For Everyman, by Everyman

In creating himself according to the nation's enthusiasm for his songs, Irving Berlin helped to create a national identity

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.


music picture

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.

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.

Presented by

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In