As Thousands Cheer:
The Life of Irving Berlin

by Lawrence Bergreen

Reviewed by Phillip D. Atteberry

This material is copyrighted and was originally published in The Mississippi Rag.

Da Capo Press, 1996. $18.95

In 1983, I became acquainted with Mark Booth, who was finishing a book on American popular music. He had a problem: ninety-five year old Irving Berlin refused to let him quote from "White Christmas." "Not even a couplet, " Mr. Booth moaned, "do you know how hard it is to write about a song without citing it"?

He was not alone. In 1969, when Alec Wilder was researching his masterpiece, The American Popular Song, Berlin was the only composer who wouldn't cooperate. In 1971, Jimmy Breslin had to re-write part of a novel because Berlin refused to let him quote three words from "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody." In 1988, Berlin insisted that all orchestrations for ASCAP's "100th Birthday Tribute" be destroyed after the performance. By 1989, when Irving Berlin died at 101, he had infuriated so many colleagues that few mourned his passing, let alone wished to see a biography.

It is fortunate, then, that a man like Lawrence Bergreen has tackled this subject. Not only is Bergreen experienced, having written thorough and skillful biographies of James Agee and Al Capone, but he is a cultural historian rather than a music critic, and thus is able to view Berlin's accomplishments in an appropriately expansive context.

Bergreen spends a lot of time on Berlin's early years: his family's persecution in Russia, their treacherous journey to America, and their assimilation difficulties. Bergreen argues that these assimilation problems burdened Berlin with a life-long need to fit in, to be an American not just on paper, but at heart--thus his penchant for expressing popular sentiments, whatever they were, and embracing the status quo, whatever it was.

This flirts too much with arm chair psychology for me, but it does help explain many of Berlin's career moves as well as his late-life curmugdeonliness. By the mid-1960's, Berlin had grown too old to understand popular sentiments, let alone express them. Popular music, which he dominated for most of century, had become incomprehensible to him, as had social attitudes. "God Bless America," which brought tears of gratitude to World War II audiences, became associated, during the Viet Nam era, with right-wing militarism. No wonder Berlin's insecurities ran wild and he strove, late in life, to protect his songs from abuse and misinterpretation.

But more interesting is Bergreen's assessment of Berlin's music and, more specifically, why that music is so cherished in our culture. Put simply, Bergreen believes that Berlin's melodies are "part of the ineffable glue" that holds us together as a people. They are intertwined with our deepest personal and communal experiences: our holiday memories ("Easter Parade" and "White Christmas"), our national crises ("God Bless America," and "This Is the Army"), and our personal watersheds--of love lost ("Remember") and love found ("Always"). At bottom, Berlin was a "musical man of the people" (59). Unlike Kern, Gershwin, Porter and Rodgers, he drew his inspiration from what he called "the mob," taking his ideas from them and setting what they felt and believed to music.

But many songwriters did that, and only one became Irving Berlin. Craftsmanship was clearly the difference. Berlin was simply more of an artist than other Tin Pan Alley song-pluggers, and Bergreen analyzes his work habits thoroughly, suggesting, in the process, that Thomas Edison was right: genius really is ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration.

In short, this is an intelligent, thorough, and sympathetic biography of a complex man. It traces Berlin's development (and the development of American popular music) from the narrow streets of Tin Pan Alley to the thoroughfares of Broadway and the tree lined boulevards of Hollywood, analyzing dozens of songs along the way. It's a fascinating read.

I should note (as a coda to this review) that Bergreen's book has had a curious history. It was first published in 1990 but almost immediately went out of print, demonstrating once again that there is no figuring out the book publishing industry. This re-issue by Da Capo is the most recent of that company's many fine jazz and American popular music titles. If you aren't familiar with Da Capo's catalogue, check with your bookstore or on the Internet.