The Ordway just kicked off a new series, Broadways Songbook, which features a dynamic mix of composer life stories, discussion of what made their work so extraordinary, and performances by an ensemble of renowned artists from the Twin Cities musical theater, jazz and cabaret scenes. On September 23-25th, the Ordway’s Broadway Songbook will feature the music and history of possibly the most prolific songwriter of the 20th century, Irving Berlin, a legend among American musical masters.
And of course, TC Jewfolk has the hook up. We’re giving away two pairs of free tickets to the show. Read on.
What Songs Did He Write That I Would Know?
How to pick which hits you’ll know? Um… how about… “God Bless America” or “There’s No Business Like Show Business” or “White Christmas” or for you jazz fans “I’ve got my love to keep me warm.” Over his 60 year career (he died in 1989) he wrote approximately 1,500 songs, including the scores for 19 Broadway shows (like “Annie Get Your Gun”) and 18 Hollywood films (like “White Christmas” and “Cocoanuts”). His songs were nominated 8 times for Academy Awards, and have been extensively re-records by numerous singers including Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra, Ethel Waters, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, Rosemary Clooney, Cher, Diana Ross, Bing Crosby, Rita Reys, Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray, Al Jolson, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Doris Day and Ella Fitzgerald.
This is a man Composer George Gershwin called “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived” and led composer Jerome Kern to say “Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music.”
And He’s Jewish, Right?
Just a bit. His real name? Israel Isidore Baline. He was born in Russia, one of eight kids and the son of a cantor. The family was very religious. Author and music historian Ian Whitcomb described Berlin’s life in Russia:
Life might have seemed irksome to Israel Baline: God was watching you everywhere. From the dawn bath to the night straw cot, everything was of religious significance. God was in the food and in the clothing. When Moses caught Israel pulling on his little shoes in a manner proscribed by the Talmud he beat him…
The floor of the Baline hut-home was of hard black dirt. Outside, the squiggly streets of Tyumen were either mud or dust according to the season. Lining the squiggles were horrid wooden huts. Sometimes wild pigs would rage into town and bite children to death…It was not a setting to sing about… Instead, cantor Moses took his children to the synagogue where, in soothing sing-song readings from the Talmud, the cares of the day were eased away. Life in Tyumen sounds pretty awful but, in later years, Irving Berlin said he was unaware of being raised in abject poverty. He knew no other life and there was always hot food on the table, even if it was God-riddled.
Berlin’s family left Russia when he was five because of pogroms and anti-Semitism, and moved to NYC. Ian Whitcomb describes that turning point in Berlin’s life.
But, suddenly one day, the Cossacks rampaged in on a pogrom… they simply burned it to the ground. Israel and his family watched from a distant road. Israel was wrapped in a warm feather quilt. Then they made a hasty exit. Knowing that they were breaking the law by leaving without a passport (Russia at that time was the only country requiring passports), the Balines smuggled themselves creepingly from town to town, from satellite to satellite, from sea to shining sea, until finally they reached their star: the Statue of Liberty.
His family lived in poverty on the Lower East Side of NYC, working low-paying jobs and depositing their pennies into his mother’s apron at the end of each day. It was in Berlin’s early years of work that he began to see the power music held to inspire, and to make a few more pennies. In his early teens, he entered the music business – singing for customers in the saloons. It was working in these saloons that Berlin would find other composers, singers, and connections to launch his songwriting career. The rest is history.
Okay, I’m interested. How can I win free tickets?
TC Jewfolk is giving away two pairs of free tickets to “Broadway Songbook: The Words and Music of Irving Berlin” at the Ordway. You pick the show you want to attend.
All you have to do is look online, look in your old record collection, and tell answer this question in the comments below…. What is your favorite song by Irving Berlin? We’ll randomly draw our two winners on Thursday, September 15th at midnight.