of a White Christmas…
As far as I’m concerned, white Christmases can stay in Vermont, but I want you to have that tune in your head as I tell the story of little Israel Baline, and the man he came to be. Israel was born in Temun, Russia in 1888. His family was Jewish and lived in “perpetual terror” of the anti-Semitic Cossacks “who would swoop down on the town without warning to create havoc, devastation and death.” When little Israel was but four years old, he and his seven older siblings and their parents hid under blankets in the woods to escape a Cossack raid. Shortly thereafter his parents made the decision to leave Russia and come to America.
Israel was eight when his father died; he started selling newspapers on the streets of New York to help with the family finances. He was a normal kid with one special interest, “an inheritance from his father: singing.” Rather than chanting religious tracts though, Israel enjoyed singing the “sentimental ballads” of the 1890’s. At age 14 he quit school and ran away from home. He made do by singing for pocket change in the streets and saloons. He had a daily income of about 50 cents. At 18 he got a permanent job at a popular cafe as a singing waiter, parody songwriter, and janitor–for which he was paid one dollar per day. His first original song was published a year later and earned a royalty of thirty-seven cents. Four years later, in 1911 at the age of 23, Israel—who by now had changed his name—had his first big hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
Israel’s story—and there’s more of it to tell!—is from Great Men of American Popular Song, Revised and Enlarged Edition (1972). This book is a tool, a reference book of biographies and works of over 30 composers and lyricists. A passing familiarity with its material gives one a decided advantage in trivia games. But it’s much more than that. The “biographies were used as a framework in which to portray the evolution and growth of the American popular songs” as “products and voices of their times.” Hence, the revised edition includes the voices of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan in their times.
Even if one isn’t knowledgeable about music—I couldn’t tell a syncopation from a sycophant—this is the sort of book I love to sit down and wander through. No matter the topic—music, art, literature, sports—in such books the stroll reminds me that history is about more than when-where-what. History is about people. I am not an expert, but I think this is especially true of American history. After all, where but in America could little Israel Baline have become Irving Berlin, the man who “touched so many bases in the song and entertainment business” and made such a fortune?
Speaking of fortunes, in 1938 Berlin wrote and composed “God Bless America.” The “popularity and importance” of the song rose throughout the war years and continued long after. In the early ‘50’s Americans voted it “the most famous patriotic song” second only to our National Anthem. In 1955 President Eisenhower presented Berlin a Congressional gold medal recognizing the importance of “God Bless America” to the war effort. It was a real money-maker for the boy who’d once hidden from the Cossacks! However, “refusing to capitalize on his patriotism, Berlin from the very beginning assigned all the earnings… to the Boy and Girl Scouts.”
When Great Men of American Popular Song book was published (1972), Berlin was still alive. The final paragraph of the entry on him recounts his 80th birthday celebration on “The Ed Sullivan Show” during which President Johnson said, “America is richer for his presence. God bless Berlin.” The 1968 program “was a way of expressing gratitude to a man who has written over eight hundred songs, the scores for nineteen Broadway musicals … but more especially to a man whose patriotic songs … earn him the honor of being designated as America’s musical laureate.”
And thanks to Israel for writing “White Christmas,” too!
Great Men of American Popular Song Revised and Enlarged Edition. David Ewen. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1972.
[NOTE: A version of this post first appeared in The Webster Progress Times, January 2, 2013. And yes. The editor did apologize to me. Reposted here from bigfoodetc.com]