edited by Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet
Knopf, 558 pages, $65.00
In the aftermath of September 11 the whole country seemed to be singing "God Bless America," underscoring Irving Berlin's incomparable role in American song. (Berlin wrote the piece toward the end of World War I but suppressed it until the outbreak of World War II, fearing that it might be too broad or corny.) His anthems include "White Christmas," "Easter Parade," and "There's No Business Like Show Business"; no other songwriter has written as many. No one else has written as many popular songs, period. Yet although he was lauded as a tunesmith of genius as far back as 1911, when he debuted "Alexander's Ragtime Band," Berlin is often undervalued as a lyricist and said to lack Cole Porter's erudition, Lorenz Hart's interior rhymes, and Johnny Mercer's homespun wisdom. The Complete Lyrics, which spans eighty-one of the composer's 101 years (1888-1989), demands that we reconsider this appraisal. In addition to highlighting his gift for economy, directness, and slang, it presents Berlin as an obsessive, often despairing commentator on the passing scene.
By the late 1960s Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood lyrics had come to be seen mostly as hackwork. Robert Kimball helped to redress that view with a series of oversized anthologies of great lyricists. He began in 1983 with The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter—a shrewd choice, because Porter's wit suited the printed page especially well. He moved forward with complete editions of the equally intricate work of Hart and George Gershwin. Last year, with his longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb, Kimball compiled an indispensable anthology, Reading Lyrics, which, surprisingly, includes more songs by Berlin than by anyone else. Now, in collaboration with one of Berlin's daughters, Linda Emmet, he has broken the locks off Berlin's fabled archive, giving us Berlin's oeuvre, a third of which—nearly 400 songs—was unknown.