“Blue skies, smiling at me, nothing but blue skies do I see.” ~ Irving Berlin (1926)
If you’re American (or a music lover anywhere else in the world), you probably know Irving Berlin’s music — even if you don’t think you do. He wrote for and about us — the average American citizen — whom he considered to be “the real soul of the country.” He wrote from the heart, easily capturing ours. George Gershwin considered Berlin to be the greatest songwriter who ever lived.
His songs are exquisite cameos of perfection, and each one of them is as beautiful as its neighbor. Irving Berlin remains, I think, America’s Schubert. But apart from his genuine talent for song-writing, Irving Berlin has had a greater influence upon American music than any other one man. It was Irving Berlin who was the very first to have created a real, inherent American music.
At Berlin’s 100th Birthday Celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1988, Walter Cronkite said:
[Berlin] helped write the story of this country, capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives.
So when we celebrate major holidays, Berlin is there (“Easter Parade,” “White Christmas”). He’s with us when we watch a classic musical on the telly (“Top Hat,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Annie Get Your Gun”). Since many of America’s most popular singers have recorded a Berlin tune or two (Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Rosemary Clooney, Willie Nelson, Bing Crosby), all of us would have likely heard at least one of Berlin’s songs somewhere, sometime.
Most notably, whenever we gather to honor our men and women in uniform, we sing Berlin’s signature song, “God Bless America,” the lyrics of which we’ve known by heart since childhood.
Last month, a new picture book biography was released that introduces young readers to Berlin’s extraordinary life and legacy. Write On, Irving Berlin! by Leslie Kimmelman and David C. Gardner (Sleeping Bear Press, 2018), traces Berlin’s life from the time he arrived in America with his family in 1893 until his death at age 101. He wrote some 1500 songs, comprising a substantial part of the Great American Songbook.
We first meet five-year-old Israel Isadore Baline (“Izzy”) as he arrives at Ellis Island with his parents and five siblings. Like many other Jewish immigrants, the Baline family had fled their homeland to escape the Russian pogroms. They settled in New York’s crowded, bustling Lower East Side to begin their new life in America.
Young Izzy attended school but was considered a poor student because he tended to daydream and often sang to himself. Back in Russia, his father had been a cantor, so it was no surprise that Izzy’s head was full of music. When he was 13, Izzy’s father died, so he dropped out of school and left home to lessen the burden on his family. He made money by doing what he loved to do: sing!
He sang in saloons. He sang in the choruses of shows. He sang as he waited tables in restaurants.
He may not have been a good student, but he had learned English. He began to write song lyrics, and made 37 cents for his first sale, “Marie from Sunny Italy.” It wasn’t very good, but Izzy, now calling himself “I. Berlin,” kept practicing, getting better and better, making up tunes as well as lyrics. He landed a job with a music publisher in Tin Pan Alley, penning his first big hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
Berlin married and became an American citizen. Sadly, his wife Dorothy died a few months after their wedding. Berlin threw himself into his songwriting. When he was drafted into the U.S. Army during WWI, he wrote for the soldiers, cheering them up, boosting morale.
After the war, he remarried and wrote a beautiful love song for his new wife Ellin, called “Always.” Berlin continued to write song after song. He wrote everywhere — in taxicabs, in elevators, in the bathtub, staying up all night to compose. There were so many tunes in his head, and he could write songs in a flash. In the days leading up to WWII, Berlin polished a song he had written 20 years earlier, “God Bless America,” which became a HUGE hit. This was followed by “White Christmas,” another hit that resonated deeply with soldiers stationed overseas who were missing home. It reminded them of what they were fighting for.
Though he was too old to enlist, Berlin “served his country” by taking his show on the road, entertaining troops stationed all over the world. Ahead of his time, he assembled a completely integrated cast of black and white soldiers, refusing to perform anywhere that didn’t welcome all of them (the U.S. Armed Forces didn’t integrate until years later). Millions enjoyed Berlin’s shows and he donated all proceeds to wartime charities.
Throughout his life, nothing stopped Berlin from writing. “He never ran out of ideas,” continuing to compose new songs for new shows after the war ended. His story is inspiring not only for the wide appeal and longevity of his work, but for who he was as a human being. Many were angry that it was a Jewish immigrant who wrote the most well loved Christian holiday songs, and that the man who wrote the beloved patriotic anthem “God Bless America” wasn’t even born in America. But one would be hard pressed to find anyone who loved this country more. From the beginning, Berlin donated all proceeds from the song to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.
Moreover, his success proves that a good song is a good song, with its ability to move the listener and communicate something meaningful in a simple, direct way. Music transcends race, social class, and ethnicity; it’s the reason it’s aptly called the universal language.
Kimmelman’s engaging narrative spotlights Berlin’s tireless work ethic, his natural born musical talent, and his boundless love for songwriting. She showed how much Berlin loved America, proving it time and again by the exemplary life he lived, and what he wholeheartedly gave all of us with his music. He was eternally grateful for the opportunities America afforded him. He was able to make a good life for himself and his family after starting out penniless and was entirely self taught when it came to music.
Gardner’s soft watercolors provide interesting details about each stage of Berlin’s life, giving us a good sense of time and place. I especially enjoyed seeing the crowded streets of the Lower East Side, Berlin busy composing at the keyboard and in the bathtub, and the various settings where his music was performed and enjoyed. I also liked how Gardner used the recurring Statue of Liberty motif to highlight the immigrant experience. As Berlin gazes at her in the distance, we can easily imagine his gratitude.
Young readers will love Berlin’s gumption and persistence, and will want to learn more about his life and music. Ultimately, Write On, Irving Berlin! is about more than the story of one revered musician. In this day and age of exclusion and xenophobia, it is a good reminder that we are a nation of immigrants, and it is important to honor those who have made invaluable contributions to the fabric of society. Berlin’s music is now part of our cultural DNA. I can’t imagine a world without “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” or “God Bless America,” which is celebrating its 100th Anniversary this year.
The back matter includes an Author’s Note with a few more interesting tidbits: Berlin couldn’t read or write music, and composed all his songs in the key of F-sharp, because he only played the black keys on the piano. He was also one of the founders of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), and was awarded the Medal of Merit from President Truman and the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Eisenhower.
WRITE ON, IRVING BERLIN!
written by Leslie Kimmelman
illustrated by David C. Gardner
published by Sleeping Bear Press (May 2018)
Picture Book Biography for ages 6-9, 32 pp.
♥ Find out more about the book in this interview with Leslie at Deborah Kalb’s site.
Finally, we must hear a couple of Irving Berlin tunes. First, here’s Berlin himself singing “God Bless America.” Though the song is almost synonymous with Kate Smith, who introduced it on Armistice Day 1938, I found Berlin’s 1968 performance on the Ed Sullivan Show with the Scouts especially moving:
And here’s “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds, from the 1942 movie “Holiday Inn” (Martha Mears’s vocal was dubbed in for Reynolds). Crosby’s version of the song is the world’s best selling Christmas single (100 million+ copies worldwide).
Poignant sidenote: “White Christmas” was first heard on the radio in December 1941, just 18 days after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. That winter, Armed Forces radio played it repeatedly for soldiers stationed overseas. When Bing Crosby performed for the troops, he hesitated to sing it because it made them sad, yearning for home — but they always requested it.
Few knew that the song had a different meaning for Berlin himself. As a Russian Jew, he of course didn’t celebrate Christmas, yet each Christmas he and his wife had their own ritual — they visited the grave of their son, who had died on Christmas Day 1928 when he was just three weeks old. Though little backstory is known about the actual composing of “White Christmas,” some speculate that its melancholy tone may be attributed to Berlin remembering his son.
🌎 A IS FOR ASTRONAUT GIVEAWAY WINNER! ⭐
Thanks to everyone for reading my interview with Astronaut Clayton Anderson last week. We are pleased to announce that the winner of a brand new copy of A is for Astronaut is:
🎉 KIMBERLY HUTMACHER! 🎈
👏 👏 👏 👏 👏
Please send your snail mail address to readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com to receive your book!!
Kiesha Shepard is hosting the Roundup at Whispers from the Ridge. Skip on over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week. Enjoy your weekend!
*Interior spreads posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2018 Leslie Kimmelman, illustrations © 2018 David C. Gardner, published by Sleeping Bear Press. All rights reserved.
**This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. When you purchase something using a link on this site, Jama’s Alphabet Soup receives a small referral fee at no cost to you. Thanks for your support!
***Copyright © 2018 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.