By most reckonings, Irving Berlin was one of the greatest songwriters in the history of American popular music.
And he was, by and large, an abject failure.
How do I reconcile these statements? In fact, how dare I call someone like Berlin a failure? This is a man who, as a Russian Jewish immigrant, pulled himself out of the New York City ghetto and taught himself how to play the piano, albeit only in one key, making the harmonic sophistication of his songs all the more impressive. [He used a transposing piano which changed keys by use of a lever.] This is a man who had one of the all-time best-selling songs in “White Christmas,” who wrote one of the great Broadway song scores with “Annie Get Your Gun,” who lived to be a hundred and is estimated to have written anywhere from over 1250 to over 1500 songs in his lifetime.
Yet that last statistic backs up my second statement about Berlin. It is an unbelievable number of songs. By way of comparison, in my eleven years of an admittedly part-time, third career as a lyricist, I have written about a hundred songs, more or less. And I depend on collaborators for the music, because I have no skills or training as a composer. Berlin did both, and did them extremely well at times.
So, let’s assume the total number is 1250. Now, suppose you could list these songs in order of quality. I would start with “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” in the top spot, followed by “They Say It’s Wonderful” and “Isn’t It a Lovely Day [To Be Caught In the Rain],” but that’s my list. Look at the first ten songs, and you have ten of the greatest songs ever written. Same with 11-20. And you keep going, through the great anthems [“God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade”], through pretty much the entire score of “Annie Get Your Gun,” and so on.
By the time you get to 41-50, you’ve gotten to songs that maybe you’ve heard of, maybe even have heard played or sung, but rarely. After 60, you’d be hard pressed to even identify a title as an Irving Berlin song. The chronological Wikipedia list, found here, highlights sixty of the songs with their own articles. While not a perfect indicator, it gives a rough proxy as to which of the songs merited further discussion [although “Si’s Been Drinking Cider” seems to have been an accidental highlighting.]
Now for some math. Sixty out of 1260 is a success rate of about 4.8%. Flip it, and it’s a failure rate of 95.2%. Pretty damn high, which proves my second statement.
And this is why Irving Berlin inspires me and gives me hope as a writer. When people ask me for writing advice, the most significant thing that I tell them is to write every day. What you write may or may not turn out to be any good, but the sheer act of writing it will make you a better writer. It’s a muscle, a mental muscle that needs constant exercise if it is ever going to improve.
And if you write enough, some of it will be good.
And if it isn’t good, set it aside and move on to the next thing. I knew a composer once who told me that he didn’t want to bother writing any bad songs because he thought he only had so many good songs in him. I disagree with that whole-heartedly. You learn from the bad. You develop an aesthetic sense that will help you down the line. Look again at the chronological list in Wikipedia and see how the percentage of significant songs increases as Berlin matured. [It goes back down as he ages out of his prime.]
The young Berlin wrote “Ephraham Played Upon The Piano” and “Don’t Take Your Beau to the Seashore,” and his career survived [the latter song is fun, by the way.] George Gershwin said of him, “The first real American musical work is ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’ Berlin had shown us the way; it was now easier to attain our ideal.”
I didn’t get Berlin when I was a young teen working my way through my dad’s fake book. The songs seemed corny, and he never completely made the transition to the integrated musical, although a case can be made for “Call Me Madam” in that regard. His greatest work came when Jerome Kern died before taking on the score to what would become “Annie Get Your Gun,” causing producers Rodgers and Hammerstein to bring him on. As I have developed and improved in my own lyric-writing, I have come to appreciate the idea of telling the story in the song without drawing attention to the songwriter. Simplicity, in other words. Sondheim, in his essay in Finishing The Hat, says “Berlin is a lyricist whose work I appreciate more and more the older I get. His lyrics appear to be simple, but simplicity is a complicated matter, as well as being hard to achieve without a quick slide from simple to simplistic.”
By most reckonings, Irving Berlin was one of the greatest songwriters in the history of American popular music. Most reckonings. Including mine.
Hey there, just wanted to say this is a great, much-needed post (for me personally, but also i think for most creatives the world at large). Another one who forthrightly takes a similar “i have to write and finish everything, to get to the actual gold” approach is leonard cohen.
Listening to the “American Song Book” series by Ella Fitzgeral, it struck me that only Cole Porter and Irving Berlin were habitually both composers and lyricists, and I was puzzled. Why was Porter so good while Berlin left me cold?
When I googled, I came up with your post. Having read it I now realize I may have not listened carefully enough; I will listen with a more attentive ear to the Songbook albums dedicated to Berlin, especially to the interplay of lyrics and music (which is what makes Cole Porter so good).
Carl, thanks for the comment. There were a number of great songwriters who did both: Noel Coward, Frank Loesser, Stephen Sondheim, to name a few, and I’ll throw in Jerry Herman although “Hello, Dolly” was the only show of his that I liked. But definitely start with the songs I list as my top three, or listen to Tony Bennett singing anything by Berlin.