Berlin went from 'Ragtime' to riches

Sunday, June 27, 1999

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.
     (Phil Nel is an adjunct professor of English at the College of Charleston.)




Click here to send feedback.

Copyright © 1999 Charleston.Net. All Rights Reserved.