A FOURTH OF JULY TRIBUTE TO IRVING BERLIN, SONGWRITER AND PATRIOT
One of the most prolific American song writers, Irving Berlin, left his mark on musical comedy of the stage and movies. He wrote over 3,000 songs, with a remarkable number of them becoming hits. His music was danceable and singable.
He seemed to have a finger on the pulse of America all through his long career. His songs covered the spectrum from the early driving ambition of America’s people through their conflicts and problems. He was unique in that he wrote both the music and lyrics himself.
He entered America with one name and was given another, as were so many who passed through Ellis Island. He was five years old when he was brought here by his parents in 1893. His name was Israel Baline. When his dad died, leaving five children, young Berlin left home to try to help his family survive. People threw pennies at him as he sang in Bowery or waterfront saloons. He became a singing waiter. In this capacity he began writing his first songs.
He was a good businessman and said his desire was to make money. However, his music showed that not only was he talented, he was sentimental, loved this country, and had something to say. He never learned to write music and employed what he called a “trick” piano to help him along. He also hired a musical secretary to transcribe his songs’ melodies.
While only a few people had any real money it became apparent that even poor people would spend their meager resources on entertainment. It took them out of their gloomy workaday worlds and showed them a glitzy world possible only in their dreams. Many starstruck young people worked hard to get into the world where the dreams existed. A popular theme was that of the young hero or heroine making it big on Broadway or in Hollywood movies.
When ragtime became popular Irving started writing the rhythms and finally produced “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. It was a lively tune, sure to pick up one’s spirits. There was only the sheet music to be had, and his “rag” became popular overseas as well as at home.
He served time in World War I, but his talent came to the fore and he began working up a camp show to provide money for a guesthouse for soldiers’ families. It made it to Broadway, where it was well received. It also gave him a special Medal of Honor.
In 1919, immersed in the displays of beautiful girls on runways in splashy revues, Berlin wrote “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”. In that same era he also wrote, for his future wife, the beautiful love song “Always”:
I’ll be loving you Always
With a love that’s true Always.
When the things you’ve planned
Need a helping hand,
I will understand Always.
Days may not be fair Always
That’s when I’ll be there Always,
Not for just an hour,
Not for just a day,
Not for just a year,
Not only does “Always” speak of romantic love, it promises true friendship and undying loyalty. Coupled with a simple, but haunting refrain, the song was a hit.
Berlin lived up to this commitment with a gift of the royalties to his wife.
Another optimistic song of the era was “Blue Skies”, which epitomized the bouncy outlook at the time.
Just as that era was coming to an end for songwriters such as Berlin, Hollywood called. The talkies needed prolific and fast working artists and Berlin fit the bill. One of his earliest successes was the song “How Deep Is the Ocean”, a haunting love ballad. Berlin survived because of his talent, and because he was in touch with the American public. He was also in possession of a publishing company with its many copyrights to tide him over the rough times.
Berlin eventually signed with RKO, a lesser movie studio that gave him more autonomy than the bigger ones would have. Because the studio was in trouble financially, he was able to insist on retaining his copyrights and ten percent of the gross.
It marked the beginning of the dancing and singing pictures, featuring performers such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They dressed fabulously in tuxes and formal dresses and glided across the floor in perfect unison. They made every awkward guy want to do the same and every impressionable gal picture herself as Fred Astaire’s partner. Astaire had many dance partners in his career, but the pairing with Ginger Rogers seemed perfect. The song “Cheek to Cheek” came out of the movie “Top Hat” and movie goers fell in love with the dancers and the music.
Movies also produced such seasonal favorites as “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas”, which are still being shown on TV. Being Jewish did not stop Berlin from writing songs considered to be Christian oriented. Irving Berlin was ecumenical before it was fashionable. Perhaps his best known song, “God Bless America”, was introduced in a movie with Ronald Reagan. The movie was not memorable, but the song became a sort of alternative national anthem.
Richard Rodgers, after the smash hit “Oklahoma”, turned to the story of Annie Oakley. Jerome Kern was set to do the score, but died suddenly before it could get out of the idea stage. He asked Berlin to write the music. Berlin’s background was about as far from the wild west as anyone’s could be, and he wasn’t anxious to do the music, but finally relented and took on the job. He had assigned the royalties from “God Bless America” to a charitable trust, the beneficiary being scouting, so maybe he needed the money.
“Annie” contained Berlin’s trademark clever lyrics and memorable music. There were soft and heartfelt love songs, but also a flavor of the raw west. The lead sang about her family in “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly”:
Folks are dumb
Where I come from
They ain’t had any learnin’
Still they’re happy as can be
Doin’ what comes natur‘lly.
My uncle out in Texas
Caint even write his name
He signs his checks with X’s
But they cash them just the same.
Berlin produced, in short order, a bunch of songs, including “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, ideally suited to the big voice of Ethel Merman, who shouted it out night after night on stage. “Annie Get Your Gun” ran for over 1,000 performances and produced what may have been a record thirteen songs, six of which became hits. “Annie” was made into a movie and in 1999 won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.
On this Fourth of July we remember the brave people who stood up to tyranny and put everything they valued on the line to be rid of it. People such as Irving Berlin took up the torch and built on that dedication. There was no doubt that he loved this country and the people in it. He left us a collection of music that reminds us of who we are and what we can accomplish.
While Irving Berlin was spectacularly successful, he represents so many millions more that used the country’s freedom to make good lives for themselves and their families. They were given the opportunity to start businesses and succeed or fail. In the process, the entrepreneurs created wealth for most citizens and made the country the envy of other nations.
Irving Berlin was relevant because he became immersed in his adopted country. He wrote all his lyrics, mostly upbeat, and his music, incredibly varied. He delighted our senses and inspired our more noble instincts.
He left us, at age 101, with a classic song that has meaning for us today. His great song, “God Bless America”, has a poignant first verse, rarely sung, which is apropos in our time:
Barbara regularly writes for CapitolHillCoffeeHouse. She also appears in California Chronicle, Border Patrol, and Citizens Caucus. Her primary interest is illegal immigration, but she writes about other subjects as well.
Barbara lives in a large city on the West Coast. Her loyalties are with God, family, country, heritage and borders.
She enjoys music, painting, poetry and song writing.