Irving Berlin
Irving Berlin; drawing by David Levine

It seems appropriate, if highly ironic, that a year celebrating George Gershwin—a new biography, concerts, recordings—has by now dovetailed into a year of tributes to Irving Berlin. Much of the irony, of course, lies in the lopsided juxtaposition of these “contemporaries,” born only ten years apart. While 1987 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Gershwin’s death at age thirty-eight, the 1988 festivities honor a living composer on his one hundredth birthday. (Berlin was born in Temun, Russia, on May 11, and came to America with his family in 1892.) Some whimsical Olympian dispenser of talent and life spans appears to have played a dark prank on musical history.

In creative territory, too, the forever-young composer and the grand old song-writer make a strange yet ineluctable couple, more complementary, even polar, than twin-like. Gershwin, often in inspired collaboration with his brother Ira, reached from the theater song “up”—as cultural convention would have it—to concert works, operetta, and opera. Berlin, writing both music and words, stuck with the broader, downtown segment of musical life in America, the world of player pianos and dance bands and juke-boxes; in this realm the theater song (or its film-musical equivalent) was the upper limit of “seriousness” and the thirty-two bar was the basic form, continually reexamined yet rarely expanded. Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers created more ambitious and ravishing specimens of the romantic ballad and, in Broadway collaborations, made bolder contributions to the evolution of musical theater; much of the jazz and blues of Duke Ellington and Harold Arlen has greater depth. But, between them, more than any others, Gershwin and Berlin embody the remarkable range of distinctive American composition in the first half of the twentieth century.

For Berlin, admittedly, the 1988 celebration is largely a case of déjà vu. He first found himself famous more than seventy-five years ago, in 1911, when “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”—a virtually unsyncopated march, far less Joplinesque than a dozen earlier ragtime songs (including several by Berlin himself)—triggered a world-wide “ragtime” craze. The twenty-three-year-old songwriter, an uninhibited eclectic from the start, had managed to distill a simplified, strutting pulse from the rhythms of urban black music, combining it with just enough harmonic sophistication (e.g., the way the second line unexpectedly leaps up a fourth) to challenge and stimulate, but not alienate, a mass audience.

Two world wars later, as the source of such ubiquitous anthems as “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” “Easter Parade,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” Berlin came to be regarded as an institution: a totem of patriotic values, a folk hero of sorts. And, in every decade since, there have been reverential salutes to the longevity of both the songs and the man. The week of the hundredth birthday itself predictably elicited the most extravagant testimonials thus far. Journalists and broadcasters echoed each other in invoking the same phrases: “America’s song-writer laureate,” “Mr. American Music,” “genius,” “beloved,” “legendary.” Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” seemed to be on permanent televisual display, frequently followed by a solemn anchorperson intoning “God bless Irving Berlin.”

Yet, despite this adulation (or, to some degree, because of it), Berlin’s work—especially its musical component—remains undervalued, only half-appreciated. For many urbane listeners, his name immediately, if somewhat misleadingly, calls up an off-putting knot of associations: simplistic refrains, conservative or jingoistic sentiments, popularity with (in Berlin’s own ironic words) “the mob.” Such an impression would certainly have been reinforced by most of those centenary paeans. (Even the coverage by PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour was embarrassingly superficial.) Similarly, musicologists—including the few who no longer treat Gershwin with condescension—have shown little inclination to take bar-by-bar interest in scores by Irving Berlin.

That academics would have a problem with Berlin is not surprising. He presents that baffling phenomenon: the thoroughly illiterate yet cultivated master who is impossible to dismiss as a “primitive” or “folk artist.” From a far poorer family than Gershwin’s, Berlin quit school at eight to sell newspapers and wait on tables (his father, a part-time cantor, had died). He never learned to read or write music. His by-ear piano playing—only in the key of F#, which keeps the fingers almost exclusively on the black keys—was energetic, ten-fingered, but rudimentary. He took a rigorously practical approach to the songwriting profession, shunning any “artistic” pretensions and cheerfully acknowledging his apparent technical limitations. (His purchase of a specially built piano, one that could mechanically change from key to key as Berlin continued to play in F#, was widely publicized.)

In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Berlin—though identified as “perhaps the most versatile and successful American popular songwriter of the 20th century”—receives barely two columns, with a single paragraph of appraisal: less attention than Gunnar Berg or Erich Bergel or Jan Levoslav Bella. The few attempts at a Berlin biography, beginning with Alexander Woollcott’s 1925 The Story of Irving Berlin, have resulted in ragged personality sketches, devoid of critical ambition or musicological credibility. A reductionist notion of “tunesmith Irving Berlin” persists: on his ninety-ninth birthday, an affectionate but ill-informed and patronizing New York Times editorial presented the hackneyed image of folksy Mr. Berlin picking out melodies “on the piano with one finger.”


The songwriter himself bears much of the responsibility for the dearth of reliable Berliniana. Not only has he allowed the image of an untutored street-kid composer to harden with time into caricature. He has aggressively opposed, since the 1920s, nearly all investigative efforts by would-be biographers, critics, and cultural historians. One could attribute this hostility—and Berlin’s fiercely anti-intellectual posture—to defensiveness: the illiterate’s fear of ridicule (even if Woollcott, who called Berlin a “creative ignoramus,” reminded readers that Homer, too, was probably unable to write down what he composed). Or one could mention instead Berlin’s more general antipathy for the press, apparently dating back to his 1924 courtship of the cable heiress Ellin Mackay; she became his second wife—but not until after news-hounds had pursued the couple from city to city, trumpeted the opposition of Mackay’s father (an anti-Semitic tycoon) in headlines, and announced to the world that Berlin’s recent ballads (“Remember,” “All Alone,” “What’ll I Do?”) were written cut of a star-crossed lover’s anguish. Berlin denied one story after another, ineffectually.

A few years later he was stung by the goading public discussion of a creative dry spell that preceded his 1930s resurgence. Thereafter, though always prepared to plug a new song or show with zeal, he reportedly remained suspicious of journalists’ motives and skeptical about their competence. Not without reason: during just the past year The New York Times buried the composer (with a reference to “lawyers for the Irving Berlin estate”), declared that his last show, Mr. President, “closed out of town” (it ran on Broadway for eight months), and—in a hundredth-birthday piece—confused “An Old-Fashioned Wedding” with “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk.”

Fortunately, however, the true dimensions of Berlin’s achievement have been kept in view by some of his most erudite colleagues. Stravinsky, who used the word “genius” far less casually than television newswriters do, applied it to Berlin. Virgil Thomson wrote in 1947 that there are not “five American ‘art composers’ who can be compared, as song writers, for either technical skill or artistic responsibility, with Irving Berlin.” Isaac Stern, in truncated interviews during the hundredth-birthday celebration, suggested how Berlin’s long-lined melodies recall Mozart’s and Schubert’s. And, in a less subjective vein, the impeccably trained arrangers and orchestrators who took “musical dictation” from Berlin—Robert Russell Bennett and John Green, among others—testify that he never merely sang them a tune. All the harmonies, and often the voicing of those harmonies (the far subtler question of which notes in a chord are played high, low, or in a middle position), were clearly formed in Berlin’s mind—even if he could not himself transcribe or fully play the precise chord sequences he heard in some inner ear.

In a landmark 1972 study, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950, the late Alec Wilder, taking a scholarly yet unpedantic approach to the history of popular music, offered a fairly persuasive assessment of Berlin as “the best all-around, over-all song writer America has ever had.” Wilder, a composer of chamber music as well as a gifted songwriter (“I’ll Be Around,” “While We’re Young”), pronounced himself to be “frankly astounded” by the sophistication of many Berlin songs. He also concluded—somewhat reluctantly—that the harmonic complexities involved were unquestionably the composer’s own work: “It is very nearly impossible, upon hearing some of these melodies, to believe that every chord was not an integral part of the creation of the tune.”

Why, then, is Berlin still underrated by many sophisticated people?* The platitudinous lyrics for songs like “God Bless America” and “The Girl That I Marry” are one reason. Another, as Wilder pointed out, is that the numbing familiarity of a few Berlin songs has made it easy to overlook their quality. From even the most knowledgeable listeners, for example, “White Christmas” is more likely to summon up a blur of emotional responses, sentimental or cynical, than an appreciation of the bold chromaticism in its brooding opening phrase. In fact, though customarily embraced—or dismissed—as treacle, “White Christmas” captures, with remarkable economy and restraint, the thick mixture of moods stirred up by the Christmas and New Year holidays: nostalgia, anxiety, tenderness, depression. The melody, after several attempts to extract itself from that darkly chromatic rumination, does eventually make its way to the open-heartedness suggested by wider intervals (the gentle ascent on “merry and bright,” the near-octave dip on “Christmases”); in the lyric, too, the singer moves from introspection to feelings of fellowship.


These textures were undoubtedly inspired, in part, by the specific circumstances of the song’s creation, for the film Holiday Inn, in 1942: the warmth of Bing Crosby’s lower register, the longdistance separations and heightened apprehensions of wartime. But, for innumerable singers and succeeding generations, the song’s layers and subtleties continue to generate unmawkish sentiment (a Berlin trademark)—and help to explain, as does the tune’s beauty, why “White Christmas” has survived incessant repetition, bland or inane performances, and guilt by association.

On the other hand, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”—one of Berlin-the-composer’s best things—has been seriously damaged by overexposure and insensitive handling, though some might put the blame in this case on Berlin-the-lyricist. The consummate professional, always ready to write for occasion or function, Berlin sometimes lavished melodic and harmonic refinement on banal verse or trivial subject matter. (The music of “Easter Parade” was originally used for a song called “Smile and Show Your Dimple.”) “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” was a commission for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, the thirteenth edition of the annual revue—which always featured at least one procession of whimsically costumed beauties, serenaded by a preening tenor. In 1919’s pièce de résistance each showgirl represented a well-known classical melody—Offenbach’s “Barcarolle” Massenet’s “Elegy,” Dvorák’s “Humoresque”—and Berlin’s mercifully little-known verse began: “I have an ear for music/And I have an eye for a maid.”

Within the limitations of the Follies format and sensibility, the lyric for the song’s chorus is spare and elegant, elaborating on the basic simile with a series of precise, unforced images: “Just like the strain / Of a haunting refrain / She’ll start upon a marathon / And run around your brain.” But quickly identified as the paradigm of “girlie revue” tunes, “A Pretty Girl” was seized upon as the perfect musical accompaniment for every beauty pageant, fashion show, and striptease artist. After decades of coarse performance, the melody became known almost exclusively in exaggerated versions, and the song’s first four chords devolved into a vaudeville gag: musical shorthand for any reference to overt female sexuality (or transvestism). By the 1960s “A Pretty Girl” was generally regarded less as music than as a cliché, a joke, or an irresistible target for parody. A Mad magazine “songbook” refitted the tune with a lyric beginning “Louella Schwartz describes her malady / To everyone in sight”—one of twenty-five song parodies that led Berlin, an obsessed guardian of copyrights and royalties, to sue the magazine, without success. (The ultimate Court of Appeals decision, endorsed by the US Supreme Court, defined the extent to which a parodist may borrow from the work he attempts to burlesque: “We doubt that even so eminent a composer as plaintiff Irving Berlin should be permitted to claim a property interest in iambic pentameter.”)

But the music itself—as arranged for piano and voice, in a “Standard Edition” from the Irving Berlin Music Corporation, and cleared (to whatever extent possible) of seventy years of sociocultural encrustation—remains fresh. Like so many other Berlin songs, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” avoids the predictable structure, known to songwriters as “AABA,” that would, by the mid-1920s, become the genre’s most conventional form. (The AABA form, epitomized by Gershwin’s “Somebody Loves Me” or Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” includes three iterations of the eight-bar “A” section.) The song presents a continuous stream of new musical ideas, with only a single repeat of a six-bar section. It combines, like the best of early Kern, European lushness with American jauntiness, a grand arc of melody energized by the irreverent bounce of a few eighth notes that arrive, unexpectedly, on the downbeat. Paradoxically, the alluring nature of this music (which foreshadows, among others, Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day”) is both the reason it has become overfamiliar—while dozens of lesser Follies parade themes are long forgotten—and the reason it deserves to be heard anew.

Other immoderately well-known Berlin “standards” also tend to be only partially, or superficially, known. Nearly everyone can bring to mind the childlike initial phrases of “Always”: “I’ll be loving you, / Always, / With a love that’s true, / Always.” The lyric is one of Berlin’s homeliest or sappiest, depending on one’s viewpoint. The music, too, in these first eight bars, is melodically and harmonically plain: a waltz that features the tritest chord change of all—from the tonic (F) to the dominant (C7) and back to the tonic. But of those who are roughly familiar with “Always” few would be able to sing or hum on through the remainder of the song, which is anything but commonplace. While the singer continues to pledge undying devotion in the subsequent twenty-four bars, in the most prosaic and untroubled words imaginable, the music tells another story. Disturbing modulations take the melody on a precarious journey; the song briefly threatens to leave its original key entirely, straying too far ever to return. Finally, when those bone-simple opening chords, F and C7, do regain control, they have a different, less cozy quality because of what has preceded them.

This degree of harmonic daring was unprecedented in the Tin Pan Alley of 1925, and the fact that “Always” was also a huge commercial success encouraged others, Kern especially, to expand the musical vocabulary of the popular song. Also influential, on a much less obvious level, was the song’s suggestion, almost certainly not deliberate, of psychological complexity. The contrast between the complacent, blindly optimistic lyric and the restless, spasmodic music conveys (especially in an artful performance) an undercurrent of anxiety, a dislocation between what is said or thought and what is felt—perhaps unconsciously. In this connection, it should be noted that “Always” was Berlin’s wedding present to Ellin Mackay and that his first marriage in 1912 ended after five months when his bride died of typhoid fever, contracted on their honeymoon in Cuba.

Indeed, the unique capacity of the song as a form to work on two distinct levels simultaneously is what probably explains the endurance of more than a few seemingly “uninteresting” Berlin chestnuts. “All By Myself” (1921) reverses the layers: an unrelievedly woebegone lyric is redeemed by musical charm and pluck; the self-pity is slyly aerated by a major-key, buoyant melody that eschews every sad-song mannerism. “Blue Skies” (1926) takes the subtextual shading of “Always” even further. The words assert total contentment with near-fatuous certainty:

Blue skies
Smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies
Do I see.

The music, however, clings to the mournful key of E minor, allowing only momentary glimpses of G major brightness (the ostensible key signature) to break, rather wanly, through the gloom. Then, when the song’s “B” section turns downright jubilant—“Never saw the sun shining so bright / Never saw things going so right”—the musical intensity builds as well: these eight bars, leaning heavily on the “blue note” effect of the G chord’s raised fifth, is Berlin at his most atypically lamentational and Hebraic.

Tension between words and music, rarely perceived by the listener as such yet subliminally forceful, can reflect the tangled nature, the ambivalence, of most human emotion. This internal discord, intended or not, may account for the remarkable vitality of “Blue Skies” (revived every ten years or so, most recently by Willie Nelson) and for the durability of such other mixed-message ballads as 1932’s “How Deep Is the Ocean?” (favored by jazz artists, memorably recorded by Ray Charles and Sarah Vaughan). Moreover, the joyous/mournful texture of “Always” and “Blue Skies” presages the similarly layered ambivalence of the very greatest ballads of the 1930s: the Gershwins’ “Love Is Here to Stay,” Kern and Hammerstein’s “All the Things You Are,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” (Rodgers and Hart had good reason to have “Blue Skies” on their minds. In 1926, just before the opening night of their early musical Betsy, Florenz Ziegfeld, the producer, secretly bought a new song from Berlin for the star of Betsy, Belle Baker, to have as a show-stopper. In his autobiography, Musical Stages, Rodgers writes: “It really didn’t take a trained ear to appreciate that the Berlin contribution, ‘Blue Skies,’ was a great piece of songwriting, easily superior to anything Larry and I had written for the production, but at the time I was crushed by having someone else’s work interpolated in our score.”)

The excessive familiarity of all these plain-spoken ballads—others include “Marie,” “Say It Isn’t So,” “They Say It’s Wonderful”—have damaged Berlin’s reputation in another way as well. The “old favorites,” love them or hate them, have distracted attention from the unparalleled range of the entire Berlin catalog. In the very early 1920s, before “Fascinating Rhythm” from Lady, Be Good! (1924) definitively captured the jagged, nervy essence of citified jazz, Berlin—a veteran popularizer of tricky dance patterns—was experimenting with the irregular accents that give the Gershwin tune much of its novelty.

“Everybody Step” (1921), in fact, sounds not unlike an early draft of “Fascinating Rhythm,” with both its metrical unrest and its bluesy insistence on the interval of the minor third. Berlin’s melody and rhythm on the phrase “syncopated rhythm / Let’s be goin’ with ’em when they begin” are very nearly duplicated in the Gershwins’ “What a mess you’re making! / The neighbors want to know / Why I’m always shaking / Just like a flivver.” (The Gershwin music has an extra twist, though, in the piano accompaniment, which is always in syncopated opposition to the melody.) “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil,” from 1922, is even more advanced than “Everybody Step.” And while “Fascinating Rhythm,” after sixty-some years of Copland, Thomson, Afro-Cuban jazz, and other unsettling rhythmic challenges, has come to seem positively congenial, Berlin’s masterpiece in this manner, “Puttin’ On the Ritz” (1929), remains an unnerving provocation, wonderfully subversive in its metrical eccentricity—thanks, in part, to that uneven collaborator, Berlin-the-lyricist. The words here underline the unpredictable stresses in the music with witty insolence:

If you’re blue and
You don’t know where to
Go to why don’t you

The rhymes are placed precisely where they will jangle rather than fall comfortably into alignment. The ear wants desperately to match the stressed “blue” with one of those unstressed “to”s: the frustration is part of the dazzle.

That Berlin began to come into his own as a stylish lyricist with “Puttin’ On the Ritz” has a certain rightness about it—because, although the song was written for an early talkie starring the top-hatted crooner Harry Richman, it was promptly recorded by Fred Astaire, who would give the number its definitive performance in the 1946 film Blue Skies. Astaire had been a fan of Berlin material since his vaudeville years with his sister Adele; around 1915 they bought “I Love to Quarrel With You,” for their juvenile act, from the music publishing house of Waterson, Berlin and Snyder. (They never got to see the famous young composer himself.) But by 1935 Astaire, teamed with Ginger Rogers, was not only a dancing film star and a remarkable singer but also the celebrated epitome of down-to-earth cosmopolitanism and relaxed elegance. In his past, after all, were Broadway and Hollywood renditions of the most refined Gershwin and Porter tunes. Inspired (like most songwriters of the period) by Astaire, Berlin produced—for three Fred-and-Ginger movies—sleeker, worldlier songs, informed by the music in Astaire’s background, yet vigorously original nevertheless.

“Cheek to Cheek,” from Top Hat (1935), is probably the longest hit tune Berlin ever wrote, seventy-two bars of AABA (plus the tiny, surprising interlude that begins “Dance with me!”), rather than his customary, old-fashioned thirty-two. The way that each stanza starts off, as if in mid-thought, is lightly ironic, pure Astaire. The romantic exuberance that was flatly proclaimed in the early Berlin ballads has now become hesitant, a murmur that gently expands while the melody climbs up, little by little, through a full octave:

I’m in heaven,
And my heart beats so that
I can hardly speak,
And I seem to find
The happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing
Cheek to cheek.

Even after many hearings, most listeners are unaware of any technical devices at work in the “Cheek to Cheek” lyric; they notice only that the words glide by effortlessly, with a sense of inevitability, and provide almost tactile pleasure for those doing the singing. On close examination, however, one finds that Berlin is nearly always manipulating (perhaps more intuitively than consciously) alliteration and assonance, and has threaded this stanza with just the right number of “h” words, “s” words, and “ee” sounds (“beats,” “speak,” “seem,” etc.) to create an irresistible momentum, both fluid and percussive. (Cole Porter achieved a similar sheen with a profusion of internal rhymes, a technique that Berlin—who recoiled from rhyming dictionaries—never cottoned to.)

For the same movie, Berlin wrote Astaire’s signature tune from the 1930s onward, “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.” The main theme is merely good, but both the introductory verse and the “B” section of the chorus create such rhythmic excitement (in the same irregular, off-rhymed fashion as “Puttin’ On the Ritz”) that routine lyrics become mesmerizing:

I’m steppin’
Out, my dear to
Breathe an at-mos-phere
That simply reeks with class.
And I trust that
You’ll excuse my dust
When I step on the gas.

“Isn’t This a Lovely Day To Be Caught in the Rain?,” also from Top Hat, has an unadulterated charm that is both musically and lyrically Gershwinesque—faintly recalling Astaire’s triumphs in Lady, Be Good! and Funny Face, but also uncannily anticipating (and perhaps influencing) the songs that the Gershwins would write two years later for Astaire and Rogers’s Shall We Dance?

Isn’t this a lovely day
To be caught in the rain?
You were going on your way,
Now you’ve got to remain.
Just as you were going,
Leaving me all at sea,
The clouds broke,
They broke,
And oh what a break for me.

The scores for Follow the Fleet (1936) and Carefree (1938) were less imaginative. But, along with such ingratiating tunes as “I Used To Be Color Blind,” “Let Yourself Go,” and “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket,” they contained two other quintessential Astaire numbers in the high-stylish “Cheek to Cheek” manner. “Change Partners” lifts the conversational lyric to a new level of unadorned eloquence:

Must you dance
Every dance
With the same fortunate man?
You have danced with him
Since the music began.
Won’t you change partners
And dance with me?

Especially fine is the song’s middle section, which enhances Berlin’s droll, gentle humor with a subtly alliterative procession of w’s and t’s:

Ask him to sit this one out
And while you’re alone
I’ll tell the waiter to tell him
He’s wanted on the telephone.

The fatalistic, doom-shadowed “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” however, may be the most impressive Berlin/Astaire song of all. The unique structure involves a suspenseful variation on the AABA form, with an odd-sized basic unit—an “A” section of fourteen bars, not the customary eight or sixteen—that keeps the listener on edge. Furthermore, when the opening section is repeated, it departs from the original tune for six rebellious bars: on the lines “Before they ask us to pay the bill / And while we still have the chance,” the music suddenly rises in pitch and grabs at distant harmonies, giving in to anxiety, before it settles back down into its initial groove. The ambivalence here, unlike that in “Always” or “Blue Skies,” is clearly premeditated, with a singer who keeps reaching for C major but always finds himself sliding back into C minor. Several Cole Porter songs generate this same sense of harmonic peril, but even the best of them (“I Concentrate on You,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”) do so less gracefully—and without Berlin’s crisp evocation of gallantry in the face of ominous portents:

Before the fiddlers have fled,
Before they ask us to pay the bill,
And while we still have the chance,
Let’s face the music and dance.

Still, though Berlin was much more versatile than his detractors realize, his work has distinct limitations. As a ballad lyricist, Berlin seemed to know a good deal about loss and devotion but very little about rejection, guilt, or lifelong insecurity; Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, and Johnny Mercer (when writing with Harold Arlen) brought to the torch song a smoky tinge of after-hours regret, of been-around-the-block wisdom, that must have been alien to the creator of “Always.” As a writer of comedy, Berlin could be broad or dry but never sardonic or brittle or daring. For better and worse, he wrote what was called for, with few imperatives of his own.

As a composer, on the other hand, Berlin was an adventurer who could do virtually anything he tried, occasionally taking his native brilliance on excursions shared by none of his contemporaries. (Despite extensive study of counterpoint, for instance, neither Kern nor Gershwin could concoct a “double” number—two independent melodies sung at once—with the captivating vigor and wondrous interplay of “You’re Just in Love” or “Play a Simple Melody.”) Berlin’s openness to every kind of music in the air and on the street, especially black music, made him the mainstream’s greatest pioneer. So when asked to write for Ethel Waters, in As Thousands Cheer (1933), he wrote not only “Heat Wave” and “Harlem on My Mind” but also “Supper Time”—one of the many exceptional songs that nobody mentioned much (if at all) during the centenary blurb-a-thon:

Supper time—
I should set the table
‘Cause it’s supper time.
Somehow I’m not able
‘Cause that man of mine
Ain’t comin’ home no more.

This is the lament of a woman whose husband has been lynched, whose children don’t yet know that their father is dead. Its fiercely dramatic music foreshadows Porgy and Bess (especially “My Man’s Gone Now”) in a way that Kern’s Show Boat does not. It also looks ahead, perhaps more strikingly than any bluesy love song by Ellington, Arlen, or Gershwin, to the overwhelming influence that gospel music and rhythm-and-blues would have on ballad writing in the century’s second half.

Throughout the most active decades of his career, in fact, Berlin kept reinventing himself. Part chameleon and part lone wolf, he managed to inhale virtually everything around him—a star performer’s personality, a public sentiment, the latest catch phrase or dance step—and expel it as pure Berlin air. The “signature tunes” he fashioned for Astaire, Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Ethel Waters, and Ethel Merman (a good half of the Annie Get Your Gun score) retain the songwriter’s own stamp as well. But most of Berlin’s songs were intended—unabashedly, with none of the misgivings of a self-conscious composer “going commercial”—as signature tunes for average Americans in their better-than-average moments: the inarticulate wooer’s charm in “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” the unforced enthusiasm of “I Love a Piano,” the way that “White Christmas” (with its shifting interplay of yearning and reserve) rises above the maudlin. Thickly disguised as the “most successful song-writer” in history, or as a juke-box composite of national virtues, Berlin the dogged innovator and complex artist quietly tagged along, a genius without tears.

This Issue

June 16, 1988