Berlin went from 'Ragtime' to riches
Sunday, June 27,
Irving Berlin: American Troubadour by
Edward Jablonski. Henry Holt. 406 pages. $35.
"Irving Berlin: American
Troubadour" is that rare biography which is not only
thorough but eminently readable. Written by the biographer
of George Gershwin, Harold Arlen and Alan Jay Lerner, this
book feels no need to prove itself through too-detailed
evidence of its research. Instead, it invites you to listen
to the story of one of America's greatest songwriters.
"Usually, writing songs is a matter
of having to pay bills and sitting down to make the money to
pay them with," Berlin once said. His remark describes a man
who did not just live the work ethic promoted by Horatio
Alger, but managed to achieve the success dramatized by
those rags-to-riches novels.
Born in Russia in 1888, Israel
Berlin's family emigrated when he was 5. The future Irving
Berlin grew up in a New York tenement, left home at age 13,
and by his mid-20s, achieved international fame with his
composition "Alexander's Ragtime Band."
Berlin couldn't read music, but one
would guess that biographer Edward Jablonski can. He offers
intelligent discussion of the songs themselves, explaining
the unusual form (for a popular song) of "Cheek to Cheek,"
and telling how "God Bless America" almost never saw the
light of day. Berlin wrote it for his World War I revue,
then discarded the song, to return to it 20 years later on
the eve of America's entry into the Second World War.
Generous to America and to American
institutions, Berlin donated the song's royalties to the Boy
Scouts and Girl Scouts of America. He also gave profits from
both World War revues to the war cause, even traveling
abroad with "This Is the Army" during World War II.
Perhaps excessive enthusiasm for
Berlin's patriotism causes Jablonski to stumble into
claiming that, while on tour with "This Is the Army," Berlin
"was often in more danger than most men in uniform" - an
assertion which seems, at best, an overstatement.
But, in general, the biographer's
affection for his subject works to the advantage of the
biography, leading to rich detail about growing up on the
Lower East Side at the turn of the century,
behind-the-scenes stories of the musicals and a
comprehensive appendix of the composer's works.
For those interested in Berlin's
place in the history of popular song, Jablonski's book is an
invaluable resource and an engaging read.
Nel is an adjunct professor of English at the College of