Book Review : The Ragtime Life of Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin & Ragtime America by Ian Whitcomb (Limelight Editions, 118 E. 30th St., New York, N.Y. 10016: $18.95, 219 pages)

“Everything in America Is Ragtime” was one of Irving Berlin’s hit tunes in 1916--and everything in Ian Whitcomb’s new biography of Berlin is ragtime too.

As Whitcomb tells it, Irving Berlin--"one of the Tsar’s rejected children,” a “self-made and self-assured young man in a hurry,” “the Compleat Alleyman"--was gifted with the ability “to join art with commerce, to hammer out songs in all genres, to tap into America and himself (often the same creature) and to sell song moods to a public that recognized these as their own.” The King of Jazz, he explains in “Irving Berlin & Ragtime America,” was “a salesman of dreams and also a prime example of the American Dream come true: from ghetto poverty to riches and fame.”

You may remember Whitcomb as a momentary rock phenomenon of the mid-'60s whose one and only hit song--a panting rocker called “You Turn Me On"--was actually a devastating parody by a master ironist. Whitcomb went on to invent himself as a one-of-a-kind author, performer, broadcaster and self-made musicologist whose mission is to preserve and promote the authentic heritage of American music. Nowadays, Whitcomb is on the air over KCRW-FM in Santa Monica, where I recently heard him play, among other things, a performance of “Satisfaction” by a ukulele orchestra; and a wartime Nazi propaganda cover of an English novelty tune, “All the King’s Horses.”


Son of a Cantor

Whitcomb introduces us to Irving Berlin, still called Israel (Izzy) Baline, as the young son of an immigrant cantor, crooning for pennies on the sidewalks of New York. Later, we see him as a singing waiter and a “song plugger” in the “blood-and-sawdust” saloons of turn-of-the-century New York, then as a $25-a-week songwriter in Tin Pan Alley, and finally as the king of ragtime and America’s enduring master tunesmith. And, through his Berlin biography, Whitcomb shows us the creation of what is today a multi-national commercial empire, the most successful form of American imperialism.

“Irving Berlin’s brothers, his forerunners in the new thing called show business, had become keenly aware of a mass market hungry for entertainment, a market created by the Industrial Revolution,” Whitcomb explains. “They sprayed Puritan America with a joy, an energy, an elan, that had been absent in the upright, stiff-backed Yankee trader. . . . And when Irving Berlin joined the train in 1909 he was, by chance, going to latch onto a music that was so bouncy and bumptious--so full of chutspah--that the rest of the world was certain that this was the very quintessence of the American soul.”

Whitcomb tells the tale of ragtime--and, in a larger sense, the saga of American music and what is appropriately known as the “music industry"--in a kind of syncopated patter, a verbal jazz riff, that evokes the very rhythms of ragtime. And be warned: Whitcomb sometimes plays fast and loose with facts, improvising on the historical score to a ragtime beat, although he usually warns us what he’s up to with a wink of the eye. (His ragtime version of the murder of Rasputin, for example, is pure phantasmagoria.)


Powerful Racial Myth

Along the way, Whitcomb gives us a lively history of American civilization as refracted through the lens of pop music. His extended chapter on “The Strange Myth of the Hot Coon,” for example, is an ambitious study of the tensions between the ambitions and achievements of black Americans and the profound racism of the white majority. From these tensions arose a powerful racial myth that attached itself to the music of Tin Pan Alley, a myth that understated and circumscribed the reality of black America:

“Generations of well-meaning and guilt-ridden historians, journalists, musicians and plain members of the public have credited ragtime, jazz, rock and roll, and anything soaked in syncopation as the contribution--and the only one--of the Afro-American,” he writes. “It has been the Big Lie that blacks are born with a monopoly on the Big Beat. This injustice, starting in the 18th Century, lasted well into the Age of Rock. . . .”

Whitcomb points out too that Tin Pan Alley was a kind of entrepreneurial Ellis Island for immigrant Jews who were excluded from universities, the professions and corporate capitalism. “Some of them ventured into the rogue business of mass entertainment: popular theater and popular music,” he explains. “These marginal tradesmen were to display a glittering song shop, a moveable feast rolling along a trumpet accompaniment that constantly praised the American Way.”

A Soothing World

For Whitcomb, Irving Berlin and ragtime music are nothing less than an anodyne for the painful encounters with modern times and contemporary popular culture--and he invites us to lose ourselves, to soothe ourselves, in the comforting world of “Ragtime America.”

“Music today can be reduced to the binary code of digital technology. Wild wood notes, heart-wrenching harmonies, jungle drums, an ‘aaaargh!'--all analyzed into numbers and plusses and minuses,” Whitcomb writes. “And in reaction (and emotion) I dived into Tin Pan Alley. A world of June honeymoons, lost children looking for dead fathers, ragtime Romeos, yearnings for the old swimming hole on a hot summer day near the green, green grass of Wyoming. In the smoking city beyond the hill was Alexander, forever ragging and prancing.”