To round out the week, I present to you the American propaganda song “I Paid My Income Tax Today” by Irving Berlin, written in 1942 to facilitate the “unprecedented” income tax collection efforts supporting World War II. The rights to the song are actually still owned by our esteemed Internal Revenue Service, which widely distributed the song upon its publication.
Proclaiming the patriotic virtues of paying taxes, this zippy little ditty makes being “squared up with the USA” sound positively delightful. I will try to remember that when the taxman comes a-knocking next April. Clearly, our national dialogue surrounding taxes has caused ideological strife in recent years, but I hope you will all still get a chuckle out of this final Song of the Day. Happy listening!
NYFOS offers a week of cold-weather songs as we settle into the winter season.
Billie Holiday’s take on this cold weather classic from winter song master Irving Berlin.
Happy Friday everyone! It’s my last day as your tour guide, and since I’ve been in rehearsals for two separate Christmas shows, I figured I would end with a Christmas song. Not only is the song one of my favorite holiday tunes, but it’s also the best-selling single of all time. I’m, of course, referring to Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t think my selection was a little cliché. I love Christmas music and have a large catalogue that ranges from the hits to very obscure compositions that most likely only appear on my iPhone. But then I sat back and thought about what one song truly captures that time of year to me. And the choice was easy. Written by the Jewish-American Berlin in 1940, it was first sung by Bing Crosby on The Kraft Music Hall. It went on to appear in the film Holiday Inn, won the Oscar for Best Original Song, and inspired the popular the film that shares the song’s name. It’s been noted that the song’s popularity sprang from the longing to be somewhere else for the holidays, a sentiment easily shared for listeners during WWII. The song would go on to sell 50 million copies.
When I was young, my family would always watch White Christmas at the start of the Christmas season. It always felt that was the moment that it was “officially” Christmas time. Now, that moment has changed for me. For the past eight years, it’s been around 10pm on a Monday night at 105th and Broadway. A Goyishe Christmas to You! has a very special place in my heart.It was the first thing that my wife saw me perform in, and even though we no longer live in NYC, it’s one of our favorite holiday traditions. I relish the performance each year, and love seeing my fellow performers who, although we only see each other about once a year, have become very close to me.
At the end of the evening, we all gather at the front of the piano and get to sing Mr. Berlin’s song. Then something magical happens. We hum in harmony and it feels as if, just for the briefest of moments, the rest of New York is silent. To me, then is it Christmas.
We like to think of Irving Berlin as one of the most quintessentially American songwriters, but like so many of them, he had his roots elsewhere. He wrote this little-known tune for Fanny Brice in 1925, soon after legislation had been passed placing quotas on immigration. In this live recording by the incomparable Judy Blazer and NYFOS’s own Michael Barrett, listen for lyrics like “There’s millions of people on the shore / Why can’t you make room for just one more” and marvel at how relevant Berlin’s piece still is.
Speaking of anthems, patriotic songs and sports events, there has recently been a bit of upheaval in the sports reporting world about the singing of “God Bless America” (or the playing of it, at least) during the 7th Inning stretch at baseball games. Major League Baseball suggested every team play the song during the stretch after 9/11 to help with healing and national unity. There are some who now feel it is a bit of overkill at this point, as it is not the official National Anthem. I would argue, we are always in need of some healing these days.
The thing is, it is a much more singable tune with descriptions of the whole, wide ranging and diverse country. It was written by Irving Berlin, a man who could write a tune. And even though he didn’t think it was his best work (Berlin was quoted as saying he thought the song was maudlin and depressing), when Kate Smith asked him to write something for her radio show, something patriotic as war loomed large on the horizon of 1938, he dusted this one off and gave it to her. The rest, as they say, is history.
Here’s a fact I’ll bet you didn’t know: Irving Berlin never made a dime off that song, which says something for one of the most prolific writers of the time in the commercial music biz. In 1940, Berlin created the God Bless America Fund and all royalties have gone to the fund to support the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America (things you learn being a Girl Scout for 13 years). The song remains under copyright until 2034, though I believe is now more focused on the New York City scout services.
In researching this week’s posts, I was just going to mention the Banner (see July 4 post) but I spoke with a number of folks while taking a very unofficial Laura Lee Survey. This is where I randomly ask various smart and unique people what they think. From the lady at the Performing Arts library at the NYPL, to my server at Pig ‘n’ Whistle, from the halal cart guy in my neighborhood, to Sandy the Coffee Cart man at my office, when I asked what is the most patriotic song for them, without hesitation, they all said “God Bless America”. And when I asked why, for many of them, it had to do with asking for a blessing on the place where they live, their home. They all just assume the God you are talking to in that song is their God, whatever faith they may be, which I think is cool.
Well, Mr. Berlin, you may not have thought it your best work, but it sure has resonance for the rest of the country. And it must have started to feel good to him – watch this version of Berlin himself, on the Ed Sullivan show in 1968. It is charming, and heartfelt from this 80- year old Russian Jewish immigrant, who grew up on the Lower East Side and gave us so many of the songs creating backbone of the Great American Songbook.
For those of you who may not have seen or heard the great Kate Smith version (interlaced with images of This is the Army, a 1943 film starring Ronald Reagan), here it is and is also well worth watching.
This week our SoTD curator is composer Susan Botti who will host and curate the second installment of NYFOS Next 2016 on Febuary 11th alongside fellow Manhattan School of Music faculty member, Richard Danielpour. Botti is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Rome Prize. Orchestral commissions include works for the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. In addition to performing her own vocal works, she specializes in the vocal performance of contemporary music by a diverse range of composers. Thank you, Susan!
Thank you to NY Festival of Song for NYFOS Next and your dedication to today’s composers. My mind has been reeling trying to decide which Songs will be my Songs-of-the-Day. Just five – difficult to choose, but here goes… I will be traversing different styles throughout the week, but I think I must start with….
Cheek to Cheek – Irving Berlin (1935)
There’s no one like Irving Berlin at crafting the perfect song – the naturalness of the motives and melody and the way both are interlaced seamlessly with the lyric. Sentiment and expression are lifted from speech to song. Beginning in a semi-spoken, “heaven”, this seed of a motive/lyric blossoms joyfully. There’s that subtly syncopated hook “out together…”, the catalogue of things “I’d like to…” do that don’t compare to (you know what), the exuberant “Dance with me” section… it’s just perfect. It’s rapturous and intimate and, (as all great songs do) it expresses our human experience in words and music. Of course, it is perfectly sung by Fred Astaire with voice and body. Glorious.
And since you can’t love just one Irving Berlin song, here’s another of my favorites:
Let’s Face the Music and Dance – Irving Berlin (1936)
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