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White Christmas

The Story of an American Song
By Jody Rosen

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Introduction: The Hit of Hits

God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave Irving Berlin..."White Christmas."

-- PHILIP ROTH,

Operation Shylock

They say a hanging man hears gorgeous music. Too bad that I, like my father, unlike my musical mother, am tone-deaf. All the same, I hope that the tune I am about to hear is not Bing Crosby's "White Christmas"...Goodbye, cruel world!

-- KURT VONNEGUT,

Mother Night

Irving Berlin was born in the nineteenth century and nearly outlived the twentieth. During the last several of his 101 years, Berlin faced a peculiar indignity: watching the copyrights expire on his earliest published songs. His ownership of those songs had been as tightfisted as the law would permit; he frostily refused permission to reprint his lyrics even to friends working on fawning tributes. Now the songs were leaving him: in 1982, "Marie from Sunny Italy," his first published number, written when Irving Berlin was still Izzy Baline, a nineteen-year-old singing waiter in a Chinatown saloon; in 1984, "My Wife's Gone to the Country (Hurrah! Hurrah!)," his first hit; in 1986, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," his career-making smash, whose clarion opening line -- "Come on and hear" -- announced not just the arrival of a national troubadour but a young country's liberation from Victorianism and swaggering emergence into the century it would claim as its own.

The old man may have grieved the loss of his songs to the public domain, but much of his catalog had made that journey years before, migrating from Tin Pan Alley straight into national lore. He was born in Siberia, yet seemed to have a direct channel to the American imagination, yanking song after song out of the collective unconscious and returning them to his adopted country as beguiling reflections of its hopes, myths, and passing fancies. He strove to write, he said, "in the simplest way...as simple as writing a telegram." In so doing, he filled the American Songbook with pop standards that sound as inevitable as folk songs; his songs are definitively twentieth-century things -- "a Berlin ballad" appears in Cole Porter's "You're the Top" alongside a Waldorf salad and Mickey Mouse -- yet they strike us as timeless, anonymous. We recognize George Gershwin's musical signature in the bluesy grandeur of "Summertime" and "The Man I Love"; the droll, debonair voice of "Too Darn Hot" and "Miss Otis Regrets" is unmistakably Porter's own. But in Berlin's most celebrated songs -- "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," "Always," "Blue Skies," "Puttin' On the Ritz," "How Deep Is the Ocean?" "Easter Parade," "Cheek to Cheek," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "God Bless America," "There's No Business Like Show Business" -- Berlin is invisible. It was not an insult when Alec Wilder, in his landmark study of American popular song, declared himself at a loss to describe stylistic common denominators in the songwriter's vast output.

Berlin's most famous song, by far the most valuable copyright in his (or anyone else's) catalog, is "White Christmas." But as I discovered in writing this book, it may be the Berlin hit least associated with him. Everyone I spoke to about "White Christmas" knew the song; everyone had Bing Crosby's dulcet, definitive recording lodged in his mind's ear. Yet few knew who composed it. This wasn't true just of my contemporaries, who like me had grown up with hip-hop and rock 'n' roll and whose only exposure to Irving Berlin may have been Taco's synth-pop travesty of "Puttin' On the Ritz." I met avowed Berlin fans who not only were unaware that the man had written the tune, but could hardly comprehend that it had been written at all. They assumed "White Christmas" was as old as the hills, its creator as ancient and unknown as the composer of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."

But "White Christmas" is a pop song: you could call it the pop song. Berlin liked to brag that the number "was a publishing business in itself," a rare instance of the songwriter -- no slouch at trumpeting his successes -- selling himself short. "White Christmas" is the biggest pop tune of all time, the top-selling and most frequently recorded song: the hit of hits. It is a quintessentially American song that the world has embraced; among the untold hundreds of "White Christmas" recordings are versions in Dutch, Hungarian, Japanese, Swahili, and, in a knowing nod to its creator's pedigree, Yiddish. Sales of "White Christmas" records have topped 125 million copies.

Bing Crosby's original version on Decca Records remains a music industry landmark. For over fifty years it stood as the best-selling record in history. Introduced in the 1942 film Holiday Inn (it won the Academy Award for Best Song), Crosby's "White Christmas" held first place on the Hit Parade countdown for a record ten consecutive weeks; it would reenter the survey every December for the next twenty years (excepting 1953), spending thirty-eight weeks in the top spot and an unprecedented eighty-six weeks on the chart. All told, Crosby's "White Christmas" has sold over 31 million copies; it was unseated from its place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the all-time top single only by Elton John's Princess Diana tribute, "Candle in the Wind '97." (Crosby's record reentered the British charts for two weeks the next year -- forty-five years after its initial release.)

Popular culture is infatuated with novelty, and pop music is particularly unsentimental, ruthlessly turning today's superstar into tomorrow's one-hit wonder, forever seeking refreshment in new styles, new sounds, the next big thing. Once a year, though, the Christmas season brings songs from several centuries back to jostle for airtime with the latest hits. "White Christmas" is a newcomer to the Christmas canon -- the composer of "Joy to the World!" beat Berlin to the punch by at least two hundred years -- but in the decades since its appearance, it has become the most performed of all seasonal songs: the world's favorite Christmas carol. To this day, it continues to generate tens of thousands of annual record and sheet music sales. The Muzak versions that fill the nation's malls each December should alone be enough to pile-drive "White Christmas" into the consciousness of unnumbered future generations of shoppers.

Although Crosby's remains the signature version, singers won't leave "White Christmas" alone: every year brings new versions by performers that run the musical gamut, from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to the German heavy metal band Helloween. The list of "White Christmas" performers includes many of the most famous names in twentieth-century popular music: Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, the Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Jackson Five, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Al Green, U2. Berlin's melody has been reimagined as a stuttering punk anthem; as Wagnerian Sturm und Drang with a chorus of thousands wailing in the background; as a loping country ballad; as a string of quicksilver bop improvisations; as a thudding house track -- a carol for an Ibiza Christmas. Otis Redding wrung new pathos from the old song, recasting it as a Memphis soul ballad; Michael Bolton did a laughable Otis Redding imitation and recorded what may be the most overwrought "White Christmas" of them all (and consider the competition). Is there another song that Kenny G, Peggy Lee, Mantovani, Odetta, Loretta Lynn, the Flaming Lips, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and the Backstreet Boys have in common? What other tune links Destiny's Child, The Three Tenors, and Alvin and the Chipmunks; Perry Como, Garth Brooks, and Stiff Little Fingers; the Reverend James Cleveland, Doris Day, and Kiss?

But the song's power transcends its sales figures and commercial ubiquity. With "White Christmas," Berlin created an anthem that spoke eloquently to its historical moment, offering a comforting Christmastime vision to a nation frightened and bewildered by the Second World War. But it also resonated with some of the deepest strains in American culture: yearning for an idealized New England past, belief in the ecumenical magic of the "merry and bright" Christmas season, pining for the sanctuaries of home and hearth. Its dreamy scenery belongs to the same tradition as Currier and Ives's landscapes and Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." The song's images of sleigh rides and falling snow and eager children capture the mythic essence of the American Christmas. "White Christmas" seems to have always existed, lurking, as one Berlin biographer has written, "just beneath the surface of national consciousness." Indeed, in writing "White Christmas," Berlin lit on a universal ideal: the longing for Christmas snowfall, now keenly felt everywhere from New Hampshire to New Guinea, seems to have originated with Berlin's song. It can safely be said that London bookmakers didn't offer odds on the possibility of a white Christmas prior to "White Christmas."

From the beginning, the song has been a blank slate on which Americans have projected their varied views on race, religion, national identity, and other heady matters. In Philip Roth's Operation Shylock, "White Christmas" is an emblem of "Jewish genius," in Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, a wearisome reminder of the Second World War. In the early 1940s, at the height of its popularity, "White Christmas" was a huge hit among both white and black audiences. In the decades since, African-Americans have viewed Berlin's anthem with increasing ambivalence, detecting in Crosby's placid "white-bread" crooning a coded message excluding blacks from the national Christmas celebration. The song became a hit in the winter of 1942, when it was embraced by homesick American GIs as a symbol of the country to which they longed to return and the values they were fighting to defend. It was the war's unlikely anthem: a "Why We Fight" song in which the fight was never mentioned. Some thirty years later "White Christmas" returned to play a role in a more troubled American war: the U.S. military used it as the secret signal instructing American soldiers to evacuate Saigon.

One of the most poignant "White Christmas" battles was waged by Berlin himself, when the songwriter launched a fierce (and fruitless) campaign to ban Elvis Presley's recording of the tune. Today, Berlin's rage at the rock 'n' roll "desecration" of his song looks like nothing less than a lament over the sunset of an entire pop culture era: the period, roughly bounded by the two World Wars, that the songwriter had stood astride and whose passing plunged him into a depression that dogged the final forty years of his life.

We remember that interwar era as the Golden Age of American Song -- the charmed period when Berlin, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Porter, Harold Arlen, and other titans of Broadway and Hollywood turned the pop song, once regarded as the crudest kind of mass entertainment, into a definitive national art form. In the twenty-first century, the song standards remain indelible; consecrated in the recordings of Sinatra and Fitzgerald and Armstrong and Billie Holiday, launching pads for the improvisations of successive generations of jazz greats -- they are the bedrock of American pop. Their lush melodies and lyrical bon mots conjure a fairy-tale world of urbanity and romance, generating nostalgia even in those of us born decades after their heyday. They are supreme products of what historian Ann Douglas has called America's postcolonial phase; listening to song standards -- from "Tea for Two" to "I Get a Kick Out of You" to "Over the Rainbow" -- we hear the optimism of the American empire at its giddy early height.

I grew up in a very different musical age, with ears conditioned by the urgency of rock and soul and hip-hop, and the song standards always struck me as exotic. In part, this book was inspired by my curiosity about the music -- where it came from, why it blazed and disappeared. Historians hallow song standards as one of the United States' great gifts to world culture; musicologists parse their structure with the same loving scrutiny they lavish on Schubert lieder. Yet the American Songbook remains misunderstood, distorted by the culture war that erupted when rock 'n' roll remade American entertainment in the 1960s. In one corner is the they-don't-write-'em-like-that-anymore crowd, who have mystified the song-standard era beyond reason and recognition. For those of us who love "Cheek to Cheek" and "Star Dust" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "Don't Believe the Hype" in equal measure, it can be galling to read history as told by champions of classic pop, who cling to the notion that all craft and charm drained from American music the day rock and soul's barbarians stormed the gates. On the opposite side are rock critics who, steeped in rock's rebel mythologies and cult of authenticity, have effectively read fifty years of pop -- and George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, and Bing Crosby -- out of musical history.

These competing mythologies remove the song standards from their historical context, and the story of "White Christmas" -- the era's commercial zenith, the signature collaboration of its most famous songwriter and singer -- brings that context into sharper focus. It was a time before rock 'n' roll introduced a musical generation gap and put the voices of blacks and Southern whites at the forefront, before Vietnam and the social ruptures of the 1960s, when pop songs seemed to embody cultural consensus -- when the American middle class sought charm and reassurance in mass entertainment. Today, our longing for that musical era grades into a larger nostalgia for the mystical heyday of the "Greatest Generation," that allegedly happier period of stalwart American values and national unity. If any song represents mid-century consensus, it is "White Christmas": a celebration of the de facto national holiday, introduced by a multimedia father figure in the midst of a World War, when circumstances encouraged an unprecedented uniformity of thought and feeling. Song-standard aficionados might argue that music was simply better in the good old days. But one can't help suspecting that they are also longing for a simpler time, when pop songs spoke almost exclusively in the voice of the white middle class and hadn't yet begun to reflect the difficult questions and moral ambiguities of American life.

Nevertheless, if the songs of that pre-civil rights, prefeminist period strike us today as blithely ethnocentric, it should be remembered that they were the result of a social struggle in many ways as significant as those that have inflected rock's history. The pop-song industry was dominated in both its creative and commercial spheres by Jews -- many of them, like Berlin, recent immigrants -- and the music it gave to the world was the music of assimilation, a distinctly New World concoction: the result of a people's striving for social acceptance and a piece of the American pie. Much of twentieth-century pop culture is a kind of Yankee Doodle Yiddishkeit: All-Americanism as imagined by Lower East Siders, intoxicated by showbiz and its fast track out of the ghetto. "White Christmas" -- a Russian-born cantor's son's ode to a Christian American holiday -- is a milestone of Jewish acculturation matched perhaps only by another Berlin magnum opus, "God Bless America": a symbol of the extraordinary way that the Jews who wrote pop songs, sang them on vaudeville stages, invented Broadway, and founded movie studios, turned themselves into Americans -- and remade American pop culture in their own image.

Familiarity has made "White Christmas" remote: we know the song so well that we barely know it all. Bing Crosby begins singing, and we hum along, or flee the room; in any case, our ears are closed. But listen again: "White Christmas" is an oddity, whose melody meanders chromatically and is filled with unexpected moments, somber near-dissonances. Strangest of all is the song's underlying sadness, its wistful ache for the bygone, which -- in contrast to chirpy seasonal standards like "Jingle Bells" and "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" -- marks "White Christmas" as the darkest, bluest tune ever to masquerade as a Christmas carol.

"White Christmas" isn't my favorite song; it isn't even my favorite Irving Berlin song. I prefer "Blue Skies," with its shades of exultation and melancholy, or the brooding "Let's Face the Music and Dance." Down the years, those songs have kept their streamlined gleam; with its mile-wide sentimental streak, "White Christmas" has come back in recording after recording as kitsch.

Berlin, of course, never shied from sentimentality -- or anything else that pleased his audience. He journeyed far from his roots on old Tin Pan Alley, the nickname given in 1900 to the clangorous songwriters' row along West Twenty-eighth Street in Manhattan; but where his younger songwriting colleagues styled themselves as artistes, Berlin clung to the Alley's populist values: the public was the best judge of a song's worth, a tunesmith was only as good as his latest hit. It was an ethos that sprang from a need for audience acceptance -- a trace, perhaps, of Berlin's roots as Bowery song busker -- and above all, from a sense of duty. Berlin was a public songwriter, who pledged allegiance not to his muse but to "the mob." "A good song embodies the feelings of the mob," he said. "A songwriter is not much more than a mirror which reflects those feelings."

This philosophy made Berlin the people's choice and carved a special place for his songs in our national life. (The post-September 11 reemergence of "God Bless America" is just the most recent example of Berlin's uncanny staying power.) But to his detractors, Berlin's crowd-pleasing unmasked him as a cornball and a hack; despite the illustriousness of his songbook, he has never been as beloved by tastemakers as some of his harder-edged colleagues.

"White Christmas" is the ultimate Berlin tearjerker, and if there are more decorous songs, there are few deeper ones. We cringe at its mawkishness, but our embarrassment should arise from the shock of self-recognition: three-hankie schmaltz is, to a large degree, the American way of song. Berlin's paean to long-gone white Christmases "just like the ones I used to know" distills a whole tradition: the hopeless lust for yesteryear that runs through a couple of centuries of popular song, from the homesick ballads of Stephen Foster to Victorian parlor-room plaints to the desolate nostalgia of the blues. "White Christmas" is about as good a summary as we have of the contradictions that make pop music fascinating: it is beautiful and grotesque, tacky and transcendent. Revisiting the song's story, listening for the thousandth time to its maudlin, immemorial strains, we are reminded of a trick in which Berlin and Crosby both specialized: how, time and again, they proved that art and schlock could be one and the same.

Copyright © 2002 by Jody Rosen

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