Irving Berlin: The Great American Composer Behind White Christmas
By Alexis Gaither
Irving Berlin is often referred to as one of the greatest songwriters in American history. In fact, Jerome Kern, the composer of Show Boat, said that Berlin “has no place in American music, he is American music.” With over 1,500 songs and nine Academy Award nominations, Berlin set the stage for music in the 20th century and beyond. But the man who wrote “White Christmas,” the best-selling song of all time, certainly wasn’t born into a life of Hollywood and Broadway glamour.
Berlin’s family of 10 moved from Russia to avoid the widespread Jewish persecution of the early 1900s when Berlin (then called Israel “Izzy” Baline) was just five years old. He lived in poverty and was forced to leave school when he was only eight after his father’s death, singing for pennies on the sidewalks and later as a singing waiter at a Chinatown dive. But, his struggles as a Russian-Jewish immigrant with little education only motivated him to write some of the most famous songs of all time. “Every man should have a Lower East Side in his life,” he said.
Berlin became a household name in 1911 when he wrote his first big hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The song sold millions of copies and became a pop culture phenomenon, launching a ragtime dance craze into mass popularity.
As Berlin left the struggles of his childhood for the fame and fortune that came with being a songwriting genius, he and his songs became symbols of the American dream. Berlin said “my ambition is to reach the heart of the average American,” and he certainly did that with songs like “God Bless America,” “Oh! How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
In later years, when asked what kind of song he preferred writing, Berlin simply replied, “hits.” That must have been the truth because if a song didn’t make it, he would often rework it until he got it right. For instance, Berlin took one of his more grisly failures, a song called “Smile and Show Your Dimple,” and turned it into one of his biggest hits, “Easter Parade.”
At the same time, Berlin had a knack for writing songs that could spark political and social change. He created music that opposed prohibition, encouraged soldiers overseas, and helped to ease the pains of the Great Depression. The world’s troubles were Berlin’s inspiration; his songs became staples of American pop culture and helped define American history.
Berlin’s passion for representing the American people during tough times reached its peak with “White Christmas.” Originally written for the movie Holiday Inn, Bing Crosby first performed the song just 17 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. As soldiers traveled to fight for their country, Berlin’s lyrics reminded many of peace and the joy of home during wintertime. Berlin might not have planned for his song to be a symbol of American values for so many in the midst of World War II, but explained before its release that “songs make history, and history makes songs.”
A legend by the age of 30, Berlin lived to be 101 years old. He wrote songs for 37 Broadway shows and Hollywood films, was nominated for several academy awards, and 25 of his songs reached the top of the charts. And 75 years after Bing Crosby’s first performance of “White Christmas,” it still reminds audiences of the holidays in a way that no other piece of music can.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas runs through Dec. 31. Click here for tickets and more info.