Irving Berlin: ‘master of secular religion’

“What Irving Berlin did for the modern musical theatre,” Alan Lerner once quipped, “was to make it possible.”

But Jeffrey Magee, author of “Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater” (Oxford University Press: $35), appears to believe that Lerner’s praise is an understatement precisely because Berlin’s achievement and influence cannot be restricted to the theater. “Berlin profoundly shaped the principal sites of American musical entertainment from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway to Hollywood,” insists Magee in his masterful study of both the man and his music. “His enterprising musicianship, lyric craft, industrious work habits, stalwart patriotism, and irrepressible optimism (despite bouts of severe depression) manifest a Russian Jewish immigrant’s hunger to belong to the New World.”

Exactly here is both the irony and the importance of Berlin’s role in American popular culture.  He was born somewhere in the Russian empire in the 19th century, endured the violent anti-Semitism of that time and place, entered America through Ellis Island — where the family name was changed from “Beilin” to “Baline” — and started his musical career when the death of his father (a cantor who also worked as a kosher meat inspector) forced him to support the family by singing for tips in saloons in the Bowery.  Young Israel (Izzy) Baline renamed himself Irving Berlin on the publication of his first song in 1907, and he went on to compose a songbook that creates and celebrates a mythic vision of America, ranging from “God Bless America” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” to “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas.”

Magee describes the engine of Berlin’s creativity as his “Lower East Side Aesthetic,” which the author defines as “a practical, and even survivalist, view of creativity as a job joining ambition, entrepreneurship, mercantilism, and, not least, craft.”  Here is yet another irony: “To some this might sound remarkably reminiscent of what used to be called the Protestant Work Ethic,” explains Magee, “except that the more ambitious of the mostly non-Protestant Lower East Siders, being excluded from entry into more conventional and respectable enterprises, found entertainment to be among the most welcoming avenues for work.”

Magee concedes that his definition of the Lower East Side Aesthetic “conjures the anti-Semitic stereotype of rapacious greed” that can be found in the writings and utterances of Jew-haters as various as Richard Wagner and Henry Ford.  But he insists that Berlin’s willingness to sacrifice personal style to popular appeal can be seen as an act of creativity that permitted Berlin and other composers of his generation to “recognize African America contributions as essential to finding an American sound in song.” Then, too, Magee observes a tendency in Berlin’s generation of artists and entertainers “to shift seamlessly between forms that others distinguish as ‘high’ or ‘low,’ or as Irving Howe has put it in his discussion of American Yiddish theater, between schund (trash) and literatur (literature).”

The oddity of a song like “Easter Parade” coming from a cantor’s son has been much remarked upon. “Easter he turns into a fashion show,” cracked Philip Roth, citing it as an example of Berlin’s “Jewish genius,” but Magee corrects Roth: “Berlin did not do this,” he explains. “What he did was distill into song something that well-to-do Christian New Yorkers had been doing already for decades. The Easter parade, not churchgoing, had marked the single most public and visible collective recognition of the holiday since the 1880s.” 

Magee, a professor of music and theater at the University of Illinois, has produced a work of scholarship rather than a popular biography, and is seeking levels of meaning that are not readily apparent to those of us who just love the good old songs.  For example, he includes a good deal of musical notation to illustrate the fine points of composition that he discerns in the Berlin oeuvre. And I came away from the book with much new information about the technical distinctions between minstrelsy, vaudeville and musical comedy, the origins of Broadway — a neighborhood of New York once known as the “Thieves Lair” — as a theatrical venue, and much else besides.

Indeed, one of the glories of Magee’s book is the sheer abundance of fascinating detail, some of which has little or nothing to do with music but all of which helps us to understand the reinvention of American culture and identity that took place in the early 20th century. Thus, for example, the author pauses during his discussion of “Yip Yip Yaphank,” Berlin’s career-making army camp show, to introduce us to a product called “Bevo,” a form of near-beer that was “the closest thing to alcohol that a soldier could drink during wartime.”  Berlin turned it into “a new kind of drinking song” that was both a precursor to Prohibition and “a rare early example of product placement” — Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Bevo, paid $10,000 to Berlin, who promptly donated the money to charity.

Berlin, in fact, contributed to virtually every aspect of American media culture in his lifetime.  He contributed numbers to the Ziegfeld Follies; he was hailed as both “the Ragtime King” and the “king of jazz;” he wrote the score for “The Cocoanuts,” a stage musical that was the breakout vehicle for a vaudeville act called the Marx Brothers; he worked on three Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie musicals (starting with “Top Hat” in 1935); and he penned the tunes for the Rogers and Hammerstein production of “Annie Get Your Gun,” including a song titled “Take It in Your Stride,” which was ultimately replaced with a reprise of the show-stopper, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in the 1946 production.

Magee’s final pronouncement on Irving Berlin is measured.  He sees “a fundamental paradox” in Berlin’s work, which reflects a mastery of American musical traditions but also a reliance on “hoary clichés that had their roots in the turn-of-the-century vaudeville.” Still, he credits Berlin with transcending his own immigrant roots — the disparate origins of his audiences — in order to create not merely a memorable songbook but nothing less than “a redemptive form of secular religion.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at