By Amanda Stein
Irving Berlin, born in Tsarist Russia as Israel Baline, arrived at Ellis Island with his family in 1893 (Root). It was not until Berlin published his first song in 1907, titled “Marie from Sunny Italy” that he legally changed his name to Irving Berlin, a clear break from his religion and ethnicity (Sears 357). Many have described Berlin’s life as the classic “rags-to-riches” story that we all love to believe in. However, his life story is much more complex than simply labeling it as a rags-to-riches success story.
After being forced from his home by pogroms at the age of just five years old, Berlin still found himself living a difficult life on the lower east side of Manhattan. He began as a street singer and singing waiter, as well as working as a song plugger, before publishing his first song in 1907 (Sears). Of course, just four years later, the publication of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911 earned Berlin international recognition, and remains one of Berlin’s best-known pieces today (Sears). At the age of only 23, Berlin, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, was an international sensation. But, we must ask ourselves why Berlin felt it necessary to change his name in the first place.
In an article by Charles Hamm, in which he analyzes the various stylistic changes in Berlin’s songs, Hamm pays close attention to societal changes that greatly influenced Berlin’s music. In 1917, increasing restrictions, including a literacy test, were put on new arrivals, attempting to limit the number of immigrants successfully entering the United States. Furthermore, the Immigration Act of 1921 essentially halted all immigration from Central Europe and the Mediterranean (Hamm). Additionally, as immigration into America from certain regions was being entirely thwarted, the Ku Klux Klan was gaining such popularity that by 1924, the membership of the white supremacist group totaled more than five million white men (Hamm). Many racial and ethnic minorities were regarded not only as inferior, but also unwanted. As tensions grew and reactions against non-white, racially inferior persons continued more and more aggressively, recent immigrants as well as first-generation Americans recognized the need to keep religious and cultural differences out of the public eye.
Similarly, Berlin and other songwriters acknowledged that with this societal shift, ethnic protagonists were no longer a desirable aspect of hit songs. In fact, Berlin wrote almost no songs after 1915 that reflected his own ethnicity or ethnic protagonists, both of which had characterized Berlin’s early work (Hamm). Instead, ballads filled with generic “Is” and “you’s” began to dominate Berlin’s songs, one example from 1914 being “I Love to Quarrel With You” (Hamm).
Many historians applaud Berlin’s knack for being “up-to-the-minute” with enduring themes that characterized America and American culture at the time of production (Kaskowitz). However, Berlin’s unwavering ability to connect each show with the issues of its time has also led historians to view Berlin as performing his American citizenship on stage in an effort to claim an American identity (Decker). One author went so far as to say that Berlin even let “useful” fictions, or those rumors that would effectively minimize any religious or ethnic affiliations to Berlin, stand in official documents so as to establish himself as strictly and undoubtedly American (Root).
Two of Berlin’s more famous songs were written well into his career, much after establishing his identity as an American songwriter. “God Bless America,” sang by radio star Kate Smith on November 10th, 1938, was originally written as the finale for a production called “Yip, Yip, Yaphank,” although Berlin decided not to include it.
Twenty years later after having forgotten about the song, Berlin provided Smith with a revised version. Many of us often forget that one of America’s most powerful and unifying songs was written as a “thank you” from an immigrant who wished to express his gratitude for a new chance at life (Kaskowitz, “’God Bless America’: 100 Years of an Immigrant’s Anthem). Moreover, “God Bless America” served as an outcry for tolerance in the face of Nazism, which was rapidly increasing in popularity in Europe by 1938. After Eleanor Roosevelt gave a speech denouncing bigotry as well as “Fear arising from intolerance,” Berlin led the crowd in singing “God Bless America,” a song that quickly came to signify the need for unity and tolerance of diversity. Unfortunately, as cultural rifts began to form in the mid 1960s, “God Bless America” was no longer a symbol of inclusivity and acceptance, but instead “became a symbol for a white, conservative worldview” (Kaskowitz, “’God Bless America’”). With immigration being such a controversial and politically-charged topic today, it is imperative to remember that “God Bless America” was written as, and should therefore always remain, a love song from an immigrant expressing his gratitude for being given another chance at life.
“God Bless America” was not the only song that expressed Berlin’s profound loyalty to America. The first introduction to “White Christmas,” which became known as a wartime song, came in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn (Smith). While Berlin has explained that “White Christmas” was not intended as a war song, the ability of Berlin to express emotions of so many soldiers far away from their families during the holiday season effectively established the quiet song as one of peace during wartime. Surprisingly, “White Christmas” may actually have been more popular than “God Bless America,” considering Billboard ranked the dreamy melody as the number two song of the 1940s. As author Kathleen Smith explained it, “Irving Berlin may truly have written the most popular song of all times” (Smith).
Berlin composed over 1,500 songs and scored dozens of musicals and films over his almost century-long career. https://www.biography.com/people/irving-berlin-9209473 While Irving Berlin’s life may have followed a rags-to-riches success story, the history of his songs and their connection to issues in America at the time make analyzing Berlin’s story more nuanced and complex. As tolerance for minority races and ethnicities declined, Berlin carefully crafted a new, Americanized identity for himself, which began with distancing himself from his very ethnic given name. Changing societal values as well as Berlin’s desire to be accepted as an assimilated American led him to publish some of America’s most poignant and popular music. Jerome Kern may have put it best when he claimed, “Berlin has no place in American music. HE IS AMERICAN MUSIC” (Sears).
Decker, Todd. “Reviewed Work(s): IRVING BERLIN’S AMERICAN MUSICAL THEATER
by Jeffrey Magee; THE IRVING BERLIN READER by Benjamin Sears.” Theatre
Journal, vol. 64, no. 4, pp. 629–631.
Hamm, Charles. “Irving Berlin’s Early Songs As Biographical Documents.” The Musical
Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 1, 1993, pp. 10–34., doi:10.1093/mq/77.1.10.
Kaskowitz, Sheryl. “’God Bless America’: 100 Years of an Immigrant’s Anthem.” The New York
Times, 2 July 2018.
Kaskowitz, Sheryl. “Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater by Jeffrey Magee.” American
Music, vol. 32, no. 4, 2014, pp. 477–480.
Root, Deane L. “Reviewed Work(s): As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin by Laurence
Bergreen.” Notes, vol. 48, no. 4, June 1992, pp. 1293–1294.
Sears, Ann. “Reviewed Work(s): Irving Berlin: American Troubadour by Edward Jablonski;
Spreadin’ Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930 by David A. Jasen and
Gene Jones.” American Music, vol. 17, no. 3, 1999, pp. 357–360.
Smith, Kathleen E. R. God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War. The University Press of