Connecting Christmas Music and Dreidels: Irving Berlin and White Christmas

As I was saying.

Having torn the calendar page of the American Thanksgiving holiday, the Christmas Holiday Season begins in all its fierce glory. Oh! Can you hear it?!? The sound of cash registers beeping, with a counterpoint of bell ringers for the Salvation Army hoping for a bit of the sale’s leftover change? Lovely. Music to our ears to be sure.

Speaking of music, there are many songs of this season that have become nearly, well, anthems of the holidays, particularly of the Christmas Holiday. I have been known to listen to, and perform them, myself. During December I’d like to talk just a bit about a few of them, and those scribes who invented them, since their origins are rather interesting. How many of you knew that these songs were often composed by artists who were not, actually, Christian? Read on.

White Christmas

This song is perhaps the anthem of the holiday, at least one that was written as a popular tune and not as a hymn. Made famous by the singer Bing Crosby, it has sold more single recordings than any other song. Ever. More than 50 million copies. Maybe as high as 100 million. The writer? A dizzyingly talented fellow named Irving Berlin, born Israel Isidore Baline, a Russian Jewish immigrant who came here as a little child with his family in 1893 to escape persecution in Russia. He was already famous as the author of many popular songs when he penned White Christmas. But, there is a story that Irving Berlin claimed “it’s the best song I ever wrote, maybe the best song anybody ever wrote.” It was certainly very, very popular, in large measure due to its release by the great Crosby and the fact that WWII was underway. Yet, Irving’s story is one of survival, talent, and determination. How else could it be that he would have ever been in the position to write White Christmas, get it performed by the most popular singer of the day, when he himself could not even read or write music, and could barely play the piano, and then in only a single key?

Firstly, I will announce that I am totally indebted to the wonderful book As Thousands Cheer, the Life of Irving Berlin, written by Laurence Bergreen, author, for much of what follows. It’s a good book. Get it and read it.

Irving Berlin grew up on the streets of New York City’s lower east side, a land of immigrants and crowded tenement dwellings. From a young age he spent most of his time on the streets since there was nearly no room in the small apartment. Their home was on the 3rd floor of a brownstone house originally designed as a single home, now partitioned into many small dwelling units. His family, 8 in all – mother, father, 4 girls and 2 boys – shared but 3 rooms. And, they took in a renter to help save money! Can you imagine it? Nine people living day and night crammed into a trio of small spaces in a smelly, unsanitary fire-trap of a building. No wonder he lived on the streets. It was that, or the roof.

His family was desperately poor as were most all living on the lower east side. One event which left a lasting impression on young Israel was that of seeing for the first time a Christmas tree, that of his poor Irish neighbors in the tenement. He never forgot how beautiful their tree seemed, even though later in life he came to realize that they obviously had to find the cheapest, smallest, most broken tree. It didn’t matter at the time. He later wrote “…that first tree seemed to tower to heaven.”

When Izzy (as he was known then) was 13 years old, his father died. He’d already lost a sister, now his father, and the family was worse off than they had been upon arriving eight years past. Finally, the next year, Izzy left home to live on the streets. He was small, had no real skills beyond being able to hawk newspapers. No real skills save one: his father had been a cantor in the synagogue, the person who sings religious music and leads prayers. From him young Izzy had learned a little about singing, and about music. He couldn’t read or write music; didn’t play an instrument. He sang, and learned songs by memory.

He began his career as a boy by singing popular songs of the time for a few pennies in booze joints and gin mills in the dangerous section of New York called the Bowery. The rough-neck sailors, dock-hands, laborers and others might throw him a penny, or they might throw him out. He stuck with it. He briefly had a position singing in the chorus of a new musical, but was let go. He then briefly landed employement plugging songs for publishers at music hall shows. This meant that during the show he’d be in the audience, pretending to be a regular customer while actually being paid to be there. When a song ended, he was supposed to clap like mad and insist that the song be sung again. Maybe he’d sing along and get the rest of the audience to, also. A bit of early advertising, right? At any rate, he had jobs, lost them, continued to sing in the whiskey joints of the dark underbelly of New York.

Within another year, Izzy landed a job as a singing waiter in a “cafe” in Chinatown. Really, it was just another seedy establishment visited by gangsters, and by wealthy uptown residents out for an evening of “slumming.” Izzy would sing for tips, and also wait on the customers. One day a relative of the King of England came to the tavern while taking a tour of the seedier side of New York. Izzy and the pianist played and sang for them. Izzy got his name in the paper. The owner of the tavern then suggested, mainly for promotion, that Izzy and the piano player write a song. Izzy was known for being able to make up funny versions of popular songs on the spot, could he write a real song? Marie of Sunny Italy was the result. It was okay, not great. But, most importantly, the name of the lyricist was not Israel Baline, nor Izzy. It was Irving Berlin. He was 19 years old.

And, a legend was born.


A World of Eleven Holidays

Well. As I was saying…

Tomorrow is November 11th. The Eleventh Day, of the Eleventh Month. This time, it’s also the Eleventh Year. It only happens once per year that the day, month and year are the same TWO numbers. Next year, it’ll match on December 12th – 12/12/12. Even so, the next time we see a row with the same number in every slot, it’ll be what year? I’m taking into account the fact that usually we write “03/23/09”, or something like that. Therefore, even 12/12/12 doesn’t count here. No, indeed, it does not at all. Nor did 10/10/10. Yes, tomorrow is a red letter day. I’d advise making the most of it.
For many, it’s a day of Remembering. It began with the signing of the Armistice between the warring sides of the Great War, now called WWI since we ended up with another Great War, #2, starting in 1939. That being said, the number of countries involved was massive. Everyone was happy that it came to an end and it seemed good to celebrate. On the 11th day of the 11th month, at the 11th hour, a moment of silence is taken to remember all who have given. In some places it’s Veterans Day, in others it’s Remembrance Day, and in others yet it’s still Armistice Day. In some countries, it’s celebrated on the Sunday closest to the 11th. At any rate, it’s important.
But, in my perambulations around and about this spinning orb of humanity, I’ve come across many types of holidays. My point being: we have a right to decide what to celebrate, and when, and how. Whether it’s traditions from centuries ago carried over to today, or something we just made up yesterday, we’ve a right to celebrate it.
Take tomorrow for example. Were you it South Korea, it’d be a grave faux pas should you forget Pepero Day. Well, maybe not that grave. It’s a day sort of like Saint Valentine’s Day in other places; you give presents of Pepero to the people you like, sort of like our tradition of giving poor quality over priced candy to your Valentine. You see, Pepero is a snack. It’s a pretzel stick covered with chocolate, or other flavors. 11/11 is perfect for the holiday because the elevens look like four Peperos lined up. But, tomorrow is really important because it’s SIX elevens lined up. Goodness, a millennial event. In Japan they have a similar snack named Pocky, and it’s Pocky Day in Japan tomorrow. I think pretzels deserve their own holiday, whether knotted or straight, plain or dipped. Honor thy pretzels!
Another holiday occurs tomorrow very much worth noting, and one which I do plan on celebrating (at least a bit) as well: The King’s Birthday in Bhutan. November 11 is the holiday honoring the birthday of the 4th King of Bhutan, . Now, although I am not Bhutanese, nor have I ever actually been there on November 11th, I find it terribly important to honor a leader who decided that Gross National Happiness (GNH) was a much better thing to measure than just Gross National Product (GNP – money, in other words). Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the 4th King of Bhutan, thought that it would be terribly smart to run the country based on ideas of happiness and wellness for his people based on Buddhist principles. Quite sophisticated formulae were devised to, indeed, measure the happiness of the people. That does strike me as wonderfully intelligent!
Therefore, after remembering Remembrance Day, I intend to do something to honor the King of Bhutan’s birthday. It’s doubtful that it will include Pepero, since I’m not sure where to buy some on short notice.
I must beg forgiveness! I nearly neglected in my writings to mention another Augustus Personage whose day is celebrated upon the 11th of November. That would be the maestro of Eleven, Nigel Tufnel! As a composer, guitarist and touring musician myself, I have always heartily concurred with Mr. Tufnel in his assertion that any electric musical instrument amplifier which ranges up to a maximum volume of “11” is better than one which tops out at a mere “10”. Alas, I have as yet not succeeded in finding an example of that rare Equipage, but optimism rules and I am confident that I shall. Hats Off and Eleven Cheers for Mr. Nigel Tufnel and His Day, and all the Spinal Tap gentlemen! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!

…that was eleven, right? Ah. There’s my taxi. I must be off. We’ll chat again, very soon.

Pictures and Potties

As I was saying.

Two interesting “Dies Propensus” – important days – occur within the next two days. The first is of an historical nature. November 18th is, as those who’ve Googled anything today will already know, the birthday of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, inventor of the Daguerreotype. Daguerrotypes were perhaps the earliest or at least the most brilliant and accurate  photographic images. It is an amazing process that Daguerre and several others had been working on. Daguerre himself had wrestled with the question for nearly 20 years. He’d been intrigued with the idea of capturing the images created by the Camera Obscura, a device used by painters and draftsmen for drawing images. This device is itself already a more advanced version of the pinhole camera, a device and principle known as far back as Aristotle in the mid-300s B.C.
Yes, Daguerre was brilliant in creating what amounts to modern photography, but his legacy also involves the invention of the Paris Diorama, in its own way just as interesting. The concept of the Diorama was brilliant: large paintings were made on screens more or less opaque, or with sections more or less so. Using a system of pulleys, mirrors, windows, screens, and a rotating platform upon which sat the audience, the Diorama could, for example, produce the effect of watching the progress of a violent storm. This invention of Daguerre amounted to the first “picture shows”! We know of Daguerre through his invention of early photography, but before that he was a fine artist, a painter in the Romantic style who also understood theatre, scenery, and lighting. Unfortunately, his Diorama burnt to the ground in 1839 with the loss of most of his notes about the Daguerreotype as well an many early photos, and all of the scenes from his building. Ah, well.
The other day upon which I wish to discourse is International Toilet Day. Yes, indeed, the toilet has its own day. Worldwide, no less. Now, while it might seem fun (oh, let’s face it, it IS fun) to make jokes about toilets, and upon International Toilet Day, for many it’s no laughing matter. Modern sanitary toilets, sewers and water treatment have done much to improve public health. Curiously, mechanisms  for using hydraulic movement to wash away waste have been known for nearly 3500 years.
And yet, many around the world have no way to dispose of their waste in such a fashion as to isolate it from water used for other purposes. The result is sickness, and yes, death. Often of very young children. So, International Toilet Day, the 19th of November, is a day upon which to marvel at the conveniences many (I count myself among them) enjoy in the Modern World. We take these for granted, they have made our lives better, and not everyone has the luxury of these luxuries. Think upon that tomorrow, if you will. And, thank Thomas Crapper in England for popularizing the flush toilet. Hats off to Thom. Crapper!