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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, December 11th, 2001


 

The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin

by Irving Berlin

A review by Gary Giddins

In the aftermath of September 11 the whole country seemed to be singing "God Bless America," underscoring Irving Berlin's incomparable role in American song. (Berlin wrote the piece toward the end of World War I but suppressed it until the outbreak of World War II, fearing that it might be too broad or corny.) His anthems include "White Christmas," "Easter Parade," and "There's No Business Like Show Business"; no other songwriter has written as many. No one else has written as many popular songs, period. Yet although he was lauded as a tunesmith of genius as far back as 1911, when he debuted "Alexander's Ragtime Band," Berlin is often undervalued as a lyricist and said to lack Cole Porter's erudition, Lorenz Hart's interior rhymes, and Johnny Mercer's homespun wisdom. The Complete Lyrics, which spans eighty-one of the composer's 101 years (1888-1989), demands that we reconsider this appraisal. In addition to highlighting his gift for economy, directness, and slang, it presents Berlin as an obsessive, often despairing commentator on the passing scene.

By the late 1960s Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood lyrics had come to be seen mostly as hackwork. Robert Kimball helped to redress that view with a series of oversized anthologies of great lyricists. He began in 1983 with The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter -- a shrewd choice, because Porter's wit suited the printed page especially well. He moved forward with complete editions of the equally intricate work of Hart and George Gershwin. Last year, with his longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb, Kimball compiled an indispensable anthology, Reading Lyrics, which, surprisingly, includes more songs by Berlin than by anyone else. Now, in collaboration with one of Berlin's daughters, Linda Emmet, he has broken the locks off Berlin's fabled archive, giving us Berlin's oeuvre, a third of which -- nearly 400 songs -- was unknown.

Berlin wrote about everything: the wars, of course; and most aspects of show business, all the national holidays, and every kind of cooing and wooing; but also economics, FDR, Al Capone, nudist colonies, censors, Bolsheviks, lynchings, Prohibition, New York's finest, sex, loneliness, isolation, and insomnia. On balance, Berlin was sadder and funnier than we knew. As a parodist, he took on Porter ("I'm a eunuch who / Has just been through an op— / But if, baby, I'm the bottom, / You're the top") and himself ("God bless America, / Land I enjoy, / No discussions with Russians / Till they stop sending arms to Hanoi"). A swarm of puns on the word "step," in "Everybody Step," is worthy of the Marx Brothers, and "I've Got My Captain Working for Me Now" remains a rare comic response to the aftermath of war. Some of his lines might have passed muster with Dorothy Parker: "Someday I'm going to murder the bugler; / Someday they're going to find him dead— / I'll amputate his reveille, / And step upon it heavily, / And spend the rest of my life in bed."

Berlin's lyrics are often crude, though never cruel, and many of them are pure swill. Yet from the beginning he had an ear for the telling phrase, employing dialects to freshen familiar tropes: "I just couldn't stop her, for dinner and supper / Some kisses and hugs was the food; / When she wasn't nice it was more better twice, / When she's bad she was better than good." Still, his greatest work is that which instantly entered the public imagination, and if it is impossible to read "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)?," "How Deep Is the Ocean (How High Is the Sky)," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "All By Myself," "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," "How About Me?," and many more without hearing the melody in the mind's ear, that's the way it's supposed to be. The trick was to find the right words for the right tune, and no one did it better than Berlin.


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