Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline in Russia in 1888. In 1893 when he was five, his family emigrated to America after their home was burned during a pogrom. Pogroms were violent anti-Semitic attacks common during that period in the Russian Empire.
Berlin only had a few years of formal schooling, dropping out at age thirteen to help support his family after his father died. In Russia, his father had been a cantor – the person who chants Jewish prayers and songs in the synagogue. Irving loved music too, and began to earn money from singing. He liked making up his own lyrics, and soon wrote both lyrics and music for new songs. (He taught himself to play the piano even though he could not read music.) His first big hit was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which sparked a national dance craze and made him a celebrity.
He moved on to lyrical ballads, writing the wildly popular “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” and “Always,” which he dedicated to his eventual wife of more than sixty years, Ellin. He expanded his repertoire to all kinds of songs, and composed constantly:
“He scribbled ideas on napkins and on the sleeves of his shirt. He wrote songs in elevators and in taxicabs. He wrote songs in the bathtub. He wrote all night long.”
During his lifetime, Irving Berlin produced more than 1,500 songs, including “White Christmas” and “God Bless America.” [Composer Jerome Kern opined that Berlin’s best-known songs seemed “indivisible from the country’s history and self-image.”]
The author points out that some people were angry that “God Bless America” was created by someone Jewish who wasn’t even born in America. But Irving Berlin loved America and the opportunities it had given him. He donated all the money he made from the song to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America. The author explains:
“It was his way of saying thank you to the country that had given him such a good life.”
He was the target of similar outrage over his 1942 song “White Christmas,” based on objections that a Jew was daring to write a song about a Christian holiday. But, the author writes, “most people just let the music fill their hearts.”
During World War II, Berlin was too old to fight, but not too old to contribute. He arranged a show to entertain the troops called “This is the Army” with a completely integrated cast – a rarity at that time. He gave all profits to wartime charities. When the war ended, Berlin turned his talents to the Broadway stage. “Annie Get Your Gun” was probably the most well-known of his shows.
Berlin died in 1989 at the age of 101, 96 years after coming to America. But, as the author notes, “his music lives on.” At a Kennedy Center tribute to Berlin in 1987, Walter Cronkite said, “Though he’s not here with us tonight, he will be with us always. Wherever there is America, there is Irving Berlin.”
An Author’s Note, list of songs, and suggestions for further reading are at the conclusion of this book aimed at readers aged 6-10.
David C. Gardner, an award-winning illustrator, shows Berlin at different times in his life as he ages from a little boy on the ship to America coming into Ellis Island, to an old man admiring the Statue of Liberty, tying the two ends of his life together. Gardner uses a soft palette, varies the font, and adds musical notes that swirl through many of the pictures.
Evaluation: Any book that reminds me of so many wonderful favorites by this composer is welcome, and it is a bonus that children will learn that some of the music they too love was written by Irving Berlin; his name deserves to be remembered. His story of immigrant success is inspiring, and to the extent that readers seek out more information about his songs, they will be richly rewarded.
Published by Sleeping Bear Press, 2018