IRVING BERLIN by Charles Hamm


Songs from the Melting Pot: The Formative Years, 1907-1914
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 A comprehensive study of the first seven years of songwriting (ending with his first Broadway musical) from one of America's most popular songwriters. Hamm (Music in the New World, 1983, etc.) presents Berlin as the product of the ``radically multicultural milieu'' of turn-of- the-century New York City, with its range of musical styles, which influenced Berlin's early music. Hamm thus provides background on vaudeville, minstrel shows, ragtime, the ballad, and, of course, Tin Pan Alley. The book is substantiated by informed analysis of musical devices and social trends, and reproductions of sheet music--including both decorative covers and musical notation. Sometimes the attention to detail distracts: Hamm properly devotes an entire chapter to Berlin's 1911 hit ``Alexander's Ragtime Band,'' which Variety called ``the musical sensation of the decade.'' Hamm, professor emeritus of music at Dartmouth, applies rigorous research to determine whether the melody or words were written first, whether the instrumental or vocal version was the first produced, who first performed the song, etc. In the process, he takes on previous Berlin biographers in academic fisticuffs. Hamm seems the better researcher, but perhaps obsessively so. The book is geared to the Berlin scholar or the armchair fan--with some knowledge of music theory--who has already devoured a few biographies and wants to go much deeper. Appendix 3 (compiled by Paul Charosh), for instance, catalogs the songs of the period and notes recording companies, artists, etc., but nowhere lists a recording readily available to the general public. Though Hamm's arguments are well made, his overly academic approach stifles the very exuberance so endemic to the works of this popular songwriter.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-19-507188-3
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1997


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