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‘Tis the season of Irving Berlin!

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The following is a guest post by Contract Archivist Janet McKinney.

Irving Berlin, August 1948. LC-USZ62-37541 (b&w film copy neg.) Prints and Photographs Division.

At a time of year when the airwaves are saturated with holiday music, I continually hear the strains of one man’s iconic songs stand out from the rest – those of Irving Berlin (1888-1989). It occurred to me that many may not associate these familiar songs with the gifted composer, or with his other treasured works – “God bless America,” “Blue skies,” “Puttin’ on the ritz,” “There’s no business like show business,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Cheek to cheek”…or any of the other 451 hits from the 812 songs he published.

At the Library of Congress, we are lucky to have in our care the Irving Berlin Collection.  There are a few obscure holiday tunes in the collection (such as “Santa Claus-A Syncopated Christmas Song”), but we also hold materials for Berlin’s four well-known holiday compositions, all of which were introduced through film by Bing Crosby. The first film, Holiday Inn (1942), features an inn that is only open on holidays. The songs “Happy holiday” and “Holiday Inn” are both featured in the film as the guests at the inn celebrate New Year’s Eve.  The film also premiered the beloved holiday classic “White Christmas”, the timeless song that, due to its popularity, became the inspiration for another movie musical, White Christmas (1954). The movie features another song that also makes many appearances around this time of year, “Count your blessings instead of sheep,” crooned to Rosemary Clooney by Mr. Crosby. Hopefully some of our readers were fortunate enough to see the screening on Dec. 18th at the Library’s Packard Center.

Of the four compositions just mentioned, “White Christmas” stands out as the familiar classic, even though most only know the chorus (how many out there are familiar with the sunny, Beverly Hills verse?). We have in our collection the lead sheet sketch of “White Christmas,” dated January 8, 1940.  Neither Berlin nor Helmy Kresa, Berlin’s personal music secretary who transcribed the sketch that day, knew how legendary and influential the song would become. In 1942, Berlin won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. The popularity of “White Christmas” would soar as it became not merely a holiday tune, but a war song for those fighting abroad, evoking dreams of home and peace. Not only is this one of the most played, recorded, and performed songs in the Christmas repertoire, but Crosby’s recording is one of the best selling singles of all time across any genre.  The original 1942 Bing Crosby recording was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in its inaugural year, 2002 (the 1938 Kate Smith radio broadcast premiere of “God bless America” was also added that same year).

We shall see what recording artists breathe new life into these Berlin classics next year.  In the meantime:

“May the calendar keep bringing, happy holidays to you!”

Comments (3)

  1. I am intrigued by your reference to other “obscure holiday tunes.” My holiday performances up here in New York state are never complete without some of Mr. Berlin’s music and now I shall have to see if I can add a few new ones to my repertoire! Thanks for the information.

    Oh, and for the record – I DO know the Beverly Hills verse to “White Christmas.” 🙂

    • Hi, Susan! Thanks for your question – I checked in with Janet about other holiday tunes that show up in the collection, and this is what she has to say:

      A quick look at the collection reveals several titles (of course, there could be more):
      In the film Holiday Inn, “Let’s start the New Year right” is also sung by Crosby in the New Year’s Eve celebration. “I remember Christmas time” is a counterpoint duet for “White Christmas,” and “Plenty to be thankful for” is sung during the Thanksgiving segment of the film.

      “Bells” is a song that originally premiered in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1920, but was later reworked for White Christmas, while “Snow” is a seasonal tune sung by all four leads. There are two numbers in the collection that were written for the film, but were not used: “Santa Claus number” and “What does a soldier want for Christmas?”

      Berlin also wrote a few compositions that were not affiliated with any musical. As mentioned in the post, “Santa Claus-A syncopated Christmas song” was published in New York World Magazine, Dec. 24, 1916. We have a lyric sheet for “You gotta believe in Santa Claus,” but no music to accompany it. Berlin also wrote the lyrics for “Christmas time seems years and years away,” with music by Ted Snyder (1909).

  2. You can hear “Santa Claus” on CD “Rest Your Merry”, performed by Benjamin Sears & Bradford Conner in its premiere recording.

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