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White Christmas: The Story of an American Song

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When Irving Berlin first conceived the song "White Christmas," he envisioned it as a "throwaway" -- a satirical novelty number for a vaudeville-style stage revue. By the time Bing Crosby introduced the tune in the winter of 1942, it had evolved into something far grander: the stately yuletide ballad that would become the world's all-time top-selling and most widely recorded song. In this vividly written narrative, Jody Rosen provides both the fascinating story behind the making of America's favorite Christmas ...
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Overview

When Irving Berlin first conceived the song "White Christmas," he envisioned it as a "throwaway" -- a satirical novelty number for a vaudeville-style stage revue. By the time Bing Crosby introduced the tune in the winter of 1942, it had evolved into something far grander: the stately yuletide ballad that would become the world's all-time top-selling and most widely recorded song. In this vividly written narrative, Jody Rosen provides both the fascinating story behind the making of America's favorite Christmas carol and a cultural history of the nation that embraced it. Berlin, the Russian-Jewish immigrant who became his adopted country's greatest pop troubadour, had written his magnum opus -- what one commentator has called a "holiday Moby-Dick" -- a timeless song that resonates with some of the deepest themes in American culture: yearning for a mythic New England past, belief in the magic of the "merry and bright" Christmas season, longing for the havens of home and hearth. Today, the song endures not just as an icon of the national Christmas celebration but as the artistic and commercial peak of the golden age of popular song, a symbol of the values and strivings of the World War II generation, and of the saga of Jewish-American assimilation. With insight and wit, Rosen probes the song's musical roots, uncovering its surprising connections to the tradition of blackface minstrelsy and exploring its unique place in popular culture through six decades of recordings by everyone from Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley to *NSYNC. White Christmas chronicles the song's legacy from jaunty ragtime-era Tin Pan Alley to the elegant world of midcentury Broadway and Hollywood, from the hardscrabble streets where Irving Berlin was reared to the battlefields of World War II where American GIs made "White Christmas" their wartime anthem, and from the Victorian American past that the song evokes to the twenty-first-century present where Berlin's masterpiece lives on as a kind of sec
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With its references to glistening treetops and sleigh bells in the snow, Irving Berlin's dreamy ballad has become a monstrously popular classic. Since its 1942 debut (softly crooned by Bing Crosby), artists from Doris Day to the Flaming Lips have recorded their own versions of the tune; it's become the world's most frequently recorded song. Music journalist Rosen offers a perfect, compact book chronicling the song's birth, initial reception and rise to popularity, simultaneously giving readers an understanding of the iconic Berlin and 1940s American popular culture. The prolific songwriter couldn't read or write music, yet composed continually, using his "musical secretary," Helmy Kresa, to pen the songs he wrote on the piano. Berlin introduced "White Christmas" to Kresa on January 8, 1940. Rosen explains the song's little-known introduction (which sets the narrator in California, longing for cold weather); offers interpretations of the song's escapist appeal (like so many popular songs of its time, it doesn't acknowledge the Great Depression's hardships); and comments on the prevalence of Jewish composers in that era's popular song business (Berlin himself was an Eastern European Jewish immigrant). The unsentimental writing and thorough research Rosen draws on such sources as Berlin's family and music scholars make this a delightful testament to the power of one simple song. Agent, Bill Clegg. (Nov.) Forecast: With HarperCollins's forthcoming book about the song "Amazing Grace" (reviewed below) and 2000's Strange Fruit, about the tune Billie Holiday made famous, there seems to be a burgeoning category on the rise: American song biographies. They're a terrific lens through which to view an era, and Rosen's book should be especially popular, given its holiday angle. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
These two works treat classics of the American popular song cannon. New York Times contributor Rosen offers a thoroughly researched book that traces the history of the beloved Irving Berlin song from its conception to the present. In an accessible style, with marvelous turns of phrase, he addresses the phenomenally popular recordings by Bing Crosby, the song's pivotal role in the 1942 film, Holiday Inn, and its iconic status as one of the best-selling song sheets of the 20th century. Rosen delves into Berlin's family life, his repudiation of his orthodox Jewish upbringing, and his compositional technique. In addition, Rosen considers when the song was actually written, its popularity among troops during World War II, and the "competition" between "White Christmas" and "God Bless America" as the favorite Irving Berlin song, especially in the context of 9/11. Along the way, Rosen limns the cultural underpinnings of the song and the role of Jewish Americans in the creative arts, with somewhat mixed results; his intention is admirable, but at times he overstates his case and resorts to odd word or phrase choices. However, these and a few other errors are small distractions from one of the first available titles to treat this specific song. Recommended for all collections. Turner, a respected British music biographer (Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye), divides his excellent book into two almost even halves. Part 1, "Creation," tells the story of John Newton (1725-1807), the lyricist of "Amazing Grace." Part 2, "Dissemination," provides new evidence for the tune's origin, explains how the words and a variety of tunes came together until the familiar match was arrived at, reveals which stanzas are commonly sung, and discusses popularizers like Mahalia Jackson and Judy Collins (who wrote the foreword). Turner's account of Newton's life reads like a good suspense novel: he carefully sets the stage for Newton's conversion from slave trader to abolitionist champion while presenting his experiences as a country clergyman and relationships with poet William Cowper and politician William Wilberforce, among others. The hyperbolic subtitle does not originate with the author, but the book is fully researched and supplemented by useful appendixes, including a discography and a "Who's Who" of performers who recorded the song, as well as up-to-date references to events in 2002. William Phipps's Amazing Grace in John Newton is the most recent comparable title, but it has a more academic slant and focuses more on the person than the song. Heartily recommended for all collections.-Barry Zaslow, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Informative and thoughtful account of a song that became a wartime anthem, pioneered the evolution of holiday music, and "paved the way for the new music" sold on records rather than as sheet music. The story of the song is central here, but along with those pertinent details, freelance journalist Rosen describes the changes in music since the 1940s and examines the role of Jews in the promotion of Christmas culture, a role that was "more profound than entrepreneurial savvy." He suggests that Ira Berlin, a refugee from pogroms who with sheer chutzpah wrote "a Christmas anthem that buried all traces of the holiday's Christian origins beneath three feet of driven snow" illustrates greater subtleties at work. Born in 1888 in Siberia, Berlin came to the US with his family at age five and grew up in the tenements of Manhattan's Lower East Side. He dropped out of school and by 19 was working in the lower levels of Tin Pan Alley. His first song was published in 1907, but his career was launched in 1911 with "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which sold two million copies. Rosen records all the great Berlin hits and shows preceding "White Christmas" and its venue, the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby. Its sales have topped 125 million copies, but Berlin originally intended it only as a revue song-a wry novelty tune set in Los Angeles, sung by sophisticated expat New Yorkers pining for a snowbound Christmas. Rosen describes how Crosby treated the song as a Christmas carol but also gave it an "erotic charge," adding to its popularity. The radios and jukeboxes carrying Crosby's recording to American troops made it a bestseller. Berlin, Rosen notes, always understood how powerful its yuletideassociations were. Not just for the holidays, but for all who treasure American popular music: a perfect gift.
From the Publisher
Ashley Kahn Author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece America's most famous Christmas song — under close and expert scrutiny — reveals stories of past times and paradox. Jewish acculturation, Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood's Golden Age, and World War II all figure in Rosen's engagingly investigated, assiduously researched world-in-a-song effort.

The Christian Science Monitor Phenomenal cultural history...Focused and thoroughly engaging...White Christmas glides through this song's snow-capped history with verve, intelligence, and sleigh-bell jingling aplomb.

The Seattle Times A surprising and endearing look inside the song and its composer.

Los Angeles Times A detailed account of the song, a deft biographical sketch of Berlin, and a whirlwind tour of twentieth-century American popular culture...A gold mine of information and insight.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743218757
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 11/28/2002
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.32 (w) x 8.24 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jody Rosen was born in New York City in 1969. His articles on popular music and the arts have appeared in The New York Times and Salon.com. He lives in Manhattan.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction: The Hit of Hits

God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave Irving Berlin..."White Christmas."

PHILIP ROTH,
Operation Shylock

They say a hanging man hears gorgeous music. Too bad that I, like my father, unlike my musical mother, am tone-deaf. All the same, I hope that the tune I am about to hear is not Bing Crosby's "White Christmas"...Goodbye, cruel world!

KURT VONNEGUT,
Mother Night

Irving Berlin was born in the nineteenth century and nearly outlived the twentieth. During the last several of his 101 years, Berlin faced a peculiar indignity: watching the copyrights expire on his earliest published songs. His ownership of those songs had been as tightfisted as the law would permit; he frostily refused permission to reprint his lyrics even to friends working on fawning tributes. Now the songs were leaving him: in 1982, "Marie from Sunny Italy," his first published number, written when Irving Berlin was still Izzy Baline, a nineteen-year-old singing waiter in a Chinatown saloon; in 1984, "My Wife's Gone to the Country (Hurrah! Hurrah!)," his first hit; in 1986, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," his career-making smash, whose clarion opening line — "Come on and hear" — announced not just the arrival of a national troubadour but a young country's liberation from Victorianism and swaggering emergence into the century it would claim as its own.

The old man may have grieved the loss of his songs to the public domain, but much of his catalog had made that journey years before, migrating from Tin Pan Alley straight into national lore. He was born in Siberia, yet seemed to have a direct channel to the American imagination, yanking song after song out of the collective unconscious and returning them to his adopted country as beguiling reflections of its hopes, myths, and passing fancies. He strove to write, he said, "in the simplest way...as simple as writing a telegram." In so doing, he filled the American Songbook with pop standards that sound as inevitable as folk songs; his songs are definitively twentieth-century things — "a Berlin ballad" appears in Cole Porter's "You're the Top" alongside a Waldorf salad and Mickey Mouse — yet they strike us as timeless, anonymous. We recognize George Gershwin's musical signature in the bluesy grandeur of "Summertime" and "The Man I Love"; the droll, debonair voice of "Too Darn Hot" and "Miss Otis Regrets" is unmistakably Porter's own. But in Berlin's most celebrated songs — "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," "Always," "Blue Skies," "Puttin' On the Ritz," "How Deep Is the Ocean?" "Easter Parade," "Cheek to Cheek," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "God Bless America," "There's No Business Like Show Business" — Berlin is invisible. It was not an insult when Alec Wilder, in his landmark study of American popular song, declared himself at a loss to describe stylistic common denominators in the songwriter's vast output.

Berlin's most famous song, by far the most valuable copyright in his (or anyone else's) catalog, is "White Christmas." But as I discovered in writing this book, it may be the Berlin hit least associated with him. Everyone I spoke to about "White Christmas" knew the song; everyone had Bing Crosby's dulcet, definitive recording lodged in his mind's ear. Yet few knew who composed it. This wasn't true just of my contemporaries, who like me had grown up with hip-hop and rock 'n' roll and whose only exposure to Irving Berlin may have been Taco's synth-pop travesty of "Puttin' On the Ritz." I met avowed Berlin fans who not only were unaware that the man had written the tune, but could hardly comprehend that it had been written at all. They assumed "White Christmas" was as old as the hills, its creator as ancient and unknown as the composer of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."

But "White Christmas" is a pop song: you could call it the pop song. Berlin liked to brag that the number "was a publishing business in itself," a rare instance of the songwriter — no slouch at trumpeting his successes — selling himself short. "White Christmas" is the biggest pop tune of all time, the top-selling and most frequently recorded song: the hit of hits. It is a quintessentially American song that the world has embraced; among the untold hundreds of "White Christmas" recordings are versions in Dutch, Hungarian, Japanese, Swahili, and, in a knowing nod to its creator's pedigree, Yiddish. Sales of "White Christmas" records have topped 125 million copies.

Bing Crosby's original version on Decca Records remains a music industry landmark. For over fifty years it stood as the best-selling record in history. Introduced in the 1942 film Holiday Inn (it won the Academy Award for Best Song), Crosby's "White Christmas" held first place on the Hit Parade countdown for a record ten consecutive weeks; it would reenter the survey every December for the next twenty years (excepting 1953), spending thirty-eight weeks in the top spot and an unprecedented eighty-six weeks on the chart. All told, Crosby's "White Christmas" has sold over 31 million copies; it was unseated from its place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the all-time top single only by Elton John's Princess Diana tribute, "Candle in the Wind '97." (Crosby's record reentered the British charts for two weeks the next year — forty-five years after its initial release.)

Popular culture is infatuated with novelty, and pop music is particularly unsentimental, ruthlessly turning today's superstar into tomorrow's one-hit wonder, forever seeking refreshment in new styles, new sounds, the next big thing. Once a year, though, the Christmas season brings songs from several centuries back to jostle for airtime with the latest hits. "White Christmas" is a newcomer to the Christmas canon — the composer of "Joy to the World!" beat Berlin to the punch by at least two hundred years — but in the decades since its appearance, it has become the most performed of all seasonal songs: the world's favorite Christmas carol. To this day, it continues to generate tens of thousands of annual record and sheet music sales. The Muzak versions that fill the nation's malls each December should alone be enough to pile-drive "White Christmas" into the consciousness of unnumbered future generations of shoppers.

Although Crosby's remains the signature version, singers won't leave "White Christmas" alone: every year brings new versions by performers that run the musical gamut, from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to the German heavy metal band Helloween. The list of "White Christmas" performers includes many of the most famous names in twentieth-century popular music: Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, the Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Jackson Five, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Al Green, U2. Berlin's melody has been reimagined as a stuttering punk anthem; as Wagnerian Sturm und Drang with a chorus of thousands wailing in the background; as a loping country ballad; as a string of quicksilver bop improvisations; as a thudding house track — a carol for an Ibiza Christmas. Otis Redding wrung new pathos from the old song, recasting it as a Memphis soul ballad; Michael Bolton did a laughable Otis Redding imitation and recorded what may be the most overwrought "White Christmas" of them all (and consider the competition). Is there another song that Kenny G, Peggy Lee, Mantovani, Odetta, Loretta Lynn, the Flaming Lips, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and the Backstreet Boys have in common? What other tune links Destiny's Child, The Three Tenors, and Alvin and the Chipmunks; Perry Como, Garth Brooks, and Stiff Little Fingers; the Reverend James Cleveland, Doris Day, and Kiss?

But the song's power transcends its sales figures and commercial ubiquity. With "White Christmas," Berlin created an anthem that spoke eloquently to its historical moment, offering a comforting Christmastime vision to a nation frightened and bewildered by the Second World War. But it also resonated with some of the deepest strains in American culture: yearning for an idealized New England past, belief in the ecumenical magic of the "merry and bright" Christmas season, pining for the sanctuaries of home and hearth. Its dreamy scenery belongs to the same tradition as Currier and Ives's landscapes and Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." The song's images of sleigh rides and falling snow and eager children capture the mythic essence of the American Christmas. "White Christmas" seems to have always existed, lurking, as one Berlin biographer has written, "just beneath the surface of national consciousness." Indeed, in writing "White Christmas," Berlin lit on a universal ideal: the longing for Christmas snowfall, now keenly felt everywhere from New Hampshire to New Guinea, seems to have originated with Berlin's song. It can safely be said that London bookmakers didn't offer odds on the possibility of a white Christmas prior to "White Christmas."

From the beginning, the song has been a blank slate on which Americans have projected their varied views on race, religion, national identity, and other heady matters. In Philip Roth's Operation Shylock, "White Christmas" is an emblem of "Jewish genius," in Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, a wearisome reminder of the Second World War. In the early 1940s, at the height of its popularity, "White Christmas" was a huge hit among both white and black audiences. In the decades since, African-Americans have viewed Berlin's anthem with increasing ambivalence, detecting in Crosby's placid "white-bread" crooning a coded message excluding blacks from the national Christmas celebration. The song became a hit in the winter of 1942, when it was embraced by homesick American GIs as a symbol of the country to which they longed to return and the values they were fighting to defend. It was the war's unlikely anthem: a "Why We Fight" song in which the fight was never mentioned. Some thirty years later "White Christmas" returned to play a role in a more troubled American war: the U.S. military used it as the secret signal instructing American soldiers to evacuate Saigon.

One of the most poignant "White Christmas" battles was waged by Berlin himself, when the songwriter launched a fierce (and fruitless) campaign to ban Elvis Presley's recording of the tune. Today, Berlin's rage at the rock 'n' roll "desecration" of his song looks like nothing less than a lament over the sunset of an entire pop culture era: the period, roughly bounded by the two World Wars, that the songwriter had stood astride and whose passing plunged him into a depression that dogged the final forty years of his life.

We remember that interwar era as the Golden Age of American Song — the charmed period when Berlin, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Porter, Harold Arlen, and other titans of Broadway and Hollywood turned the pop song, once regarded as the crudest kind of mass entertainment, into a definitive national art form. In the twenty-first century, the song standards remain indelible; consecrated in the recordings of Sinatra and Fitzgerald and Armstrong and Billie Holiday, launching pads for the improvisations of successive generations of jazz greats — they are the bedrock of American pop. Their lush melodies and lyrical bon mots conjure a fairy-tale world of urbanity and romance, generating nostalgia even in those of us born decades after their heyday. They are supreme products of what historian Ann Douglas has called America's postcolonial phase; listening to song standards — from "Tea for Two" to "I Get a Kick Out of You" to "Over the Rainbow" — we hear the optimism of the American empire at its giddy early height.

I grew up in a very different musical age, with ears conditioned by the urgency of rock and soul and hip-hop, and the song standards always struck me as exotic. In part, this book was inspired by my curiosity about the music — where it came from, why it blazed and disappeared. Historians hallow song standards as one of the United States' great gifts to world culture; musicologists parse their structure with the same loving scrutiny they lavish on Schubert lieder. Yet the American Songbook remains misunderstood, distorted by the culture war that erupted when rock 'n' roll remade American entertainment in the 1960s. In one corner is the they-don't-write-'em-like-that-anymore crowd, who have mystified the song-standard era beyond reason and recognition. For those of us who love "Cheek to Cheek" and "Star Dust" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "Don't Believe the Hype" in equal measure, it can be galling to read history as told by champions of classic pop, who cling to the notion that all craft and charm drained from American music the day rock and soul's barbarians stormed the gates. On the opposite side are rock critics who, steeped in rock's rebel mythologies and cult of authenticity, have effectively read fifty years of pop — and George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, and Bing Crosby — out of musical history.

These competing mythologies remove the song standards from their historical context, and the story of "White Christmas" — the era's commercial zenith, the signature collaboration of its most famous songwriter and singer — brings that context into sharper focus. It was a time before rock 'n' roll introduced a musical generation gap and put the voices of blacks and Southern whites at the forefront, before Vietnam and the social ruptures of the 1960s, when pop songs seemed to embody cultural consensus — when the American middle class sought charm and reassurance in mass entertainment. Today, our longing for that musical era grades into a larger nostalgia for the mystical heyday of the "Greatest Generation," that allegedly happier period of stalwart American values and national unity. If any song represents mid-century consensus, it is "White Christmas": a celebration of the de facto national holiday, introduced by a multimedia father figure in the midst of a World War, when circumstances encouraged an unprecedented uniformity of thought and feeling. Song-standard aficionados might argue that music was simply better in the good old days. But one can't help suspecting that they are also longing for a simpler time, when pop songs spoke almost exclusively in the voice of the white middle class and hadn't yet begun to reflect the difficult questions and moral ambiguities of American life.

Nevertheless, if the songs of that pre­civil rights, prefeminist period strike us today as blithely ethnocentric, it should be remembered that they were the result of a social struggle in many ways as significant as those that have inflected rock's history. The pop-song industry was dominated in both its creative and commercial spheres by Jews — many of them, like Berlin, recent immigrants — and the music it gave to the world was the music of assimilation, a distinctly New World concoction: the result of a people's striving for social acceptance and a piece of the American pie. Much of twentieth-century pop culture is a kind of Yankee Doodle Yiddishkeit: All-Americanism as imagined by Lower East Siders, intoxicated by showbiz and its fast track out of the ghetto. "White Christmas" — a Russian-born cantor's son's ode to a Christian American holiday — is a milestone of Jewish acculturation matched perhaps only by another Berlin magnum opus, "God Bless America": a symbol of the extraordinary way that the Jews who wrote pop songs, sang them on vaudeville stages, invented Broadway, and founded movie studios, turned themselves into Americans — and remade American pop culture in their own image.

Familiarity has made "White Christmas" remote: we know the song so well that we barely know it all. Bing Crosby begins singing, and we hum along, or flee the room; in any case, our ears are closed. But listen again: "White Christmas" is an oddity, whose melody meanders chromatically and is filled with unexpected moments, somber near-dissonances. Strangest of all is the song's underlying sadness, its wistful ache for the bygone, which — in contrast to chirpy seasonal standards like "Jingle Bells" and "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" — marks "White Christmas" as the darkest, bluest tune ever to masquerade as a Christmas carol.

"White Christmas" isn't my favorite song; it isn't even my favorite Irving Berlin song. I prefer "Blue Skies," with its shades of exultation and melancholy, or the brooding "Let's Face the Music and Dance." Down the years, those songs have kept their streamlined gleam; with its mile-wide sentimental streak, "White Christmas" has come back in recording after recording as kitsch.

Berlin, of course, never shied from sentimentality — or anything else that pleased his audience. He journeyed far from his roots on old Tin Pan Alley, the nickname given in 1900 to the clangorous songwriters' row along West Twenty-eighth Street in Manhattan; but where his younger songwriting colleagues styled themselves as artistes, Berlin clung to the Alley's populist values: the public was the best judge of a song's worth, a tunesmith was only as good as his latest hit. It was an ethos that sprang from a need for audience acceptance — a trace, perhaps, of Berlin's roots as Bowery song busker — and above all, from a sense of duty. Berlin was a public songwriter, who pledged allegiance not to his muse but to "the mob." "A good song embodies the feelings of the mob," he said. "A songwriter is not much more than a mirror which reflects those feelings."

This philosophy made Berlin the people's choice and carved a special place for his songs in our national life. (The post­September 11 reemergence of "God Bless America" is just the most recent example of Berlin's uncanny staying power.) But to his detractors, Berlin's crowd-pleasing unmasked him as a cornball and a hack; despite the illustriousness of his songbook, he has never been as beloved by tastemakers as some of his harder-edged colleagues.

"White Christmas" is the ultimate Berlin tearjerker, and if there are more decorous songs, there are few deeper ones. We cringe at its mawkishness, but our embarrassment should arise from the shock of self-recognition: three-hankie schmaltz is, to a large degree, the American way of song. Berlin's paean to long-gone white Christmases "just like the ones I used to know" distills a whole tradition: the hopeless lust for yesteryear that runs through a couple of centuries of popular song, from the homesick ballads of Stephen Foster to Victorian parlor-room plaints to the desolate nostalgia of the blues. "White Christmas" is about as good a summary as we have of the contradictions that make pop music fascinating: it is beautiful and grotesque, tacky and transcendent. Revisiting the song's story, listening for the thousandth time to its maudlin, immemorial strains, we are reminded of a trick in which Berlin and Crosby both specialized: how, time and again, they proved that art and schlock could be one and the same.

Copyright © 2002 by Jody Rosen

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: The Hit of Hits 1
2. The Best Song Anybody Ever Wrote 15
3. Beverly Hills, L.A. 25
4. No Strings 41
5. Good Jewish Music 63
6. The Voice of Christmas 93
7. A War Tonic 123
8. Let It Snow 155
9. Old Songs 167
Acknowledgments 191
Notes 195
Index 209
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First Chapter

Introduction: The Hit of Hits

God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave Irving Berlin..."White Christmas."

-- PHILIP ROTH,

Operation Shylock


They say a hanging man hears gorgeous music. Too bad that I, like my father, unlike my musical mother, am tone-deaf. All the same, I hope that the tune I am about to hear is not Bing Crosby's "White Christmas"...Goodbye, cruel world!

-- KURT VONNEGUT,

Mother Night


Irving Berlin was born in the nineteenth century and nearly outlived the twentieth. During the last several of his 101 years, Berlin faced a peculiar indignity: watching the copyrights expire on his earliest published songs. His ownership of those songs had been as tightfisted as the law would permit; he frostily refused permission to reprint his lyrics even to friends working on fawning tributes. Now the songs were leaving him: in 1982, "Marie from Sunny Italy," his first published number, written when Irving Berlin was still Izzy Baline, a nineteen-year-old singing waiter in a Chinatown saloon; in 1984, "My Wife's Gone to the Country (Hurrah! Hurrah!)," his first hit; in 1986, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," his career-making smash, whose clarion opening line -- "Come on and hear" -- announced not just the arrival of a national troubadour but a young country's liberation from Victorianism and swaggering emergence into the century it would claim as its own.

The old man may have grieved the loss of his songs to the public domain, but much of his catalog had made that journeyyears before, migrating from Tin Pan Alley straight into national lore. He was born in Siberia, yet seemed to have a direct channel to the American imagination, yanking song after song out of the collective unconscious and returning them to his adopted country as beguiling reflections of its hopes, myths, and passing fancies. He strove to write, he said, "in the simplest way...as simple as writing a telegram." In so doing, he filled the American Songbook with pop standards that sound as inevitable as folk songs; his songs are definitively twentieth-century things -- "a Berlin ballad" appears in Cole Porter's "You're the Top" alongside a Waldorf salad and Mickey Mouse -- yet they strike us as timeless, anonymous. We recognize George Gershwin's musical signature in the bluesy grandeur of "Summertime" and "The Man I Love"; the droll, debonair voice of "Too Darn Hot" and "Miss Otis Regrets" is unmistakably Porter's own. But in Berlin's most celebrated songs -- "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," "Always," "Blue Skies," "Puttin' On the Ritz," "How Deep Is the Ocean?" "Easter Parade," "Cheek to Cheek," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "God Bless America," "There's No Business Like Show Business" -- Berlin is invisible. It was not an insult when Alec Wilder, in his landmark study of American popular song, declared himself at a loss to describe stylistic common denominators in the songwriter's vast output.

Berlin's most famous song, by far the most valuable copyright in his (or anyone else's) catalog, is "White Christmas." But as I discovered in writing this book, it may be the Berlin hit least associated with him. Everyone I spoke to about "White Christmas" knew the song; everyone had Bing Crosby's dulcet, definitive recording lodged in his mind's ear. Yet few knew who composed it. This wasn't true just of my contemporaries, who like me had grown up with hip-hop and rock 'n' roll and whose only exposure to Irving Berlin may have been Taco's synth-pop travesty of "Puttin' On the Ritz." I met avowed Berlin fans who not only were unaware that the man had written the tune, but could hardly comprehend that it had been written at all. They assumed "White Christmas" was as old as the hills, its creator as ancient and unknown as the composer of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."

But "White Christmas" is a pop song: you could call it the pop song. Berlin liked to brag that the number "was a publishing business in itself," a rare instance of the songwriter -- no slouch at trumpeting his successes -- selling himself short. "White Christmas" is the biggest pop tune of all time, the top-selling and most frequently recorded song: the hit of hits. It is a quintessentially American song that the world has embraced; among the untold hundreds of "White Christmas" recordings are versions in Dutch, Hungarian, Japanese, Swahili, and, in a knowing nod to its creator's pedigree, Yiddish. Sales of "White Christmas" records have topped 125 million copies.

Bing Crosby's original version on Decca Records remains a music industry landmark. For over fifty years it stood as the best-selling record in history. Introduced in the 1942 film Holiday Inn (it won the Academy Award for Best Song), Crosby's "White Christmas" held first place on the Hit Parade countdown for a record ten consecutive weeks; it would reenter the survey every December for the next twenty years (excepting 1953), spending thirty-eight weeks in the top spot and an unprecedented eighty-six weeks on the chart. All told, Crosby's "White Christmas" has sold over 31 million copies; it was unseated from its place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the all-time top single only by Elton John's Princess Diana tribute, "Candle in the Wind '97." (Crosby's record reentered the British charts for two weeks the next year -- forty-five years after its initial release.)

Popular culture is infatuated with novelty, and pop music is particularly unsentimental, ruthlessly turning today's superstar into tomorrow's one-hit wonder, forever seeking refreshment in new styles, new sounds, the next big thing. Once a year, though, the Christmas season brings songs from several centuries back to jostle for airtime with the latest hits. "White Christmas" is a newcomer to the Christmas canon -- the composer of "Joy to the World!" beat Berlin to the punch by at least two hundred years -- but in the decades since its appearance, it has become the most performed of all seasonal songs: the world's favorite Christmas carol. To this day, it continues to generate tens of thousands of annual record and sheet music sales. The Muzak versions that fill the nation's malls each December should alone be enough to pile-drive "White Christmas" into the consciousness of unnumbered future generations of shoppers.

Although Crosby's remains the signature version, singers won't leave "White Christmas" alone: every year brings new versions by performers that run the musical gamut, from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to the German heavy metal band Helloween. The list of "White Christmas" performers includes many of the most famous names in twentieth-century popular music: Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, the Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Jackson Five, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Al Green, U2. Berlin's melody has been reimagined as a stuttering punk anthem; as Wagnerian Sturm und Drang with a chorus of thousands wailing in the background; as a loping country ballad; as a string of quicksilver bop improvisations; as a thudding house track -- a carol for an Ibiza Christmas. Otis Redding wrung new pathos from the old song, recasting it as a Memphis soul ballad; Michael Bolton did a laughable Otis Redding imitation and recorded what may be the most overwrought "White Christmas" of them all (and consider the competition). Is there another song that Kenny G, Peggy Lee, Mantovani, Odetta, Loretta Lynn, the Flaming Lips, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and the Backstreet Boys have in common? What other tune links Destiny's Child, The Three Tenors, and Alvin and the Chipmunks; Perry Como, Garth Brooks, and Stiff Little Fingers; the Reverend James Cleveland, Doris Day, and Kiss?

But the song's power transcends its sales figures and commercial ubiquity. With "White Christmas," Berlin created an anthem that spoke eloquently to its historical moment, offering a comforting Christmastime vision to a nation frightened and bewildered by the Second World War. But it also resonated with some of the deepest strains in American culture: yearning for an idealized New England past, belief in the ecumenical magic of the "merry and bright" Christmas season, pining for the sanctuaries of home and hearth. Its dreamy scenery belongs to the same tradition as Currier and Ives's landscapes and Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." The song's images of sleigh rides and falling snow and eager children capture the mythic essence of the American Christmas. "White Christmas" seems to have always existed, lurking, as one Berlin biographer has written, "just beneath the surface of national consciousness." Indeed, in writing "White Christmas," Berlin lit on a universal ideal: the longing for Christmas snowfall, now keenly felt everywhere from New Hampshire to New Guinea, seems to have originated with Berlin's song. It can safely be said that London bookmakers didn't offer odds on the possibility of a white Christmas prior to "White Christmas."

From the beginning, the song has been a blank slate on which Americans have projected their varied views on race, religion, national identity, and other heady matters. In Philip Roth's Operation Shylock, "White Christmas" is an emblem of "Jewish genius," in Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, a wearisome reminder of the Second World War. In the early 1940s, at the height of its popularity, "White Christmas" was a huge hit among both white and black audiences. In the decades since, African-Americans have viewed Berlin's anthem with increasing ambivalence, detecting in Crosby's placid "white-bread" crooning a coded message excluding blacks from the national Christmas celebration. The song became a hit in the winter of 1942, when it was embraced by homesick American GIs as a symbol of the country to which they longed to return and the values they were fighting to defend. It was the war's unlikely anthem: a "Why We Fight" song in which the fight was never mentioned. Some thirty years later "White Christmas" returned to play a role in a more troubled American war: the U.S. military used it as the secret signal instructing American soldiers to evacuate Saigon.

One of the most poignant "White Christmas" battles was waged by Berlin himself, when the songwriter launched a fierce (and fruitless) campaign to ban Elvis Presley's recording of the tune. Today, Berlin's rage at the rock 'n' roll "desecration" of his song looks like nothing less than a lament over the sunset of an entire pop culture era: the period, roughly bounded by the two World Wars, that the songwriter had stood astride and whose passing plunged him into a depression that dogged the final forty years of his life.

We remember that interwar era as the Golden Age of American Song -- the charmed period when Berlin, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Porter, Harold Arlen, and other titans of Broadway and Hollywood turned the pop song, once regarded as the crudest kind of mass entertainment, into a definitive national art form. In the twenty-first century, the song standards remain indelible; consecrated in the recordings of Sinatra and Fitzgerald and Armstrong and Billie Holiday, launching pads for the improvisations of successive generations of jazz greats -- they are the bedrock of American pop. Their lush melodies and lyrical bon mots conjure a fairy-tale world of urbanity and romance, generating nostalgia even in those of us born decades after their heyday. They are supreme products of what historian Ann Douglas has called America's postcolonial phase; listening to song standards -- from "Tea for Two" to "I Get a Kick Out of You" to "Over the Rainbow" -- we hear the optimism of the American empire at its giddy early height.

I grew up in a very different musical age, with ears conditioned by the urgency of rock and soul and hip-hop, and the song standards always struck me as exotic. In part, this book was inspired by my curiosity about the music -- where it came from, why it blazed and disappeared. Historians hallow song standards as one of the United States' great gifts to world culture; musicologists parse their structure with the same loving scrutiny they lavish on Schubert lieder. Yet the American Songbook remains misunderstood, distorted by the culture war that erupted when rock 'n' roll remade American entertainment in the 1960s. In one corner is the they-don't-write-'em-like-that-anymore crowd, who have mystified the song-standard era beyond reason and recognition. For those of us who love "Cheek to Cheek" and "Star Dust" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "Don't Believe the Hype" in equal measure, it can be galling to read history as told by champions of classic pop, who cling to the notion that all craft and charm drained from American music the day rock and soul's barbarians stormed the gates. On the opposite side are rock critics who, steeped in rock's rebel mythologies and cult of authenticity, have effectively read fifty years of pop -- and George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, and Bing Crosby -- out of musical history.

These competing mythologies remove the song standards from their historical context, and the story of "White Christmas" -- the era's commercial zenith, the signature collaboration of its most famous songwriter and singer -- brings that context into sharper focus. It was a time before rock 'n' roll introduced a musical generation gap and put the voices of blacks and Southern whites at the forefront, before Vietnam and the social ruptures of the 1960s, when pop songs seemed to embody cultural consensus -- when the American middle class sought charm and reassurance in mass entertainment. Today, our longing for that musical era grades into a larger nostalgia for the mystical heyday of the "Greatest Generation," that allegedly happier period of stalwart American values and national unity. If any song represents mid-century consensus, it is "White Christmas": a celebration of the de facto national holiday, introduced by a multimedia father figure in the midst of a World War, when circumstances encouraged an unprecedented uniformity of thought and feeling. Song-standard aficionados might argue that music was simply better in the good old days. But one can't help suspecting that they are also longing for a simpler time, when pop songs spoke almost exclusively in the voice of the white middle class and hadn't yet begun to reflect the difficult questions and moral ambiguities of American life.

Nevertheless, if the songs of that pre­civil rights, prefeminist period strike us today as blithely ethnocentric, it should be remembered that they were the result of a social struggle in many ways as significant as those that have inflected rock's history. The pop-song industry was dominated in both its creative and commercial spheres by Jews -- many of them, like Berlin, recent immigrants -- and the music it gave to the world was the music of assimilation, a distinctly New World concoction: the result of a people's striving for social acceptance and a piece of the American pie. Much of twentieth-century pop culture is a kind of Yankee Doodle Yiddishkeit: All-Americanism as imagined by Lower East Siders, intoxicated by showbiz and its fast track out of the ghetto. "White Christmas" -- a Russian-born cantor's son's ode to a Christian American holiday -- is a milestone of Jewish acculturation matched perhaps only by another Berlin magnum opus, "God Bless America": a symbol of the extraordinary way that the Jews who wrote pop songs, sang them on vaudeville stages, invented Broadway, and founded movie studios, turned themselves into Americans -- and remade American pop culture in their own image.

Familiarity has made "White Christmas" remote: we know the song so well that we barely know it all. Bing Crosby begins singing, and we hum along, or flee the room; in any case, our ears are closed. But listen again: "White Christmas" is an oddity, whose melody meanders chromatically and is filled with unexpected moments, somber near-dissonances. Strangest of all is the song's underlying sadness, its wistful ache for the bygone, which -- in contrast to chirpy seasonal standards like "Jingle Bells" and "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" -- marks "White Christmas" as the darkest, bluest tune ever to masquerade as a Christmas carol.

"White Christmas" isn't my favorite song; it isn't even my favorite Irving Berlin song. I prefer "Blue Skies," with its shades of exultation and melancholy, or the brooding "Let's Face the Music and Dance." Down the years, those songs have kept their streamlined gleam; with its mile-wide sentimental streak, "White Christmas" has come back in recording after recording as kitsch.

Berlin, of course, never shied from sentimentality -- or anything else that pleased his audience. He journeyed far from his roots on old Tin Pan Alley, the nickname given in 1900 to the clangorous songwriters' row along West Twenty-eighth Street in Manhattan; but where his younger songwriting colleagues styled themselves as artistes, Berlin clung to the Alley's populist values: the public was the best judge of a song's worth, a tunesmith was only as good as his latest hit. It was an ethos that sprang from a need for audience acceptance -- a trace, perhaps, of Berlin's roots as Bowery song busker -- and above all, from a sense of duty. Berlin was a public songwriter, who pledged allegiance not to his muse but to "the mob." "A good song embodies the feelings of the mob," he said. "A songwriter is not much more than a mirror which reflects those feelings."

This philosophy made Berlin the people's choice and carved a special place for his songs in our national life. (The post­September 11 reemergence of "God Bless America" is just the most recent example of Berlin's uncanny staying power.) But to his detractors, Berlin's crowd-pleasing unmasked him as a cornball and a hack; despite the illustriousness of his songbook, he has never been as beloved by tastemakers as some of his harder-edged colleagues.

"White Christmas" is the ultimate Berlin tearjerker, and if there are more decorous songs, there are few deeper ones. We cringe at its mawkishness, but our embarrassment should arise from the shock of self-recognition: three-hankie schmaltz is, to a large degree, the American way of song. Berlin's paean to long-gone white Christmases "just like the ones I used to know" distills a whole tradition: the hopeless lust for yesteryear that runs through a couple of centuries of popular song, from the homesick ballads of Stephen Foster to Victorian parlor-room plaints to the desolate nostalgia of the blues. "White Christmas" is about as good a summary as we have of the contradictions that make pop music fascinating: it is beautiful and grotesque, tacky and transcendent. Revisiting the song's story, listening for the thousandth time to its maudlin, immemorial strains, we are reminded of a trick in which Berlin and Crosby both specialized: how, time and again, they proved that art and schlock could be one and the same.


Copyright © 2002 by Jody Rosen

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Introduction

Introduction: The Hit of Hits

God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave Irving Berlin..."White Christmas."
-- PHILIP ROTH,
Operation Shylock

They say a hanging man hears gorgeous music. Too bad that I, like my father, unlike my musical mother, am tone-deaf. All the same, I hope that the tune I am about to hear is not Bing Crosby's "White Christmas"...Goodbye, cruel world!
-- KURT VONNEGUT,
Mother Night

Irving Berlin was born in the nineteenth century and nearly outlived the twentieth. During the last several of his 101 years, Berlin faced a peculiar indignity: watching the copyrights expire on his earliest published songs. His ownership of those songs had been as tightfisted as the law would permit; he frostily refused permission to reprint his lyrics even to friends working on fawning tributes. Now the songs were leaving him: in 1982, "Marie from Sunny Italy," his first published number, written when Irving Berlin was still Izzy Baline, a nineteen-year-old singing waiter in a Chinatown saloon; in 1984, "My Wife's Gone to the Country (Hurrah! Hurrah!)," his first hit; in 1986, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," his career-making smash, whose clarion opening line -- "Come on and hear" -- announced not just the arrival of a national troubadour but a young country's liberation from Victorianism and swaggering emergence into the century it would claim as its own.

The old man may have grieved the loss of his songs to the public domain, but much of his catalog had made that journey years before, migrating from Tin Pan Alley straight into national lore. He was born in Siberia, yet seemed to have a direct channel to the American imagination, yanking song after song out of the collective unconscious and returning them to his adopted country as beguiling reflections of its hopes, myths, and passing fancies. He strove to write, he said, "in the simplest way...as simple as writing a telegram." In so doing, he filled the American Songbook with pop standards that sound as inevitable as folk songs; his songs are definitively twentieth-century things -- "a Berlin ballad" appears in Cole Porter's "You're the Top" alongside a Waldorf salad and Mickey Mouse -- yet they strike us as timeless, anonymous. We recognize George Gershwin's musical signature in the bluesy grandeur of "Summertime" and "The Man I Love"; the droll, debonair voice of "Too Darn Hot" and "Miss Otis Regrets" is unmistakably Porter's own. But in Berlin's most celebrated songs -- "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," "Always," "Blue Skies," "Puttin' On the Ritz," "How Deep Is the Ocean?" "Easter Parade," "Cheek to Cheek," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "God Bless America," "There's No Business Like Show Business" -- Berlin is invisible. It was not an insult when Alec Wilder, in his landmark study of American popular song, declared himself at a loss to describe stylistic common denominators in the songwriter's vast output.

Berlin's most famous song, by far the most valuable copyright in his (or anyone else's) catalog, is "White Christmas." But as I discovered in writing this book, it may be the Berlin hit least associated with him. Everyone I spoke to about "White Christmas" knew the song; everyone had Bing Crosby's dulcet, definitive recording lodged in his mind's ear. Yet few knew who composed it. This wasn't true just of my contemporaries, who like me had grown up with hip-hop and rock 'n' roll and whose only exposure to Irving Berlin may have been Taco's synth-pop travesty of "Puttin' On the Ritz." I met avowed Berlin fans who not only were unaware that the man had written the tune, but could hardly comprehend that it had been written at all. They assumed "White Christmas" was as old as the hills, its creator as ancient and unknown as the composer of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."
But "White Christmas" is a pop song: you could call it the pop song. Berlin liked to brag that the number "was a publishing business in itself," a rare instance of the songwriter -- no slouch at trumpeting his successes -- selling himself short. "White Christmas" is the biggest pop tune of all time, the top-selling and most frequently recorded song: the hit of hits. It is a quintessentially American song that the world has embraced; among the untold hundreds of "White Christmas" recordings are versions in Dutch, Hungarian, Japanese, Swahili, and, in a knowing nod to its creator's pedigree, Yiddish. Sales of "White Christmas" records have topped 125 million copies.

Bing Crosby's original version on Decca Records remains a music industry landmark. For over fifty years it stood as the best-selling record in history. Introduced in the 1942 film Holiday Inn (it won the Academy Award for Best Song), Crosby's "White Christmas" held first place on the Hit Parade countdown for a record ten consecutive weeks; it would reenter the survey every December for the next twenty years (excepting 1953), spending thirty-eight weeks in the top spot and an unprecedented eighty-six weeks on the chart. All told, Crosby's "White Christmas" has sold over 31 million copies; it was unseated from its place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the all-time top single only by Elton John's Princess Diana tribute, "Candle in the Wind '97." (Crosby's record reentered the British charts for two weeks the next year -- forty-five years after its initial release.)
Popular culture is infatuated with novelty, and pop music is particularly unsentimental, ruthlessly turning today's superstar into tomorrow's one-hit wonder, forever seeking refreshment in new styles, new sounds, the next big thing. Once a year, though, the Christmas season brings songs from several centuries back to jostle for airtime with the latest hits. "White Christmas" is a newcomer to the Christmas canon -- the composer of "Joy to the World!" beat Berlin to the punch by at least two hundred years -- but in the decades since its appearance, it has become the most performed of all seasonal songs: the world's favorite Christmas carol. To this day, it continues to generate tens of thousands of annual record and sheet music sales. The Muzak versions that fill the nation's malls each December should alone be enough to pile-drive "White Christmas" into the consciousness of unnumbered future generations of shoppers.

Although Crosby's remains the signature version, singers won't leave "White Christmas" alone: every year brings new versions by performers that run the musical gamut, from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to the German heavy metal band Helloween. The list of "White Christmas" performers includes many of the most famous names in twentieth-century popular music: Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, the Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Jackson Five, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Al Green, U2. Berlin's melody has been reimagined as a stuttering punk anthem; as Wagnerian Sturm und Drang with a chorus of thousands wailing in the background; as a loping country ballad; as a string of quicksilver bop improvisations; as a thudding house track -- a carol for an Ibiza Christmas. Otis Redding wrung new pathos from the old song, recasting it as a Memphis soul ballad; Michael Bolton did a laughable Otis Redding imitation and recorded what may be the most overwrought "White Christmas" of them all (and consider the competition). Is there another song that Kenny G, Peggy Lee, Mantovani, Odetta, Loretta Lynn, the Flaming Lips, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and the Backstreet Boys have in common? What other tune links Destiny's Child, The Three Tenors, and Alvin and the Chipmunks; Perry Como, Garth Brooks, and Stiff Little Fingers; the Reverend James Cleveland, Doris Day, and Kiss?

But the song's power transcends its sales figures and commercial ubiquity. With "White Christmas," Berlin created an anthem that spoke eloquently to its historical moment, offering a comforting Christmastime vision to a nation frightened and bewildered by the Second World War. But it also resonated with some of the deepest strains in American culture: yearning for an idealized New England past, belief in the ecumenical magic of the "merry and bright" Christmas season, pining for the sanctuaries of home and hearth. Its dreamy scenery belongs to the same tradition as Currier and Ives's landscapes and Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." The song's images of sleigh rides and falling snow and eager children capture the mythic essence of the American Christmas. "White Christmas" seems to have always existed, lurking, as one Berlin biographer has written, "just beneath the surface of national consciousness." Indeed, in writing "White Christmas," Berlin lit on a universal ideal: the longing for Christmas snowfall, now keenly felt everywhere from New Hampshire to New Guinea, seems to have originated with Berlin's song. It can safely be said that London bookmakers didn't offer odds on the possibility of a white Christmas prior to "White Christmas."


From the beginning, the song has been a blank slate on which Americans have projected their varied views on race, religion, national identity, and other heady matters. In Philip Roth's Operation Shylock, "White Christmas" is an emblem of "Jewish genius," in Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, a wearisome reminder of the Second World War. In the early 1940s, at the height of its popularity, "White Christmas" was a huge hit among both white and black audiences. In the decades since, African-Americans have viewed Berlin's anthem with increasing ambivalence, detecting in Crosby's placid "white-bread" crooning a coded message excluding blacks from the national Christmas celebration. The song became a hit in the winter of 1942, when it was embraced by homesick American GIs as a symbol of the country to which they longed to return and the values they were fighting to defend. It was the war's unlikely anthem: a "Why We Fight" song in which the fight was never mentioned. Some thirty years later "White Christmas" returned to play a role in a more troubled American war: the U.S. military used it as the secret signal instructing American soldiers to evacuate Saigon.

One of the most poignant "White Christmas" battles was waged by Berlin himself, when the songwriter launched a fierce (and fruitless) campaign to ban Elvis Presley's recording of the tune. Today, Berlin's rage at the rock 'n' roll "desecration" of his song looks like nothing less than a lament over the sunset of an entire pop culture era: the period, roughly bounded by the two World Wars, that the songwriter had stood astride and whose passing plunged him into a depression that dogged the final forty years of his life.

We remember that interwar era as the Golden Age of American Song -- the charmed period when Berlin, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Porter, Harold Arlen, and other titans of Broadway and Hollywood turned the pop song, once regarded as the crudest kind of mass entertainment, into a definitive national art form. In the twenty-first century, the song standards remain indelible; consecrated in the recordings of Sinatra and Fitzgerald and Armstrong and Billie Holiday, launching pads for the improvisations of successive generations of jazz greats -- they are the bedrock of American pop. Their lush melodies and lyrical bon mots conjure a fairy-tale world of urbanity and romance, generating nostalgia even in those of us born decades after their heyday. They are supreme products of what historian Ann Douglas has called America's postcolonial phase; listening to song standards -- from "Tea for Two" to "I Get a Kick Out of You" to "Over the Rainbow" -- we hear the optimism of the American empire at its giddy early height.

I grew up in a very different musical age, with ears conditioned by the urgency of rock and soul and hip-hop, and the song standards always struck me as exotic. In part, this book was inspired by my curiosity about the music -- where it came from, why it blazed and disappeared. Historians hallow song standards as one of the United States' great gifts to world culture; musicologists parse their structure with the same loving scrutiny they lavish on Schubert lieder. Yet the American Songbook remains misunderstood, distorted by the culture war that erupted when rock 'n' roll remade American entertainment in the 1960s. In one corner is the they-don't-write-'em-like-that-anymore crowd, who have mystified the song-standard era beyond reason and recognition. For those of us who love "Cheek to Cheek" and "Star Dust" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "Don't Believe the Hype" in equal measure, it can be galling to read history as told by champions of classic pop, who cling to the notion that all craft and charm drained from American music the day rock and soul's barbarians stormed the gates. On the opposite side are rock critics who, steeped in rock's rebel mythologies and cult of authenticity, have effectively read fifty years of pop -- and George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, and Bing Crosby -- out of musical history.

These competing mythologies remove the song standards from their historical context, and the story of "White Christmas" -- the era's commercial zenith, the signature collaboration of its most famous songwriter and singer -- brings that context into sharper focus. It was a time before rock 'n' roll introduced a musical generation gap and put the voices of blacks and Southern whites at the forefront, before Vietnam and the social ruptures of the 1960s, when pop songs seemed to embody cultural consensus -- when the American middle class sought charm and reassurance in mass entertainment. Today, our longing for that musical era grades into a larger nostalgia for the mystical heyday of the "Greatest Generation," that allegedly happier period of stalwart American values and national unity. If any song represents mid-century consensus, it is "White Christmas": a celebration of the de facto national holiday, introduced by a multimedia father figure in the midst of a World War, when circumstances encouraged an unprecedented uniformity of thought and feeling. Song-standard aficionados might argue that music was simply better in the good old days. But one can't help suspecting that they are also longing for a simpler time, when pop songs spoke almost exclusively in the voice of the white middle class and hadn't yet begun to reflect the difficult questions and moral ambiguities of American life.

Nevertheless, if the songs of that pre­civil rights, prefeminist period strike us today as blithely ethnocentric, it should be remembered that they were the result of a social struggle in many ways as significant as those that have inflected rock's history. The pop-song industry was dominated in both its creative and commercial spheres by Jews -- many of them, like Berlin, recent immigrants -- and the music it gave to the world was the music of assimilation, a distinctly New World concoction: the result of a people's striving for social acceptance and a piece of the American pie. Much of twentieth-century pop culture is a kind of Yankee Doodle Yiddishkeit: All-Americanism as imagined by Lower East Siders, intoxicated by showbiz and its fast track out of the ghetto. "White Christmas" -- a Russian-born cantor's son's ode to a Christian American holiday -- is a milestone of Jewish acculturation matched perhaps only by another Berlin magnum opus, "God Bless America": a symbol of the extraordinary way that the Jews who wrote pop songs, sang them on vaudeville stages, invented Broadway, and founded movie studios, turned themselves into Americans -- and remade American pop culture in their own image.

Familiarity has made "White Christmas" remote: we know the song so well that we barely know it all. Bing Crosby begins singing, and we hum along, or flee the room; in any case, our ears are closed. But listen again: "White Christmas" is an oddity, whose melody meanders chromatically and is filled with unexpected moments, somber near-dissonances. Strangest of all is the song's underlying sadness, its wistful ache for the bygone, which -- in contrast to chirpy seasonal standards like "Jingle Bells" and "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" -- marks "White Christmas" as the darkest, bluest tune ever to masquerade as a Christmas carol.
"White Christmas" isn't my favorite song; it isn't even my favorite Irving Berlin song. I prefer "Blue Skies," with its shades of exultation and melancholy, or the brooding "Let's Face the Music and Dance." Down the years, those songs have kept their streamlined gleam; with its mile-wide sentimental streak, "White Christmas" has come back in recording after recording as kitsch.
Berlin, of course, never shied from sentimentality -- or anything else that pleased his audience. He journeyed far from his roots on old Tin Pan Alley, the nickname given in 1900 to the clangorous songwriters' row along West Twenty-eighth Street in Manhattan; but where his younger songwriting colleagues styled themselves as artistes, Berlin clung to the Alley's populist values: the public was the best judge of a song's worth, a tunesmith was only as good as his latest hit. It was an ethos that sprang from a need for audience acceptance -- a trace, perhaps, of Berlin's roots as Bowery song busker -- and above all, from a sense of duty. Berlin was a public songwriter, who pledged allegiance not to his muse but to "the mob." "A good song embodies the feelings of the mob," he said. "A songwriter is not much more than a mirror which reflects those feelings."

This philosophy made Berlin the people's choice and carved a special place for his songs in our national life. (The post September 11 reemergence of "God Bless America" is just the most recent example of Berlin's uncanny staying power.) But to his detractors, Berlin's crowd-pleasing unmasked him as a cornball and a hack; despite the illustriousness of his songbook, he has never been as beloved by tastemakers as some of his harder-edged colleagues.

"White Christmas" is the ultimate Berlin tearjerker, and if there are more decorous songs, there are few deeper ones. We cringe at its mawkishness, but our embarrassment should arise from the shock of self-recognition: three-hankie schmaltz is, to a large degree, the American way of song. Berlin's paean to long-gone white Christmases "just like the ones I used to know" distills a whole tradition: the hopeless lust for yesteryear that runs through a couple of centuries of popular song, from the homesick ballads of Stephen Foster to Victorian parlor-room plaints to the desolate nostalgia of the blues. "White Christmas" is about as good a summary as we have of the contradictions that make pop music fascinating: it is beautiful and grotesque, tacky and transcendent. Revisiting the song's story, listening for the thousandth time to its maudlin, immemorial strains, we are reminded of a trick in which Berlin and Crosby both specialized: how, time and again, they proved that art and schlock could be one and the same.

 

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