Irving Berlin (1888)
It was on this date, May 11, 1888, that the American songwriter Irving Berlin was born in a Russian-Jewish ghetto. To escape the anti-Semitism of his birth country, he emigrated with his family at the age of five to the United States and Irving spent the next 95 years becoming one of the most celebrated film and stage songwriters in U.S. history. Among his hundreds of hit songs are “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911), “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” (theme song of the Ziegfield Follies, 1919), “Always” (1925), “Blue Skies” (Betsy, 1926), “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee” (Face the Music, 1932), “Easter Parade” (As Thousands Cheer, 1933), “Cheek to Cheek” (Top Hat, 1935) and “Anything You Can Do” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (Annie Get Your Gun, 1946).
Perhaps nobody is more patriotic than an immigrant, but the writer of “White Christmas” and “God Bless America” (1918/1938) did not like Christmas and did not believe in God. Although recorded most famously (and most profitably) by the very Roman Catholic Bing Crosby, the writer inserted “White Christmas” into the 1942 film Holiday Inn because Irving needed a song for each major holiday—and “White Christmas” was not about babes in mangers and sky-gods but about the winter season. In her biography of her father, Irving Berlin: A Daughter’s Memoir (1995), Mary Ellin Barrett writes, “Many years later, when Christmas was celebrated irregularly in my parents’ house, if at all, my mother said, almost casually, ‘Oh, you know, I hated Christmas, we both hated Christmas. We only did it for you children.’”
As for “God Bless America,” the song was cut from a 1918 musical about the U.S. Army in World War I. But 20 years later, the First Lady of Radio, singer Kate Smith, desired a “song of peace” for an Armistice day broadcast and Irving resurrected and revised his lyric. Kate Smith made it immortal. But even this song was never about God: rather, it is about patriotism, which was Irving Berlin’s true religion. Using the words “God bless” was merely copying an American idiom.
Indeed, in her biography, Barrett refers to her father’s “agnosticism,” and describes him as a “nonbeliever.” Irving even poked fun at faith in his 1922 song, “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil in Hades,” from his Music Box Revue, in which a woman in a devil suit sings, “They’ve got a couple of old reformers in Heaven / Making them go to bed at eleven. / Pack up your sins and go to the devil / And you’ll never have to go to bed at all.”
Irving follows a long tradition of freethinkers who used the religious vocabulary familiar to the majority. Irving Berlin died of a heart attack in New York City on 22 December 1989—at age 101. He may not have believed in an afterlife, as one of his lyrics jibed about hell, “all the nice people are there.”
Originally published May 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.