Kirkus Reviews QR Code


The Story of an American Song

by Jody Rosen

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-7432-1875-2
Publisher: Scribner

Informative and thoughtful account of a song that became a wartime anthem, pioneered the evolution of holiday music, and “paved the way for the new music” sold on records rather than as sheet music.

The story of the song is central here, but along with those pertinent details, freelance journalist Rosen describes the changes in music since the 1940s and examines the role of Jews in the promotion of Christmas culture, a role that was “more profound than entrepreneurial savvy.” He suggests that Ira Berlin, a refugee from pogroms who with sheer chutzpah wrote “a Christmas anthem that buried all traces of the holiday’s Christian origins beneath three feet of driven snow” illustrates greater subtleties at work. Born in 1888 in Siberia, Berlin came to the US with his family at age five and grew up in the tenements of Manhattan's Lower East Side. He dropped out of school and by 19 was working in the lower levels of Tin Pan Alley. His first song was published in 1907, but his career was launched in 1911 with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which sold two million copies. Rosen records all the great Berlin hits and shows preceding “White Christmas” and its venue, the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby. Its sales have topped 125 million copies, but Berlin originally intended it only as a revue song—a wry novelty tune set in Los Angeles, sung by sophisticated expat New Yorkers pining for a snowbound Christmas. Rosen describes how Crosby treated the song as a Christmas carol but also gave it an “erotic charge,” adding to its popularity. The radios and jukeboxes carrying Crosby’s recording to American troops made it a bestseller. Berlin, Rosen notes, always understood how powerful its yuletide associations were.

Not just for the holidays, but for all who treasure American popular music: a perfect gift.