The background and significance of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” the all-time, top-selling, most widely recorded song.
I can recommend this book any time of the year because it is about so much more than a seasonal song. For one, in telling the story of composer and lyricist Irving Berlin (1888-1989), it is about immigration and assimilation, and Jewish contributions to American culture. It also touches upon how the music business moved from sales of sheet music to recordings by stars, played on jukeboxes and home record players. And then how Bing Crosby’s recording of Berlin’s song (which omits the introductory verse about palm trees and Los Angeles) came to be and what that recording in 1942 meant to World War II GIs away from home. For millions of other listeners, home and abroad, the song earnestly evokes nostalgia for a past that neither they nor the songwriter himself perhaps ever experienced. In fact, Berlin experienced a tragically sad event on Christmas Day years before he wrote his paean to the holiday and there is a melancholy strain to the song. I think even non-musicians will be fascinated by Berlin’s songwriting process and unconventional methods, including his using only the black keys of the piano. But most importantly, whether you have “Christmas spirit” or not, Jody Rosen’s book can serve as a quick, readable, cultural history of the 20th century in America.