any songwriter in American history.
It has been said that writing a song is a bit like giving birth: laborious and miraculous. Berlin gave birth to over 1,500 songs. He credited his productivity to an inborn work ethic. Saul Bornstein, Berlin’s publishing manager, observed that “it was a ritual for Berlin to write a complete song, words and music, every day.” He told anyone who would listen that he “did not believe in inspiration,” as his most successful compositions were simply the result of hard work.
Few men or women write so many songs, let alone so many standards. Fewer still write songs that become a part of our national identity. His catalogue includes such standards as “Cheek to Cheek,” “Always,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Heat Wave,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and “How Deep Is the Ocean?”
What special gifts did Berlin have? And what special qualities did his songs possess? “His work is not witty, but it is very down to earth,” the late, great cabaret singer Bobby Short once told Tom Shales, a reporter with The Washington Post. “And it is amazingly natural.”
“His songs didn’t have any seams,” composer Mark Sandrich Jr. explained. “They didn’t feel like anybody ever wrote them. It was as if Berlin just walked down the street and heard them, and they had been there all along, and he just had to reach up and pluck them out of the air.”
“His songs didn’t have any seams,” composer Mark Sandrich Jr. explained.
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Berlin did all of his composing and playing without formal music training. He could not read or write music, and he taught himself to play piano. He played almost entirely in the key of F-sharp because it was easier for his untrained fingers to play the elevated and well-spaced black keys.
“The black keys are right there under your fingers,” Berlin would tell people unabashedly. “The key of C is for people who study music.”
Berlin loved to boast about his ignorance of music and believed it actually gave him a competitive advantage. Since he didn’t know the rules of songwriting, he explained, he was “free to violate them.”
It’s a story about so many things, Irving Berlin’s life story. Hard work. Creativity. America itself. In what other country is his story possible?
The man who gave us “White Christmas” was Jewish.
The man who gave us “God Bless America” was born in Russia.
You can’t make that up!
The only identity politics Irving Berlin embraced was being an American. No hyphens. No cynicism. And no apologies. Just gratitude.
“God Bless America,” in fact, was written as a prayer seeking God’s blessing and peace for America. It’s why it resonated more in 1938 than when he’d originally written it in 1918: War was on the horizon again, even if Americans didn’t fully know it.
Over the years, the beautiful opening verse has been scrapped by most singers, though one singer always includes it in his performances: the great Irish tenor, Ronan Tynan. Here it is:
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.
Swear allegiance? A land so fair? A solemn prayer? It’s a walking microaggression, the opening verse of this anthem. Heck, it’s enough to make the Democratic National Convention commit mass suicide, hearing those words sung out loud.
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In 1940, Berlin established the God Bless America Fund and set aside the song’s royalties to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America. It has generated millions upon millions to both groups.
Berlin’s music was a gift to the country that adopted him, and it transcended all religions, races, and ethnicities. It transcended musical styles and time, too. “Blue Skies” reached the top of the charts when it was written in 1927, and it made its way back to the charts in 1978 when Willie Nelson covered it.
In the 1946 musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” Annie Oakley lamented falling in love with Frank Butler in the Berlin gem, “I Got Lost in His Arms.” The lyrics read like a poem aimed straight at the heart, as meaningful today as when they were written 70 years ago.
I got lost in his arms/ and I had to stay,
It was dark in his arms/ and I lost my way.
From the dark came a voice/ and it seemed to say,
There you go/ there you go.
How I felt as I fell/ I just can’t recall,
But his arms held me fast/ and it broke the fall.
And I said to my heart/ as it foolishly kept jumping all around,
I got lost/ but look what I found.
America got lost in Irving Berlin’s music — and from the dark, we can still hear his voice, calling us, soothing us.
Berlin kept to himself and made no public appearances during the last decade of his life, except for an event to mark his 100th birthday at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan. He died one year later of natural causes, at age 101.
In a letter to Alexander Woollcott half a century ago, Jerome Kern, another great composer of popular American music, offered what may be the best and last word on the importance of Irving Berlin’s work. “Irving Berlin has no place in American music,” Kern wrote. “He is American music.”
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.