Tuesday, March 5, 2002
Irving Berlin Songs Rouse Patriotic Fervor, Touch Hearts
by Daniel Gewertz
In the weeks after Sept. 11, our national spirit was lightened by a surprising
cultural hero: a small, Russian Jewish immigrant from Siberia named Israel
Baline, better known by his showbiz name, Irving Berlin.
God Bless America is but one song among 1,500 he composed in a 60year
career. But, like his White Christmas and Easter Parade, it's a song that
seems as timeless as a folk song and as emotionally riveting as an anthem.
"Because of his life experiences, Berlin was able to bridge so many
different segments of American culture: old world, new world, military,
civilian, downtown, uptown, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood,"
said Will McMillan, a cabaret singer.
"He was Jewish. His immigrant dad was a parttime cantor. But he was
also the husband of a wealthy IrishAmerican society gal," said McMillan.
'His songs became windows into these different worlds.'
McMillan is presenting a performance/lecture on Berlin at the Cambridge
Center for Adult Education at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, along with pianist
Henry Schniewind and singer Bobbi Carrey.
"They feel so personal to those who sing them. Rudy Vallee sang Berlin's
Say it Isn't So on his radio show in hopes that his estranged wife would
come back to him," said Carrey.
Boston is blessed with several Berlin experts on its cabaret scene. The
veteran duo Lynne Jackson & Mike Palter recently released "Irving
Berlin's America," a stylish, live album. In a startling coincidence,
the CD was named, and its American flag cover printed, before the events
of Sept. 11. It's a witty, elegantly sung and arranged work, with jazz
The duo of Benjamin Sears and Bradford Conner has released the third of
seven projected albums chronicling Berlin's composing life. "She's
So Beautiful" takes up the Ziegfeld Follies era of 1910-1927. In
addition to wellknown songs such as A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody and
Blue Skies, there are a dozen quaint obscurities.
Cannily reviving the jaunty vaudeville and sentimental light-opera styles
that existed in the ragtime era, Sears and Conner are exhaustive researchers.
As part of their fieldwork they contacted ex-Ziegfeld chorus girl Doris
Eaton, 97, who danced the Berlin hit song =ECMandy=EE in the 1919 Follies.
Next week Sears and Conner will give a Berlin lecture at the Society for
American Music, in Lexington, Ky.
"Berlin had an amazing ability to reinvent himself as the styles
changed, starting in 1907 when he was a 19-year-old singing waiter and
he published an ethnic song called Marie From Sunny Italy," said
With witty gems
as Puttin' On The Ritz, Top Hat, and Cheek to Cheek, Berlin could match
the Gershwin Brothers for urbane polish. But it's his simple, emotional
heartgrabbers, songs that can be sung by everyone, that are his truest
"What he achieved so brilliantly was distilling a sentiment down
to its purest essence," said Conner. "Whoever sings them, those
songs take on their own meaning. They're like folk songs. You can't even
remember when you learned them."
"God Bless America and White Christmas go right for the
heart and stay there," Sears said.
"God Bless America was written during World War I, when Berlin was
a soldier, stationed near New York. But it wasn't sung in public until
1938, a fearful time like today, when, as the introductory verse says,
storm clouds were gathering overseas."
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