Jody Rosen, White Christmas: The Story of an American Song (Scribner, 2002)
Here's a title I thought I could sit on for a couple of months. Nobody wants to read about Christmas at Easter-time, do they? Well, let me tell you, White Christmas is just what it claims to be and more. Rosen tells the story of Russian immigrant Israel Baline, who took on the name Irving Berlin when he moved to New York and went on to be one of the most important writers of popular songs in the 20th century. The interesting thing is that his songs have become definitive descriptions of American life, so captivating and all-encompassing that they seem to be American folk material rather than the reflection of an outsider who desperately wanted to be inside. This reflection took on a life of its own and cast its own shadow over American life, becoming the tradition it sought celebrate! Curious.
"What is 'White Christmas'," Michael Beckerman asks, "but a kind of holiday Moby Dick, a distant image of things that can never be reclaimed: the past, childhood, and innocence itself?" The world's favorite Christmas song is not an ode to joy, or snowmen, or Santa. It is a downer, a lament for lost happiness in spirit, if not in form, a blues.
Hmmm.... He's right! It is a melancholy look, probably from Los Angeles, where Berlin spent a sad Christmas away from his family, back to the north-east and the cold, and snow. And yet, why did Berlin, a Jew, care about Christmas at all? He wanted to be Americanized! His family brought in a tree. He enjoyed the family spirit that he felt encompassed the season. He also, Rosen tells us, suffered several personal tragedies near Christmas, which made the month of December particularly meaningful to him.
Rosen describes early drafts of the song, when it had an opening verse. When it was more of a parody. When it had humor. When it was put away, "in the trunk" where Berlin kept his works-in-progress. Every songwriter has one of these places; a workbook, or a box of notes, to which he can return when he's looking for an idea. We can all be grateful that Berlin returned to that trunk and pulled out the draft of "White Christmas." Unless you're sick of it. And many people are.
One of the problems with a standard as well known as "White Christmas," Rosen argues, is that we tend to forget that there was a time when it didn't exist. "Someone wrote that song?" we ask in amazement it isn't immortal? It just might be. Berlin wrote thousands of songs, published 812, and of those he published a remarkable 451 were hits! Four hundred and fifty one hits! And he couldn't even play the piano. Just the black keys, and only in F#. He had an assistant who would transcribe his melodies.
As a songwriter myself, I've written about 100 songs over a twenty-five year period. That's four a year, on average. And there were a couple years when the muse was hyperactive, so there were years when the muse was non-existent. Berlin lived to be 101 years old, and didn't start writing til he was about 20, so his average is closer to 10 a year. Then again, his output was reduced in his later years, so in reality he was probably working on several hit songs every week at his peak! It's an amazing story.
Rosen's writing is easy and captivating. This is a book which virtually reads itself. I couldn't put it down. "White Christmas" is the most recorded song in history. The films Holiday Inn and White Christmas, which featured it, are seasonal favorites, repeated every December. Elvis Presley's, Streisand's, Neil Diamond's, The Beach Boys', Bob Marley's, The Drifters' (my favorite rendition) and of course Santa Cros's (Bing Crosby's) original version are only a few of the available recordings. It has been translated and performed in Dutch, Hungarian, Japanese, Swahili, and Yiddish, and yet it remains the quintessential American song. It was the best selling record in history for over fifty years (until it was unseated by Elton John's tribute to Princess Diana, "Candle In the Wind"). And everything you ever wanted to know about it is right here between the covers of White Christmas: the Story of an American Song. Fascinating, charming, intelligent and highly recommended!