It weighs just under six pounds, a bulky rectangle 11 by 12 inches. Most of its 530 pages are triple columned. Heavy as a casket of coins, it opens to reveal the national equivalent of a cache of family heirlooms: Inside are piled 80 years of texts, recording a century’s manners, morals, feelings, folkways, catchwords, jokes, allusions, hyperboles, proverbs, philosophy, puckishness, and wit. Embedded in these texts is most of 20th-century American history—social and economic upheavals, shifting political patterns, conflicts of ethnicity and class, and changing attitudes toward essential matters like food, sex, marriage, and music. It is a book to riffle through, not to read in sequence. More’s the pity, then, that its massive format virtually restricts it to the reference shelf and the coffee table. No one will take The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin to the beach, or keep it on the nightstand for pre-sleep leafing. But in some ways, it is the ultimate book for such purposes: It is the bedside book of the American dream.
Israel Beilin—Americanized to Baline and then to Berlin—was born in Russia, probably on May 11, 1888. Nobody knows exactly where or when: Like many Russian Jews of the time, the Beilins moved constantly, one step ahead of czarist persecution; Israel was five when they got to New York. His father, like those of his later Broadway colleagues Harold Arlen and Kurt Weill, was a synagogue cantor; dying when the boy was 13, he left his son only his hereditary musicality. By then, Israel was already Irving and the family’s partial breadwinner, drifting through the standard Lower East Side jobs for adolescents, which ultimately included work as a singing waiter in a Pell Street café, where he picked up the rudiments of piano—he could never play in any key but C. On a dare, he wrote his first published song, “Marie From Sunny Italy,” in 1907.
Like many of his early lyrics, “Marie” was awkward and imitative, but the polyglot ear that Russian Jews had been compelled to develop did Berlin good service in the New World. Tin Pan Alley was a more genuine melting pot than the rest of America, open to anybody who could carpenter up a tolerably catchy tune and a singable string of words. Then, as now, pop-music standards were appallingly low, though quality could run amazingly high. Even Broadway, where demands were generally more exacting, had not yet reached its great era of song, which Berlin and the Wodehouse-Kern team were to inaugurate in the mid 1910s. Berlin learned with staggering rapidity: Only a decade separates the clumsy triteness of “Marie” ‘s “Meet me while the summer moon is beaming/For you and me the little stars are gleaming” from the army private’s threat to the bugler, in “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”: “I’ll amputate his reveille/And step upon it heavily.”
Wodehouse, Cole Porter, and Lorenz Hart often did just as well, but none of them spent his adolescence peddling papers on the streets of the Lower East Side. Berlin’s verbal agility testifies to an almost manic compulsion to learn, to equal the educated in achievement. (He and the wealthy Yale man Porter ultimately became close friends.) At the same time, Berlin never lost sight of his own commonness, of belonging to the mob of ordinary people. He wrote music, George M. Cohan once cannily remarked, “that you don’t have to dress up to listen to.”
To read his lyrics in bulk, as they are laid out here, is to see, first, how much he took from popular converse—his titles are a litany of everyday phrases—and second, how painstakingly he worked to give each stock phrase an original spin. The expressions can be banal in themselves (“Everybody’s Doing It,” “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee”) or ostentatious and slangy (“Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Not for All the Rice in China”). Either way, Berlin is able to make the phrase go a little extra distance. And as readers who have been fitting tunes to the titles will note, Berlin’s welding was the most solid in his field: With his major songs—about a third of this weighty assemblage—neither tunes nor words ever shake free of their partner. If you know the melody of a Berlin song, you have remembered its verbal arc, and vice versa.
Like any work so famous for so long, Berlin’s has some less comfortable associations: He’s the sentimental patriot whose “God Bless America” suddenly became ubiquitous on September 11. For some African Americans, he’s the dubious claimant of a niche in the realm of ragtime and jazz. Well, Berlin was sentimental about America, but not so much so that he couldn’t ridicule, gently, almost every aspect of it. As for “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” it was good enough for Bessie Smith; those who feel less comfortable with it can inspect other parts of the oeuvre. Kimball, the world’s reigning expert on Broadway lyrics, and Emmet, one of the songwriter’s three daughters, have preserved everything—unused numbers, unfinished drafts, extra verses, parodies, and occasional pieces. Informative headnotes identify the circumstances of each song’s composition and first performance. More expansively anecdotal than in Kimball’s previous collections of Porter, Hart, and Ira Gershwin, these gossipy gems could make up a small book by themselves. All that’s lacking is the music; anyone planning to dip into this tome casually should keep it close to the CD player, a move toward which will be the automatic reaction to every other page.