In a world in which we properly honor with highest praise, the accomplishments of those who have risen to the top of their chosen profession or vocation following years working their way through the halls of academe in order to earn that distinction, I think we too easily write off the miracle of amateurism. If, as Merriam Webster asserts, an amateur is a “dabbler”, a “dilettante”, a “non-professional” or a mere “tinkerer”, we have to wonder why we hold in such high esteem people like William Shakespeare, Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin and Thomas Edison to name just a few “non-experts” who helped to change the world. (Being a backyard astronomer myself, I can’t help but note that almost all comets charted in recent years were discovered by amateurs, i.e. David Levy who found 22!)
The “dabbler” about whom I write on this Memorial Day, was born in Byelorussia on May 11, 1888 to a Jewish family of 8, and was given the name Israel Isidore Beilin. His father was a Cantor in the nearby synagogue, and the family was very poor. It was not a good time to be a Jew in Russia amid the pogroms (organized and state-sanctioned massacres of Jewish people) that saw the death or ejection of entire communities by the thousands. Later in life, the only memory of that period which lingered was a scene of himself at the age of three lying in the dusty road and watching his family home and all its belongings burning to the ground.
The “New World” and its statue of liberty beckoned to a people who had no other hope, and the Beilins were one of many displaced Jewish families settling in the “ghetto-like” lower East side of New York City, where they were lucky (and thankful) to find a cold-water basement room from which to start a new life. Prospects for a livelihood were meager at best, and young “Izzy” sold newspapers and sang Yiddish songs for his neighbors, sometimes being paid a nickel. He decided that he would like to become a street singer, and taught himself to play an old broken-down piano. His small hands had a limited spread, so he played only the black keys, as he began to invent the music for which he would make up words and then sing, so all his music was written in one key – f sharp major.
At some point, a friendly showman printed out some of Beilin’s sheet music, but mistakenly signed it “I. Berlin”, and so Irving Berlin, the New York City “Street Singer” who could neither write nor read music was “born”. Young Berlin lived at a time and in a place where “folk” lyrics and “tin pan alley” rhythms were hitting their stride, and small-theater musicals reflected the search of a dynamic and effervescent population for a source of happiness and wellbeing in a city racing to become the world’s largest and most ethnically-diverse.
The fact that he couldn’t write his own music was no problem, since he was surrounded by friends who happily carried out that chore, among whom were those who also had access to the presses needed to print sheet music – a growing industry and income producer. And as for his other problem, he soon acquired what was known as a “transposing piano” which he called his “Buick”, since it featured a shifting lever which could convert his music to the key of C. Asked years later about this musical handicap, he said “since I don’t know the rules, I am free to break them”; and break them he did with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, “Annie Get Your Gun”, and musical scores which focused the world’s attention on a New York street called “Broadway”.
In all, Irving Berlin’s talent gave us 19 Broadway plays, 18 Hollywood films, and at least 1500 popular songs, 25 of which became “Number 1 hits”; pieces of Americana such as “I Got the Sun in the Morning”, “Easter Parade”, and “White Christmas” which remains today the highest selling song in American history.
In 1918, in the closing days of World War I, Berlin enlisted, and trained at a camp in New York State. Filled with a sense of patriotism he composed the words and music for a song he felt the country needed, its three-word title inspired by something he heard his grateful mother utter each and every day of her life. When The Great War ended, he quietly filed the music away. Twenty years later, in 1938, believing that a new war in Europe was about to engulf her own country, a singing sensation with the name of Kate Smith asked Irving Berlin to write a patriotic song for her to sing. Instead, he reached into his desk drawer and handed her something called “God Bless America”, destined to become America’s “second national anthem”, and one of the most-loved Memorial Day gifts any American could give to his country. Not bad for an “amateur”; not bad at all!
NOTE: Irving Berlin assigned all future profits from “God Bless America” to the Boy Scouts of America, and the National Girl Scouts. He died in 1989 at the age of 101.