“The Best Song Anybody Ever Wrote”
Berlin’s song is a Christmas classic that transcends the holiday because it reminds us of our shared humanity.
Irving Berlin thought that “White Christmas” was “the best song anybody ever wrote.” Certainly, it became the most successful. By the 2010s, Crosby’s recordings had surpassed fifty million in global sales, and cover versions had sold another fifty million — making it the best-selling song of all time.
The long list of artists who have covered the song includes Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Andy Williams, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, the Beach Boys, Garth Brooks, Kenny G, Lady Gaga, and Michael Bublé. The long list of languages in which it has been covered includes German, French, Dutch, Mandarin, Hungarian, Japanese, Spanish, Swahili, and Yiddish.
Berlin’s song became a cultural touchstone. In April 1975, Armed Forces Radio played the song in Saigon — the secret signal to evacuate the U.S. Embassy. Novelist Philip Roth heralded the song as “Jewish genius” in Operation Shylock (1993). “God gave Moses the Ten Commandments,” Roth wrote, “and then He gave . . . Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas.’”17 In 2001, the “Song of the Century” project ranked “White Christmas” second only to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Randy Newman recognized the song’s resonance when he wrote his antiracist number, “I’m Dreaming (of a White President)” (2012).
Newman said his song was an indictment not of Berlin or Crosby but of the era with which they are associated. “White Christmas” transcended that era. In many ways, Berlin and Crosby did, too.
After the war years, Berlin found great success with Annie Get Your Gun (1946), which featured hits such as “Anything You Can Do.” He also brought Blue Skies (1946), Easter Parade (1948), White Christmas (1954), and other films to the screen. He finally retired in 1968 — but he kept writing. By the time he died in 1989, Berlin had written some 1,500 songs.
George Gershwin called Berlin “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived.”18 His influence on twentieth-century American music cannot be overstated.
Neither can that of Crosby, whose popularity and success remained unmatched before the 1960s. Indeed, with an Academy Award for Going My Way (1944) under his belt, Crosby continued his radio shows, songs, films, television appearances, golf tournaments, and business ventures virtually unabated. When he died in 1977, his 43 number one songs surpassed those of the Beatles (24) and Elvis (18) combined. His box office success trailed only that of Clark Gable and John Wayne.
Americans have associated “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby for nearly eighty years. “It’s a great song with a simple melody,” Crosby once noted, acknowledging that “it’s as much a part of me as . . . my floppy ears.”19 The song has been tied to the American Christmas tradition for just as long — largely because it united a generation and then became infused with nostalgia.
The American Christmas tradition itself continued to evolve over those eighty years, becoming more commercialized, more entertaining, more inclusive, and thus more American. Amidst these changes, Irving Berlin’s iconic song retained its hold — doing so, ultimately, because it reminds us of things that make us human, including our shared memories of the past, our shared preoccupations in the present, and our shared hopes for the future.
“White Christmas” is a sad song written by a man who missed his family, and it came along at a profoundly sad moment in human history — a moment defined by sacrifice, separation, loss, and grieving on a global scale. Thus the song should be a reminder that Christmas, for many, remains a time of sadness and longing (giving songs like “Blue Christmas” their special appeal).
This will be true for countless millions in 2020 — including those who are separated from their families and friends and those who have lost loved ones in the past year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet nostalgia and hope remain powerful sentiments, and Christmastime gives us an opportunity to turn those sentiments into inspiration, resolution, and action. Indeed, the holiday season can always be a time to commit to actions in the coming year that will serve our families and communities, heal our divided nation, benefit all of humankind, and protect the home that all of us share.
What a wonderful Christmas gift that would be.
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