By Marica Bernstein
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 became. 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 4 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 8 when his father died and he began to sell 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 1890s. At age 14 he quit school and ran away from home. He made do by singing in the streets and saloons for change. 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 $1 per day. His first original song was published a year later and earned a royalty of 37 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” (1972). This book is a tool, a reference book of biographies and works of more than 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 Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash 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 that I love to sit down and wander through. No matter the topic — music, art, literature, sports — in such books the stroll down memory lane 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 ’50s Americans voted it “the most famous patriotic song” second only to the 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 moneymaker 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 this 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 more than 800 songs, the scores for 19 Broadway musicals … but more especially to a man whose patriotic songs and two all-soldier shows earn him the honor of being designated as America’s musical laureate.”
And thanks to Israel for writing “White Christmas.” Merry Christmas, y’all!
[“Great Men of American Popular Song Revised and Enlarged Edition.” David Ewen. Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1972.]
Available at MSU Mitchell Memorial and Starkville Public Libraries and at online booksellers.
Marica Bernstein lives outside of Walthall. She may be contacted at email@example.com.