Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home  
Encyclopedia of Composers & Songwriters
Selected Artist: Artists A-Z Ask the Expert Main
Irving Berlin (1888-1989)
Irving Berlin
Jerome Kern: "Irving Berlin has no place in American Music. He is American Music."

"Alexander's Ragtime Band" sheet music cover
Sheet music cover page for "Alexander's Ragtime Band," Berlin's first hit song.

Although he was born in Russia, Irving Berlin created songs that epitomize American music. As Michael Walsh said in TIME, "Berlin's songs are as much part of American culture as any folk song. They seem to have been with us always, defining the spirit of a nation in an artless melody, or an unexpected harmonic twist." During his lifetime, Berlin published more than one thousand songs, some failures and many successes; some have been forgotten, and some, such as "White Christmas" and "God Bless America," will be remembered always. Berlin could not read music, but he is one of the twentieth century's most beloved composers.
"The songwriter must look upon his work as a business, that is, to make a success of it, he must work and work, and then WORK."

Berlin's life began in poverty. He was born Israel Baline on May 11, 1888, the youngest of the six children of Lena and Moses Baline. Fleeing Russian persecution of Jews, his family arrived in the United States in 1893 and settled into an immigrant tenement neighborhood in New York City. The older members of the family took jobs where they could find them, but money was still too scarce. Shortly after his father's death in 1901, young Israel left school and home to earn his living.

Between the ages of 14 and 17, Israel Baline made money as a busker, or a street singer. He would roam from brothel to bar, singing for the coins the generous would toss. In 1905 he secured a full-time job as a singing waiter at Mike Salter's Pelham Cafe in New York City's Chinatown. When the bartender at a rival bar scored a big success by writing a new song to sing in his bar, young Baline set out to do the same. In 1907 he published his first song, "Marie from Sunny Italy." The artist who drew the cover for the printed music of the song misprinted his name as I. Berlin; thinking the name sounded more American than Israel Baline, the composer renamed himself Irving Berlin.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, New York City became the business center of music publishing. Firms would hire songwriters and lyricists to mass-produce songs according to a musical and textual formula that pleased the public. These songwriters worked on the premises, often at pianos in large rooms where others like themselves also sat at pianos. They would then play their tunes for arrangers who would add the accompaniment to the published version. The companies hired "pluggers" to sell the new songs by singing them everywhere sheet music was sold or the public gathered; they plugged their songs in dime stores, departments stores, bars, and on the streets, and business boomed.

During the early years of the twentieth century, many publishing firms established their offices by the theater district, on West 28th Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway. In 1909 journalist and songwriter Monroe Rosenfeld wrote a series of articles on the music publishing industry. Walking through that district, he was amazed by the clamor the industry produced and later in print likened the cacophony of the pianists, pluggers, and composers to the clatter of pots and pans and dubbed the area Tin Pan Alley.

Photo credit: "Alexander's Ragtime Band, 1911." (Historic American Sheet Music, "Alexander's Ragtime Band, 1911." Music A-5378, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library)

continue to page 2