God bless America

Greetings from Southern California, where they talk about film far more frequently than musicals. And yet, Irving Berlin’s been on my mind, and now I find it’s the 125th anniversary of his birth. This crept up on me, as things tend to do when you’re on vacation. And wasn’t it just yesterday that he died? Well, in a way, yes: He lived to 101. I knew where he lived, near Beekman Place, and often got a thrill just being near. “How far would I travel to be where you are?”

So these Hollywood types keep comparing the new Great Gatsby movie to the one with Robert Redford. I really thought the previous adaptation was largely forgotten, but folks are fondly recalling the luscious score, which made great use of Irving Berlin’s waltz, What’ll I Do? What I’m taking away from this is that people truly appreciate that wonderful song; anything else that film was is not what’s being lovingly recalled.

We see history as a great march forward, sometimes. We think each generation improves on the last. I have the highest regard for what I like to call the Class of ’25, the songwriters who made a mark for themselves during the Roaring Twenties, and they were all inspired by, and often emulated, Irving Berlin, who seemed to have been around forever. Cole Porter, E.Y.Harburg, Rodgers and Hart, and the Gershwin brothers, to my mind, were somewhat better than Berlin, but Berlin was miles and miles better than the generation before. It can be argued that he invented songwriting as we know it. The blithe and singable melody that sits so naturally on words that are truly conversational – that’s his stock and trade. But not at all what was going on with older songsmiths.

We live in a time where octogenarians such as John Kander, Stephen Sondheim, and Charles Strouse create new musicals. Berlin hung up his writing pen (or broke his magic wand) in his late seventies, so that quarter century or so he lived on, post-retirement, didn’t matter much to us fans. The tragedy of that comes home to me when I think of some of the songs I love from his final Broadway effort, Mr. President. There’s a marvelous comedy song about what it’s like to have a dating life when your father is the president:

The President’s daughter must drink water

No drink of Scotch, she might do what she hadn’t oughter

The internal rhyme there is of a type that particularly tickles me. “Scotch” and “what” don’t normally rhyme, but when each is followed by “she,” in the way English is actually spoken, they do. Rare is the songwriter who comes up with stuff like that. Many lyricists think in lists of words: the list of what rhymes with “Scotch” and what rhymes with “what” don’t overlap.

We’re not too many years away from Malia Obama finding herself in the same predicament of dating with the Secret Service following her around. I think of this song every time I catch sight of the tall and stunning teen. And there’s another song from Mr. President I’ve foisted on groups of students many a time: Empty Pockets Filled With Love. It’s one of Berlin’s wonderful quodlibets, and, in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, I’ll describe a few. In Empty Pockets, a man sings a romantic number about how he loves a woman but has no money and hopes that’s O.K. She sings back to him a cynical up-tempo about how you can’t eat love or wear love, a funny anti-romantic number. Then the two different songs are sung again, simultaneously, and they fit together like cogs in a gear. You can barely believe your ears, you’re hearing two reprises at once, each perfectly clear, a little like a double-exposed motion picture but even clearer.

Berlin performed this feat a number of times.  One early example is called Play a Simple Melody, which reveals, in part, the trick of how he did it so well.  His last released-to-the-public composition, An Old-Fashioned Wedding, has the same feel as Empty Pockets, with the man being romantic on long notes while the rip-roaring Ethel Merman character spouts back a bunch of eighth notes.  Of course, Merman was half of the best-known quodlibet of all, You’re Just In Love.

Can you name a songwriter who created a higher quantity of quodlibets? Let me raise my hand.  Not because I know the answer, but because I am the answer.  And I guess I’m saying the chief influence of Berlin on my career is that I keep performing that counterpoint trick again and again. But, I also value natural-sounding, colloquial lyrics, and a simple melody. Looking up at my lovely wife as I write this (it’s her business trip that brings us to California), I’m reminded of a romantic occasion in our first months together when she had me listen to a lush ballad called And So Much More, by the seemingly unlikely team of Frank Wildhorn and Maury Yeston. She had a lot of emotional investment in my liking it, but all I could mutter was that its concept was stolen from the Irving Berlin classic, How Deep Is the Ocean. If I weren’t so aware of the beautifully-wrought standard, I’d surely appreciate the later copy. But that’s just Irving Berlin for you: he ruins you for all other songwriters.


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