Irving Berlin

irving berlin

This is one of those names you've heard for so long, you probably have very little idea what his actual contribution to music was. So we'll put it in very simple terms:

Irving Berlin wrote the three most significant songs in the history of American pop.

That statement may raise a few eyebrows among the cognoscenti, so we'll proceed with the rest of the story.

Alexander's Ragtime Band

Irving Berlin wrote what is generally accepted as the very first example of "American Popular Song," a tune called Alexander's Ragtime Band in 1911. It combined march, folk influences, and the syncopation of a radical new thing called ragtime into a melting pot of style that was the first to be uniquely American in sound. Ragtime music was more or less scandalous at the time, much like the blues in 1945, rock and roll in 1956, punk rock in 1979, or hip-hop in 1995. None gained mainstream acceptance until they were blended or softened with more familiar styles. Pure musicians would say each is watered-down, but the fact is that it sells the most records.

Because Berlin was a Tin Pan Alley composer at the time, it is likely that others preceeded him in blending styles into a more approachable, popular sound. Perhaps, but certainly Alexander's Ragtime Band was the first to do it successfully. Survey 100 musical historians and you may get a number of different answers, but the overwhelming majority will agree, this was the beginning of the pop idiom.

To listen to Billy Murray's version from an original 1911 Edison cylinder, use this player:


ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND

To fully comprehend the significance of Alexander's, you have to understand that this song had a presence on the charts for five straight decades. According to Newsweek Magazine,

  • 4 different versions of the tune charted at # 1, # 2, # 3 and # 4 in 1911.
  • Bessie Smith's version made the top 20 in 1927.
  • Louis Armstrong made the top 20 with it in 1937.
  • A duet by Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell hit #1 in 1938.
  • Johnny Mercer charted a swing version in 1945.
  • Bing Crosby recorded another duet version, and hit the top-20 in 1947 with Al Jolson.
  • Nellie Lutcher put it on the R&B charts in 1948.
  • Bob Wills put it on the c&w charts in the same decade.
  • Ella Fitzgerald scored with it in 1958, and received a Grammy for her Irving Berlin anthology in 1959.

God Bless America

This tune was originally penned by Berlin in 1918 as part of a musical revue called Yip Yip Yaphank, but he canned it because it didn't fit with the rest of the show. Legend has it that Berlin was so moved by Hitler's invasion of Europe in 1938 that he resurrected God Bless America, re-wrote the lyrics, and introduced it as a plea for peace on Armistice Day. Sung by the great Kate Smith, it was an immediate hit and had millions of Americans calling for this to be our new National Anthem.

Today, God Bless America is identified with memorial services, the seventh inning stretch, and is easily the most popular patriotic song in post 9-11 USA.

Musically speaking, it is easy to understand with this "pop" song eclipses the Star Spangled Banner in terms of stirring emotion. Francis Scott Key's poem is set to music that is "through composed." In other words, the music has a beginning and an end, with repetitive themes but no repetitive verse/chorus typical of American pop. It's why so many performers find our national anthem to be so inexplicably difficult to sing! The "through music" of The Star Spangled Banner is of a European origin, while the verse/chorus form of God Bless America makes more sense to Americans...because of what Irving Berlin started with Alexander's. As all American pop music is a bit of a melting pot, God Bless America borrows heavily from an old Jewish folk song, combined with a Sousa-esque march tailored to musical theatre.

It's fitting that one of the most beloved patriotic songs in a nation of immigrants was written by an immigrant. So it's also fitting that the most stirring version since Kate Smith's original is a recent recording by Canadian Celine Dion.

While God Bless America did not have the overwhelming chart success of Alexander's Ragtime Band or the next selection, it still ranks as one of the three most significant songs in the history of American Pop due to its longevity. Happy Birthday is the only

continues above, in column at right...

featured performance

Bernadette Peters and Tom Wopat light up the stage in Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun


Irving Berlin, continued from column at left

song performed more frequently today. No other song has shown such sustained popularity for 70 years.

White Christmas

If ever a tune defined American Popular Song, this is it. It doesn't break any ground, and it doesn't fit in any specific style. It just sells records -- lots of them. White Christmas is in fact the largest selling record of all time. It was believed to be eclipsed in the late 1990s when the Elton John/Bernie Taupin penned Candle in the Wind (England's Rose) exploded on the worldwide market in the wake of Princess Diana's untimely passing. But add in unknown sales from the 1940s, album cuts, compilations, and sales in the time since, and Bing Crosby's version of White Christmas remains the biggest seller of all time. That doesn't include sales of extremely popular versions by The Beach Boys, Elvis, The Drifters, Alan Jackson, Andy Williams, and on and on.

Consider the song's chart run during a string of holiday seasons...

  • 1942 -- #1 (11 weeks)
  • 1943 -- #2
  • 1944 -- #1
  • 1945 -- #1
  • 1946 -- #1
  • 1947 -- #2
  • 1948 -- #3
  • 1949 -- #3
  • 1950 -- #2
  • 1951 -- #2
  • 1952 -- #3
  • 1953 -- #2
  • 1954 -- #1

...and that's the all-around Pop chart, not a much narrower "Holiday" chart. It is unlikely that any single will consecutively chart for a dozen years, let alone reach the top 3 positions. Perhaps the day will come when White Christmas is no longer a holiday standard, but that won't happen in our lifetime. For his part, Berlin always thought it ironic that the most popular Christmas song was penned by a Jew, and he felt the same way about his classic Easter Parade. He was alleged to have been told once that, after all, Jesus was Jewish.

Irving Berlin's Legacy

So we've talked about the first American popular song, the most enduring pop song, and the largest selling pop song...without question, Irving Berlin composed three of the most significant songs in the history of the genre.

But his legacy goes so far beyond those three numbers, in fact the 3,000 songs Berlin wrote have shaped all of the musical styles we know today, from rap to reggae, country to rock. Songs from Annie Get Your Gun (featured in the video box above) were scattered on the top ten for a decade or more. Willie Nelson's version of Blue Skies is an undeniable classic. Christina Aguilera hammered out a compelling duet of Steppin' Out With My Baby with Tony Bennett. And we can only imagine the grin on Irving's face the first time he saw Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle hoofing and singing Puttin' on the Ritz.


a snippet of Blue Skies
performed by The Jazzlite Trio