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Irving Berlin’s America, Part I
Ben Wattenberg : Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. For more than 40 years, this was the home of Irving Berlin, one of America’s greatest popular composers. Not bad for a little Jewish immigrant boy who came from Russia at the age of five in 1893. He was called ‘the Ragtime King,’ ‘the Broadway Troubadour,’ and his songs defined the music of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood. Who was Irving Berlin and what does his music say about America? To find out, Think Tank is joined by Linda Emmet, the second of Irving Berlin’s three daughters and music historian, Robert Kimball, co-editors of the just-published book, The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin . And Philip Furia, professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and author of Irving Berlin, a Life in Song. The topic before the house, 'Irving Berlin’s America, Part I.' This week on Think Tank.
Ben Wattenberg: Irving Berlin pulled himself up from poverty on New York’s Lower East Side to become America’s most famous and enduring songwriter. Born Israel Baline in Belarus, then part of the Russian empire, on May 11, 1888, he immigrated with his family to America at age five. Later he taught himself rudimentary piano while working as a singing waiter in a bar and brothel in New York’s Chinatown. By age 23, he was the wunderkind of Tin Pan Alley with more than two hundred hit songs and hundreds more to come. Berlin was a genius and a perfectionist, a restless, hardworking dynamo who composed songs that have remained popular generation after generation. Songs like, ‘White Christmas,’ ‘Easter Parade,’ ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business,’ and ‘God Bless America.’ This summer the U.S. Postal Service will issue a commemorative stamp in honor of Irving Berlin and the songs that still stir and unite Americans.
Ben Wattenberg: Lady, gentlemen, thank you for joining us on Think Tank in this glorious home that you used to live in.
Linda Emmet: Thank you. I did, I did from 1947 until I was married in 1959.
Ben Wattenberg: And this is now the...
Linda Emmet: And it is now the Luxembourg Consulate and it is also the Luxembourg mission to the United Nations.
Ben Wattenberg: And the United Nations is just a couple blocks south.
Linda Emmet: That’s right
Ben Wattenberg: Right. Philip Furia, let me start with you. Can you sketch in for us Berlin’s early life and the kind of music that he first started with?
Phil Furia: Yes, he comes to America about the time that what some people would call ‘the Rag-Time Craze,’ takes hold, after the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. And popular music tries to cash in on Ragtime which is basically piano music, by turning it into popular songs. Very rhythmical, zestful songs. They were actually called 'coon' songs. Some of them we still remember like, ‘Hello, My Baby,’ from 1899 and 'Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home,' but if you look at the lyrics they were actually very demeaning caricatures of blacks. And he would have heard this, it was very energetic music, very vernacular which is what’s so important about it to someone like Berlin. But they were the Ragtime songs of the Eighteen Nineties and the first decade of the twentieth century.
Ben Wattenberg: And he becomes famous as almost a child. I mean he’s writing songs by what age?
Phil Furia: His first published song came in 1907 and he-.
Ben Wattenberg: Which one?
Phil Furia: It was called ‘Marie From Sunny Italy.’ And...
Ben Wattenberg: So he would have been how old? Nineteen? Twenty?
Phil Furia: He was under twenty; he was nineteen years old.
Ben Wattenberg: That was before you were born?
Linda Emmet: Oh, long before I was born. (laughter)
Ben Wattenberg: I know, I was just checking.
Phil Furia: He, you know, he wrote songs from 1907 until the very last year of his life. So he was actually writing songs into, well into his ninth decade actually. He wrote over eighty years, he wrote songs...
Ben Wattenberg: And he died at age-?
Linda Emmet: A hundred and one. But I think he actually wrote his last lyric in the lyric book just before his ninety-ninth birthday, I believe.
Ben Wattenberg: Tell me about these Lower East Side songs. I mean some of them, what’s the one about Cohen?
Phil Furia: Cohen owes me-..
Robert Kimball: Ninety-seven dollars. It’s a story song about an old man who’s dying. But people owe him money, so he sends his son out to collect. And he’s very badly off, but when the son collects, the old man decides that, “Well I don’t want to die.”
Ben Wattenberg: Yeah, he says, “I’m not gonna die...”
Robert Kimball: Business is too good. (laughs) Getting the money. Yeah right, no. But the-the humor.
Ben Wattenberg: ...because Cohen owes me ninety-seven dollars! (laughter) He does a lot of ethnic humor which, alas, we can’t do much of these days.
Robert Kimball: But he did it for all groups. Every group.
Linda Emmet: No, but he did it for all, for Italians and for Germans.
Robert Kimball: He wrote it for Spanish, every group he would write for and it was considered something that people expected as they adjusted to life in the new world. Humor at their own expense and Berlin was incredibly adaptive to everything. He heard so fantastically what people were saying, what they were singing and he expressed that beautifully.
Ben Wattenberg: What was his first big hit?
Phil Furia: I would say, ‘Dorando.’ One of the things that Berlin would also do is he would tie into some public event and make you see how it touches a single American. There was an Italian runner, Dorando, who they thought was going to win the Olympic marathon. And, of course, all the Italians bet on him. And so he singles out one Italian barber who bets his whole barber shop on Dorando and Dorando loses and so Berlin writes a song from the point of view of the barber shop owner. And, of course, the reason he loses is because he didn’t eat spaghetti before, he ate corned beef. And so, yes, so.
Robert Kimball Well and he followed that up with ‘My Wife’s Gone to the Country, Hurrah, Hurrah.’
Ben Wattenberg: Oh yeah, right.
Robert Kimball: Which was a sensation.
Phil Furia: He was working on it and he had the line, “my wife’s gone to the country,” and it just seemed too flat to him. And then suddenly, he put in the “hurrah, hurrah,” and it sold. Different feel to the song.
Ben Wattenberg: A lot of your dad’s early work had a blue side and a sexual side and a-.
Linda Emmet: It did, but it was very subtle. Nothing was stated in an obvious way.
Ben Wattenberg: Right, right.
Linda Emmet: Very different from what we hear today. But I think that the song that launched him as a world..., known throughout the world, was ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’ I think he was locally very popular, but after ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band,’ I think his music took on an international wouldn’t you say that is true?
Phil Furia: Absolutely.
Ben Wattenberg: Philip, what is Ragtime in terms of music? Is there a specific syncopation or something to it? I’m sort of a musical illiterate, but-.
Phil Furia: Yes, Ragtime as piano music is very syncopated music, which means you come in on the upbeat instead of the downbeat. And it has a kind of arrhythmic feel to it. But a lot of the Ragtime songs aren’t literally in syncopated ragtime. There’s very little syncopation, for example, in ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’ But one of the-
Robert Kimball: Except in the lyric.
Phil Furia: Well I was going to say, the way the lyric works against the music, see he was writing his own words and music and he could take a musical accent and use it to distort a lyrical one. So he gets a line like, “they can play a bugle call like you never heard before, so natur-all.” So it’s not ‘natural,’ but ‘so natur-all that you want to go to war.’ So he could do little things like that because he was working between words and music.
Ben Wattenberg: Is that when the dance craze comes in... Vernon and and Irene Castle?
Robert Kimball: Yes, definitely.
Linda Emmet: Well, wasn’t that the beginning of couples dancing together?
Phil Furia: Uh, huh. And a lot of them involved these dances that came from the West Coast that were, you know, had animal names like the Grizzly Bear and the Buzzard Lope. Berlin wrote a lot of songs for that dance craze and in fact got in trouble with one of them where he says, ‘everybody’s doing it, doing it, doing it.’ Well what they’re doing is the grizzly bear, but it sounds like it’s a little more salacious so he, you know, got denounced a few times for that.
Ben Wattenberg: And then the war starts in Europe, World War I, which is 1914.
Phil Furia: Right.
Ben Wattenberg: And as I understand it, a lot of the popular music in America before that was on Broadway were the imported operettas, is that right?
Robert Kimball: Yes.
Ben Wattenberg: And what, suddenly they sort of lose favor, is that it?
Phil Furia: Yes.
Robert Kimball: Yes, right, operetta loses favor and we become much more concerned with the American world, the world of George M. Cohan and increasingly a world of Irving Berlin. And they are expressing the American spirit and Cohan is expressing the imperialist spirit of Teddy Roosevelt in his aggressively American anthems. But Berlin is more subtle about it.
Ben Wattenberg: And at that time, he goes through a great personal tragedy.
Linda Emmet: The great tragedy was when his first wife died in 1912.
Ben Wattenberg: Tell us that story. Can you tell us, I mean who did he marry, what happened?
Phil Furia: From what we can tell about her, she was a wonderfully vibrant, energetic young woman. And they went on their honeymoon, in Cuba I think.
Linda Emmet: They went to Cuba, yes.
Phil Furia: They went to Cuba and she contracted typhoid fever. Came back to New York and in a few months, she was dead. And he was absolutely devastated. I think he, sort of, looked at marriage in a way as to kinda get out the demon of hard work, because he’d been working on songs.. And here he was literally all alone, lost this beautiful young woman and he couldn’t get out of his grief and someone suggested that he write about it in a song. And at first he was appalled. He said, “I can’t turn a tragedy into a commercial product.” And they said, “Well don’t you think Schubert did that?” He wrote songs when he was-..And so he writes this very, very lovely ballad. It was, I think, his first real ballad. And he wouldn’t write many more of them until the Twenties, called ‘When I Lost You.’ It’s a beautiful, beautiful song.
Linda Emmet: But what was interesting about my father and it’s a characteristic of him, which is that he is very reserved. He was always reserved and had great discretion. And he never talked about his personal feelings and he never mentioned Dorothy to me.
Ben Wattenberg: Not to the kids?
Linda Emmet: No. Well I don’t think he talked about her to anybody probably.
Ben Wattenberg: He is drafted, right?
Linda Emmet: Yes, and what’s interesting about my father is that he never bothered to become an American citizen until a few months before he was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1917.
Ben Wattenberg: And he was extremely patriotic his whole life.
Linda Emmet: Yes, increasingly so, I would say, as he got older.
Ben Wattenberg: He goes into the Army and he manages (laugh) instead of having to do as one of his songs says it instead of having to do KP, he ends up writing a show for the army, no the navy?
Phil Furia: No, the army. At Camp Upton on Long Island. But see, he’s been working as a singing waiter in these Bowery saloons where he works all night through. And after he’s done that for several years, he becomes a hopeless insomniac and he works through the night. And you put this guy in the Army and play Reveille for him, it’s just, it was horrible to him. And so, the story goes that to get out of reveille, he went to the general and he’d heard that the Navy was putting on a fundraising show
Ben Wattenberg: Oh, oh, I see, right. Right.
Phil Furia: So he goes to the general and says, “Why don’t we put on a fundraiser for our camp?” And the general likes it and he says, “Berlin will do it.” And Berlin said, “We have a lot of vaudevillians here in the camp.” He says, “But General, one thing, I’ve got to be able to work at night.” And the general says, “Oh, don’t worry about reveille anymore.” So he puts on an entire show, maybe you know, partly to get out of having to get up in the morning.
Ben Wattenberg: As you point out in your book, Phil, he looks at the war, at least in that song, not as some grand geo-political enterprise but as how one man sees it. How does it end...about the bugle?
Phil Furia: “Some day I’m going to murder the bugler. Some day they’re going to find him dead.”
Robert Kimball: “Some day they’re gonna find him dead.”
Linda Emmet: “And then I’ll get that other pup, the man who wakes the bugler up, and spend the rest of my life in bed.”
Ben Wattenberg: (laugh) You two have just immersed yourself in the lyrics recently to put out this wonderful book, is that right? And so you, I mean I guess you always knew them, the lyrics?
Linda Emmet: I didn’t. I discovered so many lyrics when I was working on this book.
Ben Wattenberg: Was it fun?
Linda Emmet: It was a lot of work, but it was fun, yes.
Ben Wattenberg: Okay, the war ends. We’re into the Roaring Twenties and Berlin is, what, in his early thirties I guess?
Phil Furia: That’s right.
Ben Wattenberg: And he’s already making money hand over fist.
Robert Kimball: He had his own publishing company. He’d started out working for other people but by the end of the war, he had had his own company. And from then on he always published his own songs and then he built his own theater, The Music Box, which still stands on Broadway. One of the most beautiful Broadway theaters.
Ben Wattenberg: Just missed the IPO craze. I mean he could have sold shares.
Linda Emmet: Well I think he also bought back his early copyrights, the ones he didn’t own at the very beginning.
Robert Kimball: Yes, he told me that was one of the most difficult things but the most important things that he did in his life was to gather all his old songs which he didn’t own, and buy them back at a time when he could do it.
Ben Wattenberg: You worked with him?
Robert Kimball: Yes, I was privileged to know him.
Ben Wattenberg: In what capacity?
Robert Kimball: Well as historian of the American musical theater. When I did my first book on Cole Porter he was very close to Porter and he called me to talk about Porter and we became telephone friends. I’d only met him once but we spoke over the phone for almost twenty years.
Ben Wattenberg: There was an argument about the way Irving Berlin wrote the actual music. Can you guys describe what the pro and con of that was?
Robert: Kimball Well I think people couldn’t believe that a man could write so many great songs, so they thought of many different ways to disparage it. They knew he didn’t have great musical, formal musical, education, so they suggested that his musical secretaries actually did the writing. And there was the famous myth about the little colored boy. There was a story that went around, which he used to tell himself, about the little colored boy would come in and help him write his songs because no one could believe he was that great. But he was. And what he did was he worked hard on a song. He told me how he wrote the song, ‘All Alone,’ one of his great ballads. He said he was working in Atlantic City on one of The Music Box Reviews and he had the idea for a song and he had it but he wasn’t quite satisfied with it. And he would spend time on the beach trying to get the lyric right and the song began, “All alone, I am all alone.” And Mister Berlin said, “I didn’t like it; it wasn’t quite right. One day after many weeks, one word changed the song. I’m on the beach and I hear this word and the word is ‘so.’ All alone I’m so all alone.” And the sound, the O sound in ‘so’ and O in that line he said it made the song. And what it showed me was that he never gave up on a song. He worked and he was tenacious and persistent to get those words the way he wanted them. He was a perfectionist about his work.
Ben Wattenberg: And he didn’t write the music, but he had a special piano that played in different keys.
Phil Furia: He had what was called a um, not a player piano, it was one step up from that.
Linda Emmet: A transposing piano.
Phil Furia: A transposing piano that would play in several different keys while you would only play in one key. He knew how to play in the key of F sharp, which is mostly the black keys on a piano. But he could turn a lever and hear how, while he played in F sharp, the song sounded in other keys. So he was able to play the piano. He, for a long time, could not read and write music.
Ben Wattenberg: And he used to sing in some of his shows.
Phil Furia: Oh, he started out as a singer in a saloon, yes. But he would hear the melody that he’d play on the piano and would work out the lyrics and play it for a musical secretary. And there’re other songwriters who’ve worked this way. And someone who could read music would notate the song. But then, it seems to me, the exciting part would come when the musical secretary would sit at the piano and Berlin would pick out the chords. The secretary would play one chord and Berlin would say, “No, that’s not it.” And play another one, “No, that’s not it.” Play another one that’s what I hear.
Robert Kimball: That’s right.
Phil Furia: He would hear the harmonies. That’s what seems to me to be so amazing for someone with virtually no musical training.
Ben Wattenberg: And so what kind of music are we hearing from Mister Berlin in the Twenties? What are the big hits then?
Robert Kimball: Well he’s writing his great ballads in the twenties. He’s writing, of course, The Music Box Reviews to fill his own theater because he had a need to do that.
Ben Wattenberg: This was sort of following on the Ziegfeld Follies kind of thing?
Robert Kimball: Well ‘A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,’ which he wrote for the Follies in 1919. And then to open The Music Box Theater in 1921, he writes ‘Say it With Music,’ a great song.
Phil Furia: It’s a completely different kind of song for him. You know, he’s been writing the immigrant songs or Ragtime songs. But I think in the Twenties what he saw happening was radio was coming in and phonographs were becoming more popular and you were getting people really listening to songs all alone, by themselves, particularly young working girls who were coming into the city, taking over jobs. And I think he sensed that audience. It’s a much more intimate song.
Robert Kimball: He’s writing for one large national audience. The old days or the sort of pluralistic society of the immigrant culture with the different immigrant groups that have come over were the songs that he wrote early on.
Linda Emmet: Yes, but I would add to that that he himself has ceased to be an immigrant by then and that possibly that reflected what he was writing at the time. And he’d moved out of the Lower East Side by then as well.
Ben Wattenberg: He did a lot of traveling, didn’t he?
Linda Emmet: He did some traveling, particularly during the war he went overseas with the show, ‘This is the Army.’ And he spent a lot of time when I was little out in California.
Ben Wattenberg: And at about this time, he starts writing music for the movies, is that right?
Phil Furia: He’s there at every important musical moment for the first two thirds, practically, of the twentieth century. And it’s just amazing to me that when Warner Brothers experimented with sound in the movie of 1927, The Jazz Singer, it’s basically a silent movie but the song sequences are in sound, there’s Irving Berlin with ‘Blue Skies,’ a song he’d written the year before. And he’s one of the earliest songwriters to go out to the movies and write for-.
Ben Wattenberg: I learned how to do the Lindy to ‘Blue Skies.’ (laughter) I really did.
Phil Furia: I’ve not learned that yet.
Robert Kimball: No, you’re going to have to teach us.
Ben Wattenberg: And so he writes the sound for the first ‘soundie.’
Phil Furia: Well he’d already written the song but they just used it for-..
Ben Wattenberg: Oh, I see.
Phil Furia: Yes, I don’t know what you’d call it because it’s a really funny silent movie. And suddenly the action stops and Jolson sings and sometimes talks, it’s very charming, and then it goes back to silent. But the talkies really get going the next year in 1928 and he’s writing in 1929.
Ben Wattenberg: I’ll just say the two names, uh, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. I mean it’s interesting because Fred Astaire is such an elegant man and such a great dancer and he’s a good actor, not a great singer, but for movies he’s fine because he-.
Robert Kimball: He was a great singer.
Ben Wattenberg: Was he?
Robert Kimball: Because of his phrasing and the simplicity and directness of the way he put a song over. All of the great writers who wrote for him said they wanted to write for him because he was so true to the material and he gave it such a kind of ease and flexibility of statement.
Phil Furia: If you remember Singing in the Rain, they had to put the camera in a box to keep the sound off him. And they developed this system of playbacks where they would record the song in a studio and then Fred and Ginger would lip-synch to their own recording so it makes them even more-.look more effortless as they’re singing. And Berlin went out and started writing for them in Top Hat and he sensed that now the movies sparkled and you could write these very, very conversational lyrics because the microphones would pick up all the little consonants and so he writes a song that starts, “Heaven, I’m in heaven and the cares that hung around me through the-.” and he knows Astaire has only a one-octave range to his voice so--and they had become great friends--he says, “I’m gonna make Freddie reach for this one.” and Berlin’s just playing with that voice.
Ben Wattenberg: Just forgetting all the stories with it and all the Americana, the music is wonderful music, isn’t it?
Phil Furia: It’s great music.
Robert Kimball: Great, great music.
Phil Furia: Yeah. And well the-the fit of words and music.
Ben: Okay, thank you Linda Emmet, Phil Furia, Robert Kimball. And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via e-mail And be sure to join us on a future episode of Think Tank when we continue our conversation in Irving Berlin, Part II. For Think Tank, I’m Bet Wattenberg.
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