Obituary: Irving Berlin

The Independent Archive: 25 September 1989; Noel Coward called it `the potency of cheap music'. Mark Steyn identifies the lyrical virtues of the author of `White Christmas'
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THE NAME synonymous with popular music began life as a printer's error, when Izzy Baline's first published song was credited to "I. Berlin".

Izzy liked that and decided to go the whole way: Irving Berlin. It was for him the logical completion of a naturalisation process begun in 1892, when the Baline family arrived at US Immigration, Ellis Island, New York. Berlin had been born in a Siberian village called Temun - at least, that's what he called it. He wasn't sure how to spell it, and it was academic anyway: some over-zealous Cossacks rode in, razed the village, slaughtered most of the inhabitants, and sent the Balines scuttling west.

Few others from that vast European exodus repaid their adopted country quite so fulsomely as Berlin. Unlike the vulgar, bullying flag-waving of George M. Cohan's "Yankee Doodle Dandy", "God Bless America" is a heartfelt Valentine to the mountains and prairies, the oceans white with foam. If the New World has lost its innocence since then, Berlin's ideal is still one worth aspiring to, which is why most citizens prefer singing his unofficial national anthem, rather than the actual one, "The Star- Spangled Banner".

Alone among the greats, he was unembarrassed about writing "occasional" songs: "White Christmas", "Easter Parade", "There's No Business Like Show Business". And, unlike those Christmas hits cynically manufactured as a songwriter's seasonal insurance policy, his were so simple, so affecting that they transcended mere hit status to become part of the event itself.

He considered himself, he once said, to be a reincarnation of Stephen Foster, writer of "Oh, Susanna!" and "The Old Folks at Home". But Foster died young and destitute; Berlin lived to see his songs become some of the highest earners of the video age. He began writing in 1906 at a time when sheet music was the only means of dissemination, popular songs were sung at home and their writers were routinely abused and exploited by the major Tin Pan Alley publishing houses.

Berlin became his own publisher, painstakingly bought back all his early songs and successfully marketed his catalogue in each new medium. He and his catalogue survived to make nonsense of the American copyright laws: he outlived the expiry dates on his earliest work, including "Alexander's Ragtime Band"; the alarm clock that woke American popular music (in Alan Jay Lerner's phrase), written in 1911 but still one of the most performed songs nearly 80 years later.

Admirers of more obviously "sophisticated" writers tend to be a bit snooty about Berlin: how can any song that popular be good? It's true that he wrote an awful lot of stinkers - for every "Alexander's Ragtime Band" there's an "Alexander's Bagpipe Band" - but even a crowd-pleaser like "White Christmas" has a chromatic phrase with a surprisingly daring melodic line.

Berlin himself shrugged off this sort of analysis: "Brahms writes music. I just write songs." Yet, while he was undoubtedly commercially minded, there is nothing contrived about his best pieces. Rather, they have the effortless quality most songwriters strive for but so few achieve. An apparently simple ballad like "Cheek to Cheek", for example, has what most lyricists would consider a daunting rhyme scheme - "eek" - yet the lines never sound as if they've been tailored to the rhymes; the thoughts fall naturally:

The cares that hang around me

through the week

Seem to vanish like a gambler's

lucky streak.

Because he avoided flashy, exhibitionist rhymes, he is rarely cited as one of the great lyricists. Yet he was the master of the most important element in songwriting; compression. He could set up and resolve a situation in the minimum of lines. As an exercise, lyricists sometimes try and write a second chorus to "Remember" or "All Alone", but it can't be done: Berlin has said it all.

Noel Coward called it "the potency of cheap music". Berlin, typically, put it more directly; "You Keep Coming Back Like A Song / A song that keeps saying, `Remember'." As the singing waiter at Nigger Mike's in Chinatown moved gradually uptown, to Broadway and Beekman Place, to a summer home in the Catskills and million- dollar contracts in Hollywood, he never broke faith with the great mass of the American people.

From `The Independent', Monday 25 September 1989