Irving Berlin, Songs of the Young Master
Guest article by LtCol Richard Beil, USMC(Ret), M.A.T.
Every songwriter dreams of striking the “formula” that will result in at least one hit song in his lifetime. Most never achieve that goal. Irving Berlin’s genius for weaving words and music together produced songs of extraordinary quality. Of the 899 songs that were registered for copyright, more than half – 451 – became hits. 282 of these made the “Top Ten”. Of greater significance, over the years, various artists’ renditions of Berlin songs became the #1 hit of their day 35 times. This is as much a testament to the enduring quality of the songs themselves as it is to the popularity of any particular singer.
So much has been written about the life of Irving Berlin, particularly the excellent biography that was published by Parlorsongs in 2003, it is difficult to determine what could possibly be said that isn’t already a part of the public record.
One thing that can be said about most artists who have mastered their craft is that they have a distinctive, recognizable style. But, according to William G. Hyland, a scholar of popular song, Berlin was the master stylist of popular song because “he had no style…no category of popular music eluded him. He could write love songs, waltzes, ragtime, swing, jazz, or novelties.1”
Unlike other composers like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern, all of whom had extensive musical training, Irving Berlin never learned to read or write music and never ventured beyond the confines of the popular song. “Throughout his long life, he was content to struggle with the rigors of the thirty-two bar “formula”, its patterns of repetition and variation, of rhythmic surprise against metrical regularity, and of melodic richness within the range of the average singing voice2”.
So, this article will focus on the various “genres” that captured both Berlin’s imagination and the hearts of the American public. In particular, we will explore the music of his early years 1907-1922. Be sure to see the information at the end of the article about the new release of a set of two CDs of Berlin's early music featuring many songs never before recorded in modern times.
Despite the lack of success of his first song, Marie from Sunny Italy (it sold only a few copies), Berlin always credited Mike Salter of the Pelham Café with launching him on his songwriting career, saying that “until Salter bullied him into writing ‘Marie from Sunny Italy’, all he had ever wanted was a job that paid $25 a week3”.
Berlin’s first successful song was a tune composed in 1908 entitled Dorando. Its lyric was based upon an event at the 1908 Olympics in which an Italian runner named Dorando Pietri was leading in the marathon until enthusiastic spectators ran onto the course and surrounded him, causing the judges to rule that he had been “helped” across the finish line. The race was awarded to an American. The protagonist of Dorando sells his barbershop, bets, and loses all his money on the race.
Dorando he’s a drop!
“Dorando was published in the spring of 1909 and earned Berlin $4,000 in royalties, although he later claimed that he made only $25 on the song, with his publisher making $20,000.4"
Songs for the Vaudeville Stage
The vast majority of Berlin’s early work was written for vaudeville performances. Vaudeville was a type of “working class” entertainment that had its roots in the concert saloons of the mid-19th century. The Bowery section of New York City contained dozens of such establishments. As one observer described it:
“We drew our knees under a roughly made round table. Our seat was a hard-bottomed chair or a bench… Through a haze of blue smoke, an odor of stale wine or something alcoholic filling our nostrils, we focused on a makeshift stage… From the wings…stepped an oddly dressed comedian and his partner… They sang and danced and chattered… Next came a girl in a short skirt – short in that day for it was just inches above the ankles – who sang something sentimental about My Mother Was a Lady. Following the song lady came a green-tighted, all silver-spangled young man who walked a slack wire.5”
By the end of the century, similar entertainment began to be offered in more formal places, soon to be called vaudeville houses. The crowds and the acts themselves sometimes tended to be rowdy, in keeping with the working class audience. Ticket prices reflected this clientele. The best seats cost about half the price of those for the “legitimate” theater.
The majority of songs written for performance on the vaudeville stage were novelty songs. These “lend themselves to action, to mimicry, to histrionic effect. They are, unlike ballads, songs that we listen to rather than sing ourselves, and usually the emphasis is comic6”.
Because of his early background as a singing waiter doing parodies of popular songs, the novelty song was a natural for Berlin. Several of his earliest novelty songs in 1909 (Sadie Salome Go Home, My Wife’s Gone to the Country (Hooray, Hooray), and If I Thought You Wouldn’t Tell) were sung with considerable success in vaudeville, earning him a position as a staff lyricist at the Ted Snyder Company. In addition to writing songs for the vaudeville stage, his duties included “demonstrating the firm’s latest songs for potential performers, supplying extra verses and choruses for these pieces, and coaching singers who agreed to perform them.7”
In the case of My Wife’s Gone to the Country, he said that the idea for the song came from a chance remark by a friend,
“I wrote ’My Wife’s Gone to the Country’ from the remark made to me by a friend when I asked him what time he was going home. ’I don’t have to go home,’ he said, ’my wife’s gone to the country.’ It struck me as a great idea for a title for a song, but I needed a note of jubilation, so I added ’Hooray, Hooray!’ The song almost wrote itself. I had the chorus done in a few minutes, then I dug into the verse, and it was finished in a few hours.8”
Over the years, many have criticized Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band as being neither an original Berlin tune nor “Ragtime” at all. Almost as soon as it was published, questions were raised as to the true authorship of the piece. It was suggested that the real composer might have been a black pianist named Lukie Johnson. Even though Johnson himself always stated that he had nothing to do with “Alexander”, the rumors persisted, prompting Berlin to say:
“When they told me about it, I asked them to tell me from whom I had bought my other successes – twenty-five or thirty of them. And I wanted to know, if a negro could write ‘Alexander’, why couldn’t I? Then I told them if they could produce the negro and he had another hit like ‘Alexander’ in his system, I would choke it out of him and give him twenty thousand dollars in the bargain. If the other fellow deserves the credit, why doesn’t he go get it?9”
The other criticism, of course, is that “Alexander” is not really a Ragtime tune. It is certainly not “classical” Ragtime in the sense of a “musical composition for the piano comprising three or four sections containing sixteen measures, each of which combines a syncopated melody accompanied by an even, steady duple rhythm.” 10 However, as Edward Berlin has pointed out, “piano ragtime accounted for only a small part, perhaps less than 10 percent of what the music’s contemporaries understood by the term ‘Ragtime.’11”
In actual practice, classical Ragtime was not a popular genre in its day. Few rags had lyrics and they did not lend themselves to dancing. Most importantly, they were simply too hard for Mom or Grandma to play on the parlor piano of a Sunday afternoon. It took composers like Berlin and Shelton Brooks (Some of These Days-1910, All Night Long-1913, Darktown Strutters Ball-1917) to take the syncopation of Ragtime and turn it into a form which appealed to a mass audience.
“Alexander” was originally written as an instrumental piece. Berlin said later, “I wrote it without words as a two-step and it was a dead failure. Six months later, I wrote words to it…When the lyrics were added later, it became alive. People sang it and it became a sensation. For music to live, it must be sung.12”
An example of this process of taking Ragtime and turning it into popular song was a tune that actually pre-dated“Alexander”. Published in 1910, Try It On Your Piano (Click cover image for music) is a mildly syncopated piece that has a ragtime pianist, Benjamin Maner, trying to convince Lucy Brown that he has a “new way to make love that hasn’t been discovered yet”, an allusion to the supposed power of Ragtime music to arouse sexual desire. Miss Lucy sends him packing:
Try it on your piano grand
The final word “flat” actually falls on a flatted note.
Berlin and the “Dance Craze”
At the turn of the 20th century, Victorian mores ruled much of American culture. As late as 1910, it was still considered unseemly for adults to be seen dancing in public. Just as the Waltz had shocked European society a century before by having couples touch each other in a way never permitted by the Minuet, 20th century couples were now grasping each other in such dances as the Turkey Trot, the Bunny Hug, and the Grizzly Bear. “Between 1912 and 1914 more than 100 new dances were introduced that had young and old dancing on practically a daily basis.13”
Ever the tunesmith, Berlin wrote songs that directly targeted this new cultural phenomenon. In 1914’s The Syncopated Walk, his lyric specifically addresses the issue:
Strange, but there’s a change in how the people walk these days
In his Music Box Revue of 1921, Berlin introduced a “retro” number which harkened back to these days. Entitled Everybody Step, the verse first invites the listener to get up and dance:
Soon, you’ll hear a tune, that’s gonna lift you out of your seat
Then, the chorus makes reference to the days of Ragtime and “Alexander”:
Ev’rybody step to the syncopated rhythm,
Ev’rybody step, if you want to see a glutton
Berlin and the Ballad
Although many of the songs from Berlin’s middle and later years are enduring ballads (Always, Remember, How Deep Is the Ocean), few of his early songs were ballads and only a handful of these enjoyed even modest success. “When he began writing songs, ‘ballad’ was a label for a piece with a first-person lyric expressing a romantic, nostalgic, or moralistic sentiment.14”
The “high class” ballad of the 19th century presented the “ideal family romance” which followed a pattern of abstinence from premarital sex, a monogamous marriage, and a loving, supportive relationship among parents and children. “The lyrics of these ballads are concerned with one or another stage of this romance: finding and courting one’s ideal mate; triumph over any temporary setbacks during the courtship; the development of a strong and stable marriage…continuing into old age; and the shaping of the children of this union according to these same values.15” Two examples of such high class ballads are the beautiful I Love You Truly (1906) by Carrie Jacobs Bond and Down By the Old Mill Steam (1910) by Tell Taylor.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the “popular” ballad began to take root. Rather than a concentration on the moralistic romance discussed above, the lyrics of these ballads were nostalgic, focusing on the “lost”; lost childhood, lost family, or a lost way of life. The songs of Stephen Foster represent just such nostalgic longing. In Why Have My Loved Ones Gone, we hear the lament:
My days of youth have passed away
When Berlin began writing songs, the two most important subgenres of the ballad, then, were the high class, with its romantic, “poetical” lyrics, and the popular, with its nostalgic vernacular texts and its populist musical means.
Berlin’s biographers have always pointed to When I Lost You (Click on the sheet music cover to view and listen to the sheet music) as his first mature, fully successful ballad. As related in the 2003 Parlorsongs biography, Berlin wrote this after the tragic death of his first wife, Dorothy Goetz, who died a mere five months after their marriage. While he had written earlier ballads, this was unique in that it had a direct relationship to events in his own life, rather than simply writing lyrics to fit the “nostalgic” theme of the genre.
As explained by his first biographer, Alexander Wolcott, “He had to write the song. It gave him his first chance to voice his great unhappiness in the only language that meant anything to him16”.
Berlin’s Early Songs for the Musical Stage
By 1914, Berlin’s economic and social status had changed dramatically from what they had been just six years earlier. Now, he was not writing for the working class audiences of the vaudeville houses, but for a new, more privileged audience that was judging the American musical stage as a socially appropriate alternative to grand opera and legitimate drama.
Watch Your Step, a “syncopated musical show in three acts” with a cast headed by Irene and Vernon Castle, had its first New York performance on December 8, 1914. According to the review in the New York Times the morning after the show:
“More than to anyone else, “Watch Your Step” belongs to Irving Berlin. He is the young master of syncopation, the gifted and industrious writer of words and music for songs that have made him rich and envied. This is the first time he has turned his attention to providing the music for an entire evening’s entertainment. For it, he has written a score of his mad melodies, nearly all of them of the tickling sort, born to be caught up and whistled on every street corner, and warranted to set any roomful a-dancing.17”
As was discussed in my previous article The Lost Verses: Songs You Thought You Knew, writing for the musical stage was a much different proposition than composing for either vaudeville or the home audience. Music was needed for an overture, as well as for dance sequences and “mood setting” music to accompany stage action. Additionally, if songs were written with a verse, many times this took the form of a short introduction and, most often, the verse was eliminated altogether as unnecessary to the “moment”.
Despite this, Berlin still continued using the “formula” that characterized his beginnings. In all the songs he wrote, both published and unpublished, I’ve found very few that did not have at least a short verse. Of course, he continued writing as he always had, to fit the style and mood of the time. In his later years, he would often begin the song with the chorus, using the “verse(s)” as the bridge. An example of this structure can be found in There’s No Business Like Show Business, written in 1946 for the Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun:
There’s no business like show business, like no business I know
The costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props
Irving Berlin’s Place in American Music
Irving Berlin wrote his first songs as a teenager making his way on the sidewalks and in the saloons of lower Manhattan just as great changes were taking place in American culture. He knew the music of Jewish religious services and rituals from his childhood, and perhaps also the songs of the Yiddish theater.
But, this was the music of a single group. “When he began singing for money on Lower East Side street corners and in saloons, he understood that his audience cut a wide swath in New York’s multiethnic population and was thus likely to be more responsive to songs that generally reflected the urban culture of the day than to those of one of its constituent subcultures.18”
In 1947, as Berlin approached 60 years of age, he invited a reporter to accompany him back to his old haunts on the Lower East Side. He recalled:
“These places were bars with back rooms. People who were around here, when I was on the loose, have gone—the bums and the riffraff stayed and died off. Others like myself were only waiting to get the hell out of here.19”
It was in those places that his remarkable talent was born and nurtured, where, as he put it more simply, “I got to know songs and got to know words 20”. Much of his success stemmed directly from his early schooling in what people wanted to hear. His ability to give the public the songs they wanted lasted for nearly half a century, longer than any other songwriter.
“For George Gershwin, Irving Berlin was ‘the greatest American composer,’ our equivalent to Franz Schubert. Cole Porter went further, calling Irving Berlin ‘the greatest songwriter of all time’. And, when asked to define Irving Berlin’s place in American music, Jerome Kern replied,
‘Irving Berlin has no place in American music—Irving Berlin IS American music' 21"
1.William G. Hyland, “The Best Songwriter of Them All, “ Commentary (Oct. 1990), p. 41.
Richard G. Beil, September, 2009
NEW! Companion CD set of Berlin's early music.
In keeping with Parlorsongs’ mission of preserving this musical heritage, and as a companion set to this article, we have just released a new two CD set entitled “Irving Berlin, Songs of the Young Master”. It is the second ParlorSongs offering that includes vocal tracks and we have taken great care to bring you the songs in their entirety. The author of this article (Rich Beil) and our new female vocalist, Debbie Purdue, have provided their great talent to sing these great old songs for the CD production. Many of the songs on these discs are modern day premiere recordings available no-where else. To hear some MP3 samples of the songs on these CDs, visit our "Parlor Store."
While copies of old vocal recordings are available, they are recordings done in the days of singing into a megaphone. Even with filtering and digital enhancement, the result is still a recording with very limited and compressed sonic range and unclear instrumentation. And, many of the vocal renditions are just lost forever. Although Irving Berlin penned a complete body of patriotic songs during World War I, this set presents his popular songs during the period. Our next project, planned for release some time next winter, will include no fewer than 7 of the patriotic songs he wrote from 1914-1917, including Oh, How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning, For Your Country and My Country, and I've Got My Captain Working For Me Now. The working title of this next CD is Songs of the Great War.
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Richard Beil, September, 2009. This article published September, 2009 and is Copyright © 2009 by Richard Beil and The Parlor Songs Association, Inc. Text, images or music may not be reproduced in part or in total without express written permission of the author or a company officer. Though the songs published on this site are often in the Public Domain, MIDI renditions are protected by copyright as recorded performances.
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