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.
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.
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.
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.