the greatness of 'white christmas' -- 12/14/23

Today's encore selection -- from Irving Berlin by James Kaplan. The classic song “White Christmas”:

"The [Irving] Berlin song that would have the greatest impact on America and Americans as the United States entered [World War II] was one that, on the face of it, had nothing whatever to do with war: the great and strange holiday song he'd first con­ceived of years earlier and had been obsessing over ever since.

"What makes 'White Christmas' so great, and so strange? Dozens of writers have poured thousands of words into analyzing the bridgeless fifty-four-word chorus of this seemingly simple tune. 'People read a lot of things into that song,' Berlin himself said, 'that I didn't put there.'

"When the Washington Post asked him about the song's ori­gins in 1954, Berlin harked back nostalgically to his tenement past: 'I was a little Russian-born kid, son of an Orthodox rabbi, living on the lower East Side of New York City. I did not have a Christmas. But I bounded across the street to my friendly neighbors, the O'Haras, and shared their goodies. Not only that, this was my first sight of a Christmas tree. The O'Haras were very poor and later, as I grew used to their annual tree, I realized they had to buy one with broken branches and small height, but to me that first tree seemed to tower to heaven.'

"Nostalgia is certainly essential to 'White Christmas' ­Jody Rosen links the tune to the great tradition of wistfully reminiscing songs such as Stephen Foster's 'The Old Folks at Home' -- as is something else: secularity. In the 1930s and 1940s, when the United States was unquestioningly a Christian nation, the vast majority of Christmas songs sung and heard by Americans, including the two Bing Crosby had recorded in 1935, 'Adeste Fideles' and 'Silent Night,' were, quite appro­priately, concerned with the essence of the holiday: the birth of Jesus Christ. (Three notable exceptions were 'Jingle Bells,' first published -- as a Thanksgiving song! -- in 1857, and 'Santa Claus Is Coming to Town' and 'Winter Wonderland,' both debuting in 1934. Strikingly, Tin Pan Alley had largely failed to capitalize on the holiday -- perhaps because so many of its songwriters and publishers were Jews.

"Irving Berlin clearly planned to redress this omission with 'the best song anybody ever wrote.' And since it wouldn't have been authentic for him as a Jew to write about Christ, he chose to universalize his lyric. And herein lies a first clue to the deep strangeness of 'White Christmas.' For what could be stranger than a Jew out of the shtetl and the Lower East Side creating what is arguably the most influential Christmas song of all time?

"No less an observer than Philip Roth considers the ques­tion (along with 'Easter Parade') in his brilliant dissection of antisemitism, the novel Operation Shylock:

The radio was playing 'Easter Parade' and I thought, But this is Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin 'Easter Parade' and 'White Christmas.' The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ ... and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! ... Is anyone really dishonored by this? If schlockified Christianity is Christianity cleansed of Jew hatred, then three cheers for schlock. 

"The only person dishonored in the formulation is Berlin himself, with Roth's peremptory dismissal of 'White Christ­mas' as schlock. Is 'White Christmas' schlock? Even as fervent and articulate an admirer of the Berlin canon as Jody Rosen has his doubts. ''White Christmas" isn't my favorite song; it isn't even my favorite Irving Berlin song,' he writes. Rather, it is, he continues,

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.

"Of course, there are estimable commentators enough to certify 'White Christmas' as real art. Alec Wilder writes with a certain wonderment of 'the truly daring succession of notes in the chromatic phrase of the main strain' of the song. Philip Furia calls the tune 'the counterpart to Robert Frost's great modern poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," which uses the simplest of rhymes and the barest of imagery to evoke a beautiful but melancholy scene.' And a year after America's entry into World War II, when the song had become a touchstone for hundreds of thousands of homesick U.S. sol­diers and sailors stationed overseas, Carl Sandburg would write:

Away down under, this latest hit of Irving Berlin catches us where we love peace. The Nazi theory and doctrine that man in his blood is naturally warlike, so much so that he should call war a blessing, we don't like it .... The hopes and prayers are that we will see the beginnings of a hundred years of white Christmases -- with no blood-spots of needless agony and death on the snow.

"But we are getting ahead of ourselves. When we left off, sometime in the last week of November or the first week of December 1941, Bing Crosby was headed out for [a] round of golf after prerecording 'White Christmas,' Fortress America was still secure, and only a handful of people connected profes­sionally or familially to Irving Berlin had ever heard the song.

"On Sunday morning, December 7, a lovely day in Los An­geles, Irving and Ellin were relaxing in Beverly Hills when the news from Pearl Harbor hit with the force of a bomb. Soon they would head back to New York to spend a more somber holiday than usual with their daughters. On the night of December 24, on his Kraft Music Hall broadcast, Crosby sang 'White Christ­mas' to America for the first time. Still staggered by the un­precedented surprise attack, America barely took notice."



Irving Berlin


James Kaplan


Yale University Press


Copyright 2019 James Kaplan


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