It's about time someone debunked this Irving Berlin legend. First "Holiday Lun" and then "This Is the Army" have been heralded by hysterical press-agents as practically music of the spheres, Berlin as the greatest song writer in America. Put aside for a moment the marvelous memories of the spirit of "This is the Army," put aside the personalities of Crosby and Astaire, and run over all two dozen of the songs from these shows. If you can remember more than six, you must admit than the add up to a poor total.
This is not to say that Berlin is a putrid song writer. He's one of the best America has produced. He has an immense capacity for melody, he has plenty of ideas, and he doesn't worry too much about stereotyped forms. No song-writer would be ashamed of having written "Blue Skies," "Always," "Remember," or "How Deep Is the Ocean." Above all, his greatest contribution is the knack of representing the completely average sentiments of the man on the street.
These qualities have made Berlin famous and deserving of much of his fame. It is his lack of self-criticism that really spoils his songs. Even Berlin's most devout followers can't deny that his tunes get repetitions. By itself the score of "Holiday Inn" is certainly above the average run of Tin Pan Alley drivel. But when you have already heard his output for the past twenty years--and who hasn't?--the score seems pale and derivative.
The result of this lack of self-criticism is not only poor music, but also frequent lapses of taste. Berlin's touch with the common person then descends into mere vulgarity. This common touch stands up beautifully in such a number of "What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear" in "This Is the Army." Here is a poor song but a fine idea, dealing with the substitution of khaki uniforms for zoot suits.
On the other hand, we have Berlin's inadvertent use of the word "darky" in the original lyrics of "Abraham" in "Holiday Inn." When it was called to his attention he apologized, saying that he did not realized the word was offensive to the Negro people. Twenty years ago such a provincial mistake might be excused, but certainly not now.
An even worse example of Berlin's lapse in taste in another number called "That Russian Winter" which he conceived for the Army show. It deals in a rather hotcha fashion with one Adolf Hitler, whose plans were frustrated by "That Russian Winter." To top it off, the dance routines were performed by Cossacks in shiny boots and bright silk shirts--the standard, romanticized view of the Russian people. Granted that the show was corn through and through, wonderful and very enjoyable corn, Berlin should have thought of something that didn't insult the intelligence of anyone who has read even one communique from Russia.
Back in the twenties Berlin looked at the world through gin-colored glasses, as did everyone else, and wrote some fine, lasting songs. However phony their sentiment, they aren't quite as threadbare and overworked as their younger brothers.