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White Christmas is the greatest American Christmas song ever written. Many know the tune but few know the story of who wrote it. The world has quietly marked the 130th birthday of the song writer whose contributions to the 20th century songbook cannot be understated.
His life, especially in regards to his family, was filled with heartbreaking tragedy.
He was born Izzy Baline in 1888, the son of Russian Jews struggling to make it in a country filled with persecution against Jews. He lost his father when he was only 8.
That made his life of poverty more difficult than ever, forcing him out of school and onto the streets as an urchin singer trying to help bring money home for his family. The Baline family, with hundreds of thousands of others of the time in Russia, fled for American shores.
Having found a home in the Jewish community on Manhattan’s lower East Side, Izzy continued his life of performing on the street, singing for loose change and in time becoming a singer waiter in Chinatown. These years of early life gave him a love of music, even though he lacked in any kind of musical training.
His first published song came in 1907 and was titled “Marie from Sunny Italy”. The sheet music when it was printed misspelled his name, listing the lyricist as I. Berlin.
From that point forward Izzy would be known as Irving Berlin.
That name would become world famous with a new song, written and published in 1911, that took the world by storm. It was called Alexander’s Ragtime Band – an upbeat tune so remarkably memorable and snappy that it would go down in history as one of the most re-recorded and performed pieces of music ever.
Here is the song performed by The Andrews Sisters:
The song changed Berlin’s life.
With royalties from the song he was able to purchase his mother a house. It made his name world famous as artist after artist for generations kept the song in front of audiences. The song was performed over the year by the likes Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Chet Atkins and even the Bee Gees.
Side note here: what is that song playing in the background of the dance scene of It’s a Wonderful Life? Yep, it’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
Berlin was diligent in his writing efforts and was self-taught as a pianist, never learning how to read music and playing in the key of F-sharp, working with a special transcribing keyboard and assistants to explore other keys. In later years he would tell aspiring songwriters that the secret to making it as a songwriter was “to work, and then work, and then work.”
On the heels of his success with Alexander’s Ragtime Band Berlin’s life followed a course familiar to many. He fell in love and married Dorothy Goetz in 1912, but she died months after their honeymoon after contracting typhoid fever.
As with many artists, Berlin buried his grief in his work, which reflected all that he was feeling.
His sorrow was heard in his popular ballad “When I Lost You.”
Years later, in 1925, he fell in love with heiress Ellin Mackay. Her father was against the courtship and sent Mackay away to Europe, during which time Berlin wrote beautiful tunes of yearning that included “What’ll I Do” and “Always.”
Berlin’s songwriting career was no doubt aided by the exploding availability of mass media and recordings in the market place. His songs were played on the radio, on the stages of Vaudeville and Broadway, on newly available Victrola records and in films. Berlin took hearty advantage of all these emerging technologies.
Berlin, who became an American citizen in 1916, loved not only America but the things all Americans held in common despite the differences in religion, nationalities and politics. He seemed to be able to express what other Americans were feeling in music timed just right for what was happening at the time.
In 1940, before America’s entrance into World War II, Berlin seemed to anticipate what the coming war would mean to those who would leave home, and specifically the United States, at Christmas time when he wrote White Christmas. Berlin liked the song so much that he told his secretary Helmy Kresa: “Grab your pen and take down this song. It’s the best song I ever wrote. Hell, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.”
Berlin’s hunch about the song being the “best song anybody ever wrote” was profound. It would go down in history as the biggest selling song ever. Not the biggest Christmas song ever – the biggest selling song ever.
Many historians have made note that Berlin’s creation of White Christmas could be drawn back to the loss of his three week old son, Irving Jr, in 1928 and that, as a Jew, Berlin himself did not celebrate Christmas.
But if Berlin was anything he was an American.
He kept a Christmas tree in his home, as did many other immigrants of his generation. While they clung to their own religious convictions they were quick to adopt American cultural traditions such as Christmas trees to celebrate being Americans themselves.
White Christmas was not difficult for Berlin to write because he had the background of war and loss enough to know what missing Christmas would be like for his fellow Americans in the years to come. He was perfectly positioned at the time to write the song that would reflect how everyone would be feeling.
Berlin shaped patriotic fervor as well with his composition of “God Bless America,” first sung by Kate Smith in 1938 and becoming an “unofficial” national anthem of the United States.
After the war, Berlin struck Broadway gold again with 1946’s Annie Get Your Gun, inspired by the life of Annie Oakley. The smash musical starred Ethel Merman and featured a slew of popular songs like “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” “I Got the Sun in the Morning” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
A legend by the age of 30, Berlin lived to be 101 years old. He wrote songs for 37 Broadway shows and Hollywood films, was nominated for several academy awards, and 25 of his songs reached the top of the charts. And 75 years after Bing Crosby’s first performance of “White Christmas,” it still reminds audiences of the holidays in a way that no other piece of music can.