Irving Berlin Essay - Critical Essays

Charles Hamm

Irving Berlin

Reading IRVING BERLIN: SONGS FROM THE MELTING POT: THE FORMATIVE YEARS, 1907-1914, compares to watching a performance whose sidelights happily detract from what is happening center stage. For example, as critiqued in VARIETY, a sampling of acts playing contemporary vaudeville houses brings an era’s entertainment to vivid life, while a chronicling of Berlin’s phenomenally successful song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” illuminates the workings at the time of the promotion of popular music.

Such fascinating recreations of the worlds of vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley easily absorb the reader more than Hamm’s thesis championing Irving Berlin’s influence on America’s popular music. According to Hamm, Berlin’s debut musical comedy, WATCH YOUR STEP (1914), combining as it did the pervasive syncopation marking his emerging ballad style with European-based compositional technique, was a seminal work in American musical theater. This syncopation was ostensibly derived from the rhythms of African American music, and Hamm devotes an entire chapter to “Berlin and Blackface.”

Familiarity with musical terminology and notation is indispensable to following Hamm’s arguments in any detail. Chapter summaries and an epilogue reinforce the points Hamm wishes to make, in case these became lost to the reader along the way—which, considering the minutiae in which Hamm, a professor emeritus of music at Dartmouth College, frequently engages, is a distinct possibility. Appendices cataloging Berlin’s published and unpublished songs before 1915 and also period recordings of his early songs will likely interest collectors and fans as well as students of Berlin and Tin Pan Alley.