This book is almost a fantasy fulfilled for me. I’ve always thought it would be wonderful to just take a few days off, go to the reading room of some huge library like the Library of Congress, settle in with the card catalog, bibliographies and reference data bases in search of books and magazine and newspaper articles about and by a single important theater artist. This would be so much more than just reading a full biography on your subject because you could get a variety of views and a feel for the way he or she was viewed at different times during his or her career.
As much as I’d like uninterrupted days in a reading room, I never seem to be able to free the time. Now, taking Irving Berlin as his subject, editor Benjamin Sears has done the search for me and put the results into a single volume: a “reader” which I can carry home with me and plow through at my leisure. He has packed 42 different pieces by and about Berlin into 200 pages. What is more, he presents an introduction for each piece, explaining how it came to be written, providing information needed to understand references that have become obscure with the passage of time and correcting some of the errors that have crept into otherwise valuable articles.
Of course, Sears spent more than a few days with card catalogs to come up with this material. In fact, he’s spent a lifetime. He’s one half of the cabaret act / research team of Ben & Brad with his partner Brad Conner. They are noted for applying their scholarly research on the work of Berlin and the Gershwins to their cabaret act, and have made the first recordings of over thirty of Berlin’s songs including one they unearthed which was presumed lost: 1916’s “Santa Claus – A Syncopated Christmas Song.”
When Sears went into some of his favorite libraries in search of items for this collection, he knew where to look and could bring his expertise to the selection of the most illuminative and interesting pieces. As he points out in his brief introduction to the volume, he had to sort through a great number of items in search of the best of those that aren’t readily available elsewhere. He found that “the sort of ‘fluff’ reporting now associated with certain popular magazines was no less prevalent in the early years of the twentieth century.” Maybe it was a good thing that I had Sears to select the items rather than spending my days at the library digesting the “fluff” for myself.
The book presents a very positive portrait of Irving Berlin, but it is clearly no simple whitewash of an uncritical paean to a man whose career spanned sixty years of writing songs for sheet music, phonograph, stage, radio and screen.
While Sears obviously brought a deep appreciation for Berlin and his songs to the task, he leavens unrestricted praise with articles such as Brooks Atkinson’s review of Annie Get Your Gun which termed the score “routine composing” or John Russell Taylor and Arthur Jackson’s discussion of Berlin’s songs as having melodies that are “unforgettable, certainly, but somehow ordinary and the words are adequate but little more.” He also gives us Murray Kempton’s “Bit of Blues for Ballads of Berlin” which implores “the good Lord (to) deliver us from those dreary ballads. ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” is far short of what a pretty girl is about.”
Perhaps the most important single entry in the book is the source of probably the most famous single statement about Irving Berlin – Jerome Kern’s “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.” The statement came in a letter to Alexander Woollcott who was preparing a biography of Berlin and asked Kern for some comments he could quote.
Sears reprints the letter in full and it includes Kern’s description of Berlin’s working method: “Berlin molds and blends and ornaments his words and music at one and the same time, each being the outgrowth of the other. He trims and changes and refashions both, many times and oft, but nearly always strives for simplicity – never elaboration.”
Of course, some of the stories which became part of the legend of Irving Berlin show up time and again in these entries. But it is interesting to see both how long lived some of these “legends” are and how different some versions are from others. The book provides different perspectives on such overly simplified versions of the truth as Berlin’s ignorance of musical notation, his famous piano with a mechanism to change keys by throwing a lever, and the claim that he could only play on the black keys (the Key of F# major.) As to that final canard, Sears says, “If he had, his music would be pentatonic and sound very much like the music of the impressionists (e.g., Claude Debussy). Despite the preponderance of the black keys in his playing, Berlin’s chords and melodies made full use of the diatonic and chromatic scales.”
The longest single entry may well be the best of the bunch. It is a thirteen-page article by Josh Rubins from the New York Review of Books on the occasion of Berlin’s 100th birthday in 1988. It dissects some of his best known compositions and gives, as Sears points out in his introduction, “insight into how Berlin seemingly effortlessly made the unusual seem commonplace, both in terms of his music and lyrics.”
Another entry that runs almost as long is an excerpt from Charles Hamm’s article analyzing “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” This, however, would have benefited from a bit of judicious editing by Mr. Sears as it goes on quite a bit too long hammering home points already made.
At the other end of the scale, some pieces are as short as an excerpt from a 1941 newspaper article quoting Leopold Stokowski on the topic of “God Bless America.” The excerpt runs 103 words, but really all that was needed were the six words that summarized Stokowski’s view: “‘God Bless America’ is good music.”
At mid-length are items like Joshua Logan’s tribute to Berlin on the occasion of his 90th birthday which includes a story illustrating how famous Irving Berlin once was. He tells of his commanding officer during World War II who shunned requests from Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hap Arnold, but yielded after a short phone call from Berlin. Logan, who directed the original Annie Get Your Gun also reveals that Berlin’s singing voice was so soft that he had to stand very close when singing a new song. Logan repeats the comment “You have to hug him to hear him.”
An excerpt from an article by Mark Steyn includes reminiscences of some of Berlin’s colleagues. Irving Caesar (who wrote the lyrics for Youman’s “Tea for Two” and Gershwin’s “Swanee”) said “Some years ago, an interviewer asked him: ‘Mr. Berlin, can you write a hit song anytime you want to?’ and he said, ‘No, only Cole Porter can do that.’ She giggled and told him she’d asked Cole the same question and he said ‘No, only Irving Berlin can do that.'” Caesar added “You know what? They’re both right.”
Sears doesn’t just give us samples of what other people have written or said about Irving Berlin. He devotes 35 pages to the words of Mr. Berlin himself, either in correspondence or articles he wrote or articles based on interviews he gave which quote him at length. These include Berlin’s own nine rules of songwriting (see pages 175 – 176).
I came away from The Irving Berlin Reader saying “what we need are a George Gershwin Reader, a Richard Rodgers Reader and a whole lot more.” As it happens, Oxford University Press has already published a George Gershwin Reader and a Richard Rodgers Reader. We’ll take a look at them in future columns.