by DAVID SCHIFF
Editor’s note: With “White Christmas” streaming from speakers everywhere, The Shedd’s production of Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun running through this weekend, and Portland Center Stage’s production of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin continuing through December, we thought it would be an appropriate occasion to re-run one of the definitive articles on the great American composer by another great American composer, as well as one of our great writers about music, Portland’s own David Schiff.
Do pop tunes have an afterlife? A new three-volume scholarly edition of the early songs of Irving Berlin, published for the American Musicological Society, suggests that all music, whether pop or classical, passes from inspiration to dissertation, living on as fodder for musicologists.
I recently decided to test Berlin’s suitability for the full scholarly treatment in the privacy of my home. As I began singing and playing through all 190 of these songs, written from 1907 to 1914, I thought I had finally discovered the secret to being the life of the party. The first few songs, for which Berlin wrote the words only, had an irresistible klutzy charm in their rhymes:
Oh Marie, ‘neath the window I’m waiting
Oh, Marie, please don’t be so aggravating . . .
Impatiently I wait for thee here in the moonlight,
Don’t be afraid, my dusky maid, this is a spoonlight . . .
I hit pay dirt with the seventh song, “Sadie Salome (Go Home)”
Don’t do that dance, I tell you Sadie,
That’s not a bus’ness for a lady!
‘Most ev’rybody knows
That I’m your loving Mose,
Oy, oy, oy, oy
Where is your clothes?
You better go and get your dresses,
Ev’ry one’s got the op’ra glasses.
Oy! such a sad disgrace
No one looks in your face;
Sadie Salome, go home.
Mel Brooks could not have undone Richard Strauss any better. I was ready to invite all my friends over.
Pounding on through the sixty songs of Volume I, I soon found I wasn’t having fun anymore. It was a long, long haul through a slew of forgettable “coon” songs, “kike” songs, “guinea” songs, and “kraut” songs to get to “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” There are no forgotten musical gems here. Out of 190 songs you may know only “Alexander” and “Everybody’s Doing It Now” — and you probably have to be at least fifty to remember the second, either with its original lyrics or with the raunchier street lyrics I learned as a kid in the post-Second World War Bronx.
In his introduction to Irving Berlin: Early Songs, the musicologist Charles Hamm provides an exhaustive guide to the songs, breaking them into categories (ballads, novelty songs, ragtime songs, show songs) and subcategories (high-class, rustic, domestic) with the acuity of a structural anthropologist. He makes no claim for their musical value: this edition is clearly meant as a form of musical archaeology, taking us back to the prehistory of pop music.
And once you become acculturated, these songs can seem closer in spirit to today’s popular music than to that of the “golden age.” Most of them are mechanical, vulgar, stereotype-ridden, and sexually suggestive. They take place in the amoral anomie of the modern city, where a man can send his wife to the country (“Hurrah! Hurrah!”) and think about making love to his secretary. It’s a world of distinct ethnic enclaves, each with its own predictable dialect and obsessions. Jews are all named Mose and Sadie and think only about money. Italians talk-a like dis. Blacks strut their stuff and roll their eyes, singing of dear ol’ Dixie. Offensive? Yes, but with minor alterations they sound like proto-MTV. The prehistory of pop music is a lot like its post-history.
Creating a New American Landscape
Jerome Kern once wrote that Irving Berlin was not part of American music — he was American music. It was a generous compliment, but wrong. Berlin cannot be made to stand for all of American song. Yet it would be equally misguided to view him as a kind of classical composer and study his complete works in order to trace his personal artistic development. A printed overview of Berlin’s oeuvre may in fact obscure the vital connections to other songwriters and performers who were essential to the existence of popular song. It will, however, provide clues to the mysterious character of the songs’ creator.
Irving Berlin eventually earned a reputation for being the premier American tunesmith, mainly because he kept writing hits over five decades, and also because so many of his songs — “God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business” — became quasi-official national anthems. These songs seem to have been written for Everyman, by Everyman. Their author seems invisible, inscrutable, without a definable style or voice.
Alec Wilder, in his great study The American Popular Song, nails down the idiosyncrasies of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers, but throws up his hands in attempting to find Berlin’s musical fingerprints. Berlin was the Homer of the pop tune, and also its Zelig. Perhaps the early songs provide a key to his ubiquitous anonymity; in any case they reveal something about our evolving national identity. Berlin — as much as the moguls of Hollywood, some of whom were his childhood friends from the Lower East Side — created a new American landscape and then disappeared into it.
Before I read the excellent biography of Berlin by Laurence Bergreen (As Thousands Cheer ) and the loving, intimate memoir by Berlin’s daughter Mary Ellin Barrett, I had formed my own picture of him, based on the songs and on Abraham Cahan’s great 1890s novel, The Rise of David Levinsky (a favorite, by the way, of the lyricist Ira Gershwin). Cahan tells the story of a Russian immigrant who achieves success in America by completely destroying his inner life; he becomes a shell, relentless in his business pursuits and incapable of any feelings — and yet not a monster.
Berlin did not lack for emotions, but he had no problem exploiting them either. When his first wife died, shortly after they married, he wrote “When I Lost You,” a sad waltz that, Bergreen says, “was the only song Berlin ever admitted had a basis in the events of his life.” When it became a hit, he started turning out sappy waltzes by the yard, most of them forgettable, but others, such as “Always” and “What’ll I Do?” and “All Alone,” even bigger hits than “When I Lost You.”
Puttin’ on the Ritz
Berlin’s rise from poverty was even more astonishing than Levinsky’s. Starting with nothing on the Lower East Side, sleeping in flophouses on the Bowery, he earned a vast fortune by the time he was thirty and married Ellin Mackay, the daughter of one of the richest men in America. Although he never lost his East Side accent, he assumed the privileges of wealth as one to the manner born; his daughter describes a life of quiet, tasteful luxury marred only by her father’s long bouts of depression, during which he would become even more invisible than usual, shutting himself off even from his family.
Berlin’s success, unlike Levinsky’s, depended on more than hard work and business acumen — though in his life there was plenty of each. Born in Russia, with Yiddish as his first language, Berlin was to use language itself as the medium of his self-invention. Language for him was not something fixed and traditional; it was an assemblage of exploitable accidents. According to legend, even his name was the result of a typographic decision. A publisher reduced his first name to “I.” on the cover of the sheet music of his first song, “Marie From Sunny Italy,” which led the nineteen-year-old Israel Baline to re-create himself with the names of an American author and a German city far from the Russian shtetl of his birth. He simultaneously took on the airs of old Knickerbocker New York and of the uptown German Jews who had already assimilated into American society.
Like Ira Gershwin and Groucho Marx, Berlin heard English through the ears of an immigrant for whom sound and sense were in a state of constant recombination. I suspect that even before they learned English, many Jewish lyricists had experienced another culturally specific linguistic subversion. In Hebrew schools, then as today, the language of the prayer book was learned syllabically, with exercises in which arbitrary combinations of consonants and vowels only gradually turn into words: bah, baw, beh, bu, bi, boo. Students rapidly manipulate sound symbols that are completely detached from meaning; many learn their prayers with no idea of what the words mean. No wonder they can develop a sense for interlinguistic puns and internal rhymes that native speakers never notice.
As Philip Furia shows in his eye-opening book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, Berlin’s contribution to the American language was “ragged” rhyme, a mating of the immigrant’s fractured perception of English sounds with the dislocated rhythms of ragtime.
Hear that trombone blowin’ hon’,
Ain’t dem fiddles goin’ some?
Oh! sir, Oh! sir,
cuddle up closer,
Squeeze me like you would a flower,
Make a minute last an hour.
(“Oh, That Beautiful Rag,” 1910)
Even the mood of self-pity that Berlin worked over and over again could be lightened with ragged rhyme:
All by myself in the morning,
All by myself in the night,
I sit alone
With a table and a chair,
So unhappy there,
Playing solitaire . . .
(“All By Myself,” 1921)
Berlin had pushed ragged meter to the outer limits by 1930:
Come let’s mix
ers walk with sticks
las” in their mitts,
puttin’ on the ritz!
(“Puttin’ on the Ritz,” 1928)
Furia connects Berlin’s assault on language with the techniques of the imagist poets. The fusion of Yiddish rap and African-American ragtime turned out to be the decisive step in the emergence of Berlin’s nondenominational, non-ethnic American identity, and also in the emergence of a new kind of national song literature. As many critics have noted, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” is not ragtime, and it appeared after the ragtime craze was over. But it transformed ragtime, a regional and ethnic music, into a definition of American identity.
The ups and downs of popularity could be a heavy burden for a composer. From his daughter’s memoir I learned that Berlin was a poker player, and it occurred to me that his appearance of impersonality may have been a protective mask — a poker face. A songwriter has to live with the luck of the draw, and when Berlin went hitless he would fall into deep depression. It must have been unsettling to write so many songs and have some of them — thirty, say, out of thousands — become hits while most of the others soon vanished.
Berlin was not naive (he was part of the Algonquin Round Table), and he certainly had his formulas. He claimed, with the appearance of false modesty, that there were just six Berlin songs, with endless variants. And he knew when he had a sure winner, such as “White Christmas,” which he announced to friends was the greatest song ever written. Yet in general the fate of songs is as unpredictable as the public mood. Believing that the quality of a song was measured solely by its popularity, Berlin suffered from the very mystique that made him a national hero.
A Wedding of Words and Melody
I would like to think that the reason for the success and staying power of so many of Berlin’s songs was his skill, even genius, as a songwriter. Why do the best ones live on to the extent that they do? And what about them is unique to Berlin? In spite of Alec Wilder’s bewilderment and Charles Hamm’s indifference, it is possible to get at the intrinsic quality of Berlin’s songs.
Let’s start with some of the facts of Berlin’s creative life. He and Cole Porter were the only great songsmiths to write both music and lyrics; as most of Volume I of Irving Berlin: Early Songs shows, Berlin began as a lyricist. It’s well known that though he was no concert pianist, he could get around the piano, but only in the key of F sharp (on the black keys). He could neither write down nor harmonize his songs — he could barely even sing them. Throughout his life he depended on copyists and harmonists, who never claimed that they had composed the songs themselves, and attested to the fact that Berlin knew what he wanted harmonically when he heard it.
For Berlin, then, a song was a wedding of words and melody. This may seem self-evident, but it is quite different from the case of, for example, George Gershwin, who always wrote the melody first and was deeply interested in harmony. A great Gershwin song — “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” for example — is as much a harmonic composition as a melody. To understand its structure one has to look at the elegant contrapuntal relation between the melody notes and the bass.
In contrast, Berlin’s right hand did not know what his left hand was doing; he was a pure melodist. If you play through Berlin’s songs, you soon find that many are ineptly harmonized, often with the bass simply doubling the melody. Even “Blue Skies,” which is built on a solid descending bass line, loses its focus in the bridge. And yet it would be a mistake to say that Berlin’s songs lack musical discoveries — just listen to the way “Always” swerves out of key in the eleventh bar of the chorus (“need a helping hand, I will understand”) and suavely finds its way back three bars later (“always, always”). That kind of harmonic surprise is really a melodic invention — Berlin just took the ninth and tenth bars of his tune and moved them up two steps. The harmony had to tag along behind melodic intensification.
Berlin was famous for composing at a piano that allowed him to change keys while always playing in F sharp. I think the picture of him hunting and pecking on the black keys may be misleading, though. His songs are full of accidentals and out-of-key turns that he could not have played on the black keys alone — and it’s hard to imagine that he discovered them by manipulating the pedals that moved his keyboard from one key to another. I assume that like most composers, Berlin composed with his brain as well as his fingers, and that he figured out how to use his keyboard to find melodies he had already composed in his head. The shapes of these melodies reveal Berlin’s distinctive genius: because he did not have a conscious command of harmony, he had to make his melodic lines all the stronger.
Berlin brought his idiosyncratic technique to the most rigorously circumscribed musical and poetic form since the days of the troubadours or the great haiku poets. The tunesmith had to say “I love you” in just thirty-two bars, divided squarely into four eight-bar groups, and the melody had to be singable and memorable. Its range could not exceed an octave by much, and it had to have a “hook” that would set it apart from other songs.
The words were just as tightly prescribed as the music. Berlin usually set himself a double task in the lyrics: his songs have a verbal tag and tell a story. Usually the tag is a casual phrase: “What’ll I do?,” “Let’s have another cup o’ coffee,” “Come on and hear,” “God bless America.” Berlin’s first inspiration as a composer, I suspect, was the rhythm of the tag. He had a genius for giving common American phrases the nervous musical impulse of the modern city. Over and over he discovered the syncopation in ordinary speech rhythms: “Anything you can do I can do better.” (As an aside, I’ll note that today’s music has singularly failed to bring contemporary English to a similar state of life — a failure symbolic, perhaps, of larger failures.)
Once he had his tag in place, Berlin could begin to tell a tale. Most of the early songs are really nothing but vaudeville vignettes, presented in the opening section, or verse, and punctuated by a refrain, or chorus, on which the audience probably joined in. “My Wife’s Gone to the Country (Hurrah! Hurrah!)” unfolds a surprising story of extramarital liberation. Brown’s wife leaves home with the children to escape a heat wave. Brown takes out an ad in the newspaper announcing the fact, and then sings it into a recording phonograph, rips down “GOD BLESS OUR HOME” from the wall, tells his friend Molly “I love my wife, but oh! you kid,” and, when he starts to lose his voice, teaches a parrot to sing the joyous refrain. It’s a strangely self-reflective plot: the husband does not turn into a philanderer, he turns into a songwriter, and his story becomes the song. As in many of Berlin’s songs, music, rather than being the vehicle for emotional expression, is both the source and the outcome of the emotion.
Berlin’s later songs, like most popular tunes of the twenties and on, have verses that are shriveled into mere introductions and choruses that are the heart of the composition. Here the story had to be told within the strict shape of the main melody, and so every note counted. “All Alone” is an object lesson in how to tell a story in four melodic phrases. One: “I’m alone.” Two: “Waiting by the phone.” Three: “Thinking if.” Four: “You’re alone too.”
The melody is a link between one lonely person and another, and the melodic line is an arch, moving, unusually, to a climactic high note in the third eight-bar unit (the bridge) and then, equally unusually, retracing its steps. The final phrase, instead of repeating the first, turns it upside down and backward, so that one loneliness balances out the other. Each phrase of the song introduces an element — a prop, an emotion, a person — that was not there before, so that by the end we feel we’ve traveled quite some distance in space and feeling. Is the song sad or happy? It starts with a sob and ends with a smile; there’s a novel in that.
Music As Prophylactic
For many critics, “Cheek to Cheek” is not only Berlin’s masterpiece — as memorable “as `Wagner’s Wedding March,'” Wilder says — but also No. 1 in the genre associated with Fred Astaire, which also includes Kern’s “I Won’t Dance” and Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”Some competition! It shows, too, how far Berlin had come from “Sadie Salome.” The song swings and sizzles because it is a series of expanding gasps of pleasure. “Heaven”: Berlin set the word like an unexpected tingle, took its two-note figure up the scale with growing intensity, and then walked it back down to the intimacy of “cheek to cheek” — you can feel the brush of skin in the rhythmic bounce of that tag. The phrases of the chorus are twice as long as usual, and so Berlin wrote two different bridges, the first dippy (“Oh I love to climb a mountain . . .”), the second impetuous (“Dance with me”).
The song is so expansive that the return of the opening musical phrase has to feel like a letdown, and most singers and arrangers take the liberty of expanding it — listen to Sarah Vaughan spin it out into ecstasy. Despite the giddy sexuality of the song, though, it still has Berlin’s typical faux naiveté (which you can hear the sassy Vaughan mocking). The song isn’t about the joys of sex, it’s about the joy of dancing — another of Berlin’s displacements of emotion into a musical performance. Music is a prophylactic for Berlin. All his songs seem a little safer than we want them to be.
Perhaps because of their emotional inhibitions, Berlin’s songs, even the sad ones, feel more like jingles than arias–they are advertisements for themselves. It’s all there in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The tag: “Come on and hear,” with its teasing hint of blues and syncopation. The buildup: the tag is repeated so that it hangs on the sixth degree of the scale–not the expected, more consonant fifth. First surprise: the bugle call. The setup: repeat of the opening phrase but with the words changed — “Let me take you by the hand.” The payoff: “the Swanee River played in ragtime” — not only the high note but a coronation. Berlin takes the laurel crown from Stephen Foster, and we realize that Berlin is Alexander, the leader of the band. It’s a song about nothing but its own unstoppable ambition — the immigrant dream in excelsis.
Annie Get Your Gun continues through December 18 at The Shedd. Tickets and info here.
David Schiff is a professor of music at Reed College. This story originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, March 1996 and is used with the permission of the author.