Irving Berlin:
Songs From the Melting Pot

by Charles Hamm

Reviewed by Phillip D. Atteberry

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

New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. $35.00

In 1995, Allen Forte wrote a book called The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924-1950. In it, he dismisses most of Irving Berlinís work before 1920 as "indescribably bad." Lawrence Bergreen, Berlinís most notable biographer, agrees, calling most of the early songs "amateurish."

Until now, that has been the almost universal opinion. Charles Hamm, however, disagrees. His new book argues that Berlinís earliest work is not only better than we have imagined, but helps us more fully understand the later, well known classics. Hammís conclusions are arguable, but his reasoning is insightful and informative.

Hamm admits that if one looks only at the sheet music, Berlinís early songs look pedestrian. But, he insists, if one assesses them in their cultural and historical context, they look better. To demonstrate, he discusses the role of the ethnic novelty song in turn of the century vaudeville, considering German, Jewish, Irish, Italian and native novelty songs and comparing Berlinís work to his contemporaries. And heís right. Early tunes like "Marie from Sunny Italy" and "Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon" do look better in their own historical context than they do in ours.

But this is not just a book of comparisons and contrasts, Hamm discusses with considerable intelligence the development of American popular music during the first fifteen years of the Twentieth century. He considers the immigrant influences on our music, urban and rural influences, working and leisure class influences, as well as peformance and publication variables. He understands that all these things affected how people wrote songs and what they wrote about. Berlin, perhaps more than any other songwriter, was like a sponge. He absorbed the feelings, ideas and opinions around him and fashioned them into songs. One of the differences between his early and later songs is that at the beginning he--like the composers around him--wrote Irish, Italian, German and Jewish songs. But as his craft developed, he wrote songs with more universal appeal.

Hamm lobbies strenuously against the idea of a musical "melting pot" (which makes me wonder why he subtitles his book "songs from the melting pot"). He argues that America has always been multi-cultural, that our music has sprung from and been sustained by a variety of co-existing cultures rather than a melting down into one.

Iím still thinking about that. Hammís argument is skillful, though it does seem to me that a first generation immigrant is less assimilated than a third generation one. And it certainly seems to me that Irving Berlin in middle age was a more homogenized American than he was a young man. But even though I donít find myself agreeing with Hamm at every point, I give him high marks for helping me think in new and interesting ways about this music.

On a more technical note, the copyright restrictions on Berlinís earliest songs have run out. Thatís good in that Hamm can cite score and lyric excerpts, which he does plentifully. When Berlin was alive, he was so protective of his songs that all text citations were prohibited, making written analysis difficult.

Secondly, it is only fair to advise readers that Charles Hamm is a retired music professor from Dartmouth College, so this is a scholarly book, not a browsing sort of book. And yet Hamm does not write with a heavy, academic style, so even those with little or no musical education can follow his discussions.

If you have an interest in Irving Berlin or American popular music at the turn of the century, this is a book worth looking into.