Songwriter Magazine Interview Excerpts
Irving Berlin has achieved much in his 90 years (this article was published May 1978). In my opinion he has written the definitive Christmas song, White Christmas, the definitive Easter song, Easter Parade, the definitive patriotic song, God Bless America, the definitive military sentiment, Oh How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning, and the definitive entertainment industry theme, There’s No Business Like ShowBusiness. He also wrote some of the most beautiful romantic ballads in popular songwriting history among his more that nine hundred titles. For the greater part of his life he has written words and music, and has published his own great hits. He has complete ownership of all his copyrights and although he doesn’t divulge his financial status, his net worth is estimated anywhere up to $100 million and beyond. Yet despite all the acclaim and success, Irving Berlin remains an extraordinarily simple man. Those close to him say he is never boastful or tasteless, nor is he envious of any other songwriter. He knows the drudgery that goes into his profession, especially in the beginning.
Berlin’s songs can be funny, sophisticated, nostalgic, romantic, cynical, sad, naïve, casual or intense. With equal skill he can produce a waltz, a patriotic march, a sentimental ballad, or a parody on army life. He can write of Christmas or cowboys, of Broadway or blue skies, and it always sounds right.
Berlin only plays in the key of F sharp, so he has a piano that compensates for him which he bought in 1909 for a hundred dollars. It is equipped with a lever beneath the keyboard which shifts the entire works so that he can keep playing in F sharp and it transposes the melody into any other key. "The fact that I compose only in F sharp gave me certain harmonies that other writers missed because they know tnore about music than I did. Alexander's Ragtime Band was a result of tiny lack of musical knowledge, so it might be said that lack of musical education made a substantial contribution to my first big hit."
The F sharp king has written countless songs since that first big hit which can still be heard allover the world. "Any song that has universal appeal," he states, "is bound to be a success. The mob is always right," he continues. "It seems to be able to sense instinctively what is good, and I believe that there are darned few good songs which have not been whistled or sung by the crowd.
"Take Stephen Foster for example. The mob sensed the eternal feeling in Foster's ballads. The old folks at home of whom he wrote may have been black, but the feelings that thoughts of them inspired are the same as the longings inspired by mothers and fathers of all colors.
"I have an idea that the popular songs of a country give a true picture of its history .When you hear the Marseillaise, you can almost see the French Revolution. I think it would be worthwhile for someone to write a history of our country from its songs. "Take some of those that were sung when I was a kid. Two Little Girls In Blue, Little Annie Rooney, A Bird In A Gilded Cage. ..aren't they all perfect pictures of the gaslight age? You couldn't find a better description of the city in the 1880's than The Sidewalks Of New York. Even the bicycle craze found its song, and so did the automobile. The dizzy heights that stocks reached were recorded in music, and many a song owes its life to prohibition."
Berlin also feels that while conditions have their effect on songs, songs influence conditions. "Nothing," he said, "can rouse the emotions more than music combined with appropriate words. Stirring marches give new pep to the tired feet of soldiers, songs of the homeland imbue them with spirit."
When asked which he considered the more important in a song, the words or the music, he replied, "Both." "More people can write a catchy tune than good verses," he added. "How many people know who wrote the music to The Star-Spangled Banner, or Home, Sweet Home, yet almost everyone knows Key and Payne. Still, I feel that words and music play equally important parts in the success of any song."
Asked how he composed his own songs, he said, "I usually get a phrase first that might hit me. I keep repeating it over and over, and the first thing I know, I begin to get a sort of rhythm and then a tune. I don't say all my songs are written that way, for sometimes I hear a tune first, and then I start trying to fit words to it. I never use a rhyming dictionary for my lyrics. I'm too impatient to look up the words.”
Much, much more in the issue.