Friday, July 04, 2008

Irving Berlin: A Great American (a repost)


On July 4,2006 I published the post below containing Stefan Kanfer's City Journal biographical article which paid tribute to Irving Berlin and his love for America. If you read it then or some other time, you may enjoy rereading it. If you haven't read it, most of you who come here will enjoy it and, I think, be moved by it.


Happy Fourth of July and welcome.

Tired of all the self-indulgence, Bush-bashing and just plain stupidity we’re exposed to from the likes of Sean Penn, the Dixie Chicks, and Barbra Streisand?

Would you like to spend part of your Fourth reading about a “show biz” celeb who loved America and knew he owed it plenty and tried to pay her back?

I’ll bet you would.

Than take a look at Stafan Kanfer’s City Journal article, The Americanization of Irving Berlin, which appeared in its Spring 2002 issue. Kanfer begins:

It is supremely fitting that “God Bless America”—that stirring hymn to patriotism—has become our unofficial anthem in the aftermath of September 11, since the life of the legendary New York songsmith who penned it, Irving Berlin, born one Israel Baline in 1888 in distant Siberia, epitomizes everything about America’s indomitable civilization that our terrorist enemies despise: its openness to striving and talent, its freedom, its inexhaustible optimism and creativity.

Baline’s amazing American success story began when he stepped onto Ellis Island in 1893, on his way to Gotham’s teeming Lower East Side, “the eyesore of New York and perhaps the filthiest place on the continent,” according to the New York Times of the era. However dirty and poor, this Jewish ghetto was incubating an American renaissance that would produce legislators, merchants, professionals of all stripes—and Irving Berlin.

Berlin’s family was too poor to provide piano lessons, let alone a piano; Berlin would remain musically illiterate. His father, Moses, a cantor, gave him a love of melody and a quick wit, but that was about all he could afford.

To supplement the family’s meager income, Israel, more fluent in English than his parents and five older siblings, haggled with a nearby junk shop. “I used to go there selling bits and pieces of an old samovar that my mother had brought from Russia and kept under the bed,” he once recalled. “I’d get five and ten cents for the pieces and kept selling them until the entire samovar disappeared.”
Kanfer's article is here. I think it will leave you with a very good feeling.

I’ve only one quibble with Kanfer. He says Berlin was tightfisted. Certainly Berlin was a careful investor and kept a close watch on his money. That’s just smart.

But tight fisted? Berlin gave away the rights to a number of his songs including “God Bless America,” the rights to which he gave to the Girl Scouts. In both WWI and WWII he made frequent appearances to entertain the troops never asking a penny for his service. There's nothing more valuable we can give then our time. And when Berlin made overseas USO trips during WWII he, like other entertainers who want overseas, was taking a significant risk.

Enjoy The Americanization of Irving Berlin.

And God bless America.
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