He did it without anyone’s help, and without any formal music education. He wrote “God Bless America” in 1918 while serving in the Army. But it didn’t lead to anything. He set it aside for 20 years and returned to it only in 1938, after Hitler rose to power. Kate Smith recorded it. The rest was history. The song became America’s unofficial national anthem, along with “America the Beautiful.”
That would have been enough success for any musical mortal. But this man was writing for the ages. He also went on to write one of the most popular songs of all time, “White Christmas.”
And here’s the most remarkable part of his story. The man who gave us “God Bless America” was not born in America; he was born in Russia. The man who gave us “White Christmas” was not a Christian; he was Jewish.
If you made his life story into a movie, critics would say it was too improbable. It is that American.
Irving Berlin came to America like so many before him, seeking refuge from religious persecution. He was born Israel Beilin, on May 11, 1888, one of eight children born near Mogilev in what is now the Republic of Belarus. His father, a cantor in a synagogue, uprooted his family after their village was destroyed in a violent anti-Semitic pogrom.
His family settled in New York City in 1893. According to his biographer Laurence Bergreen, as an adult Berlin admitted to no memories of his first five years in Russia except for one: 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.”
But that was not the last tragedy to befall young Irving. His early life had more sad stories than the Old Testament, none worse than the loss of his father when he was eight.
With few other options available, the young man took to the streets of New York to help support his family. To say those streets were tough would be an understatement. A poverty the likes of which poor people in America today would not even recognize gripped the Lower East Side of New York, the neighborhood where young Irving lived.
Rudyard Kipling thought it worse than anything he’d seen in the slums of Bombay, the poverty he witnessed when he visited the tenements of the Lower East Side. But he was impressed by the Jewish families in particular, noting 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.” Which proves the point that is often lost on us today: You can have very little in material wealth but still not be poor.
By the time he was 20, Berlin had stumbled by accident 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 embraced and appealed to the diversity and richness of his adopted nation, so that his music would be accessible to as many Americans as possible. He described his aspirations:
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. 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”; his most successful compositions were the result of work.
“I do most of my work under pressure,” Berlin said in an interview. “When I have a song to write I go home at night, and after dinner, about 8, I begin to work. Sometimes I keep at it till 4 or 5 in the morning. I do most of my writing at night.” This he would do after a long day working on rehearsals for plays in production.
Few men 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?”
Berlin did all of this without formal music training; he could not read or write music, and taught himself to play piano. He played almost entirely in the key of F-sharp because, as with so many self-taught musicians, it was easier for his untrained fingers to play the elevated and well-spaced black keys without hitting any wrong (white) keys by accident.
“The black keys are right there under your fingers,” Berlin would tell people unabashedly. “The key of C is for people who study music.” Indeed, Berlin often boasted of his ignorance of music and claimed that it gave him a competitive advantage. Because he didn’t know the rules of songwriting, he explained, he was “free to violate them.”
Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” sold over 50 million copies. It’s an astounding number. It’s an astounding story. A poor fatherless Jewish immigrant from Russia writes America’s most beloved Christmas song! That’s a story the ACLU can’t wrap its small-mindedness around.
Kate Smith introduced America to “God Bless America” on her radio show on Armistice Day in 1938. The song was originally written in the form of a prayer by Berlin, one seeking God’s blessing and peace for America. Over the years, the beautiful opening verse has been scrapped by most singers, and by most schools, though one singer who always includes it is the great Irish singer Ronan Tynan.
Here are the words that open the song:
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? Solemn prayer? No wonder we don’t hear that verse much anymore.
Irving Berlin’s music transcended multiple generations and all of the religions, races, ethnicities that make America. It transcended musical styles and time. “Blue Skies” reached the top of the charts when it was written in 1927. It made its way back to the charts in 1978 when Willie Nelson, of all people, covered it.
Berlin wrote direct musical poems aimed straight at the heart. In the 1946 musical Annie Get Your Gun, Annie Oakley laments falling in love with Frank Butler, in the Berlin gem “I Got Lost in His Arms”:
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’ve found.
America got lost in Irving Berlin’s music. And from the dark, we can still hear his voice, 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. He died one year later, from natural causes, at age 101.
In a letter to Alexander Woollcott half a century ago, Jerome Kern, another great composer of popular music, offered what may be the last and best word on the significance of Irving Berlin. “Irving Berlin has no place in American music,” Kern wrote. “He is American music.”
— Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network. Mike Leven is president and COO of the Las Vegas Sands.