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On Sept. 22, 1989, a small group of people gathered outside a home on Beekman Place in New York City. Spontaneously, they broke into a song. Quietly and reverently, these words could be heard up and down the street: God bless America, Land that I love, Stand beside her and guide her, Through the night with a light from above…
The singers had gathered in front the home of Irving Berlin who died that day at the age of 101. The strains of "God Bless America" were selected as a moving and fitting tribute to the man whose music shaped the lives of several generations of Americans. A year earlier, on the occasion of Berlin's l00th birthday, Walter Cronkite, former CBS anchorman, perceptively noted: "Irving Berlin has written over 1,500 songs, and it is there we find our history, our holidays, our homes and our hearts."
The man who so impacted American life and whose music served as a social barometer for most of the twentieth century was born Israel Baline on May 11, 1888, in the village of Mohilev, some 125 miles east of Minsk. He was one of eight children born to Moses and Leah Lipkin Baline. The father derived his income from two jobs, one as a cantor in a synagogue and, the other as a shocet—a person who certified that meat and poultry were slaughtered in accordance with Jewish ritual requirements.
At the time, Jews in Russia lived a precarious existence. Marginalized, Jewish families were often victims of violence. The Balines were not spared when one night their wooden home was destroyed By Victor M. Parachin The man who wrote America's other national anthem along with other Jewish dwellings. Of the first five years of his life, Berlin claimed to remember nothing except one traumatic memory: he vividly recalled lying on a blanket by the side of a road watching his home burn to the ground.
For that reason, the elder Moses Bailine took his family and joined the massive exodus of Jews from Russia to America, where they settled on Manhattan's Lower East Side. There, the family lived in a crowded, airless basement tenement located at 300 Cherry Street. For Moses, the move to America was a step down in social status because he no longer could find work as a cantor. Instead, he supported his family through a couple of part-time jobs, that as a kosher poultry inspector and house painter. To supplement the household's lean income, Leah worked as a midwife and the children found various types of jobs. Irving, or Izzy, as his family called him, sold newspapers on the streets.
At age seven, Irving started school but was less than a stellar student. In fact, one teacher, unimpressed with Izzy Baline's academic interest, said: "He just dreams and sings to himself." To ease the family financial plight, Irving dropped out of school and left home at 14 to begin singing in Bowery saloons and bars for mere coins.
From 1905 to 1907, Berlin was employed as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in New York's Chinatown section. There, he waited on tables, sang and, most importantly, learned how to pick out tunes on an old battered upright piano. Amazingly, Irving never learned to read or write music, nor could he actually play the piano. For all of his life, he simply plucked a melody using one finger and then a pianist arranger would record the notes which Irving hummed and played out by ear.
While working at the Pelham Cafe in 1907, Irving wrote the lyrics for his first published song, "Marie From Sunny Italy." He was paid 37 cents and in that year, changed his name to Irving Berlin. His skill at writing lyrics was noted and by 1909, Irving was earning $25 as a lyricist on Tin Pan Alley, a nickname for a compacted area in Manhattan between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, where many music publishers had offices. While working on Tin Pan Alley, Irving soon began composing his own tunes as well as the lyrics.
With the flourishing of vaudeville, Irving found yet another outlet for his musical creativity. He wrote "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911), which was featured in a Vaudeville revue, becoming an instant hit. It propelled Irving into the national spotlight. From there, he would continue writing for vaudeville, Broadway, and Hollywood, some 1,500 songs including many of the country's most popular and memorable pieces such as "White Christmas," "Blue Skies," "Puttin' On The Ritz," "Cheek To Cheek," and "There's No Business Like Show Business."
Enormous professional success did not prevent tragedy and disappointments from entering Irving's life. His first wife, Dorothy Goetz, died of pneumonia and typhoid fever only five months after their 1912 wedding. He married again in 1926, this time to Ellin Mackay, daughter of a Long Island telegraph company tycoon named Clarence Mackay. A staunch Catholic, he opposed his daughter's marriage to Irving and disinherited her after the wedding. Irving and Ellin remained married until her death in 1988.
"God Bless America" was a hit and the sheet music was in great demand. Berlin dedicated the royalties to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.
Although he wrote some 1,500 songs, it is his "God Bless America" that continues to resonate with Americans of all ages, races and creeds. Originally, he wrote the piece shortly after he was drafted into the Army in 1918. Assigned to Camp Upton, located in Yaphank, Long Island, Irving became a member of the Twentieth Infantry. There, he persuaded the camp commander to let him produce a musical revue called Yip! Yip! Yaphank! For it, he wrote "God Bless America" but, at the last minute, cut it from the score because "I couldn't visualize soldiers marching to it. So, I laid it aside and tried other things."
Nearly 21 years later, he would resurrect the lyric. At that time, another world war was looming and Irving, like many Americans at the time, did not want to see the country plunged into war. So, he toyed with the idea of writing a "peace song." Irving experimented with some new lyrics but nothing felt right. "It then occurred to me to reexamine the old song, 'God Bless America.'" I had to make one or two changes in the lyrics," he recalled, "and they, in turn, led me Continued from page 11 GOD BLESS AMERICA The man who wrote America's other national to a slight change, and I think, an improvement in the melody."
Irving Berlin offered "God Bless America" to Kate Smith for her popular radio show. She first sang the song over the radio on Armistice Day in 1938. It was an immediate and enormous hit.
The next step was to find the proper singer and forum to introduce the piece. Wisely, Irving offered it to Kate Smith for her popular radio show. She first sang "God Bless America" over the radio on Armistice Day in 1938. It was an immediate and enormous hit. Within days of its debut, "God Bless America" began to acquire the status of the country's other national anthem.
In 1940, believing that it was inappropriate for him to continue earning royalties from a song which a wide array of Americans found deeply stirring and patriotic, Irving set up the "God Bless America Fund" stipulating that all royalties would go to America's youth, mainly the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts. Across the years, those two organizations have received millions of dollars in royalty checks.
Victor M. Parachin is a freelance writer living in Tulsa, OK.