Irving Berlin and His American Music
A Russian Jewish immigrant would write the song that helped redefine Christmas in America.
Irving Berlin was born as Israel Beilin in Russia in 1888. Five years later his family fled anti-Semitic persecution, made the long journey to Ellis Island (where the family name became “Baline”), and settled in New York City’s densely-populated Lower East Side. The family rented a basement apartment with no windows or running water. As the economy slid into a depression, Israel’s parents and siblings found only sporadic work in meat processing, cigar making, and shirt making.
The Baline family’s aspirations, sacrifices, and struggles reflected those of millions of Jews and other immigrants who arrived in the United States around the turn of the twentieth century. Indeed, the Balines were part of an even larger wave of immigration that brought nearly twenty million Eastern and Southern Europeans into the U.S. between the 1870s and the 1910s.
The Lower East Side was filled with music. Variety theaters, dance halls, and music shops lined the thoroughfares. Sonorous music spilled out of synagogues and mingled with the sounds of piano lessons, organ grinders, and Yiddish folk songs. On street corners, “buskers” sang the newest songs and hawked sheet music to people passing by.
Jewish immigrants embraced their musical heritage, but many also used the cross-cultural appeal of music to make their way in American society. The massive movement of Jews to the U.S. gave rise to Yiddish songs about the immigrant experience in — and embrace of — America. During the 1910s and 1920s, Jewish songwriters’ efforts to create new “American” songs reflected a broader push to create a Jewish American identity and thus find acceptance in a country wrestling with xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
Decades later, an interviewer asked Berlin how “a member of the Jewish faith” could write the most celebrated Christmas song in America. “I know how,” Berlin answered. “I wrote it as an American.”1
Many Jewish American songwriters launched their careers through “Tin Pan Alley,” the name given to the 28th Street home of New York City music publishers who dominated America’s popular music scene during the early twentieth century.
Music publishers expanded their reach through a variety of methods. They paid writers for new songs and then employed “pluggers” to promote the songs and “buskers” to sing and sell the music. They bribed vaudeville performers to incorporate the songs into their shows and then planted “boomers” in the audiences to express enthusiasm for the songs after every performance. By 1910, Tin Pan Alley publishers were churning out 25,000 songs a year, and annual sales surpassed five million.
Baline’s father died when “Izzy” was only thirteen years old. He already had dropped out of school to sell newspapers full-time — often gaining customers and tips by crooning popular tunes. Now he sought additional work to help support his mother and siblings. He got his start in the music industry in the early 1900s, working as a busker, then as a boomer, and eventually as a writer and publisher.
When Izzy Baline started writing his own songs, he changed his name to “Irving Berlin.” His first published song, “Marie from Sunny Italy” (1907), sold two thousand copies. Berlin wrote scores of songs in the coming years — ethnic dialect songs, topical novelty tunes, and lively ragtime numbers — and taught himself to play the piano.
Berlin’s first major hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911), sold two million copies, a stunning success that earned Berlin a small fortune and a new nickname: “The King of Tin Pan Alley.”
With his musical production Watch Your Step (1914), Berlin became the first songwriter to head a Broadway show comprised entirely of his own songs. Another major milestone came in the late 1920s. The first time American audiences heard sound in a motion picture, they listened to Al Jolson belting out Berlin’s beloved song, “Blue Skies,” in The Jazz Singer (1927).
Amidst these early successes, Berlin became a U.S. citizen. Soon after the U.S. entered World War I, he was drafted into military service. Instead of fighting, he wrote Yip Yip Yaphank (1918), an all-soldier musical revue featuring Berlin’s lament, “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” and numerous patriotic songs such as “Let’s All Be Americans Now.”
Berlin’s incredible productivity continued during the 1920s and 1930s. He was an insomniac who would sit at the piano for up to twelve hours at a time, “sweating blood,” chain smoking cigarettes, and writing hit songs such as “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (1929), “Easter Parade” (1933), and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (1935).
In the midst of the Great Depression, the popularity of Tin Pan Alley began to fade. But the appeal of Berlin’s patriotism — and his music — only continued to grow. After traveling to Europe in 1938, Berlin re-wrote his song, “God Bless America,” and singer Kate Smith made it yet another major hit.
Continue to Section II. The Creation of “White Christmas”