Every year I try to read something new that is related to Christmas, about Christmas or set during Christmas. This year, I wasn’t tempted by any of the Christmas fiction available at my library so I did a quick search in the catalog for nonfiction Christmas-y books and this title jumped out at me. I am an ardent lover of holiday music and have always admired Bing Crosby’s version of White Christmas so I knew this book would be perfect for me.
White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin, already a majorly successful composer, and used in the film Holiday Inn which was released in 1942. Around September of that year the song became a best-selling record and was played frequently on the radio. Berlin tried to have the song’s popularity stifled because he wanted to save it for December, but he needn’t have worried; the song stayed on the charts throughout that year and into the next. With its haunting melody and nostalgic lyrics, White Christmas was adopted by American soldiers as a symbol of home and better times and continued to top the charts throughout the war. In fact, the master recording had been pressed so many times that it wore out and Bing Crosby had to re-record the song in 1947 (this second version is the one we hear now). It is currently the best-selling single of all time.
In this microhistory, Rosen examines not only the history of White Christmas, its structure and recording, but the entire history of pop music from the twenties through the sixties. There are chapters on Tin Pan Alley, Irving Berlin’s rise to fame from a poor upbringing in Siberia, Bing Crosby’s preeminence, how music changed so dramatically in the fifties with the rise of rock and roll and how this demolished the traditional songwriting and sheet music business (and forced Irving Berlin to retire). He also discusses how most of our standard songs (including Christmas music) was written by Jewish composers who so perfectly captured the hopes and dreams of all everyday Americans.
I got more than I bargained for with White Christmas and am thoroughly delighted. I enjoyed reading about the golden age of songwriting and about Berlin – a perfectionist, a somewhat cranky, patriotic humanitarian who lived to the age of 101. When I hear White Christmas now I will think of all I learned while reading this book and of how truly remarkable it is that this song has persisted in being so influential 71 years after its first release.
This is a wonderful Christmas read – one I highly recommend. Are you reading anything Christmas related?
Also, I am participating in Wilkie in Winter, hosted by The Estella Society. I’ll start reading The Frozen Deep tomorrow for the readalong.
Have a great weekend!
2 thoughts on “Christmas Reading/ White Christmas: The Story of an American Song by Jody Rosen”
This sounds both fascinating and entertaining – perfect for this time of year. That’s amazing about White Christmas still being the best-selling single. I really feel in the mood (best not to think why?!) for some Christmas cosy murders, so I should go track a few down.
I agree – this sounds wonderful! My family watched White Christmas (the movie) every year, while Christmas dinner cooked – well, not the whole family, my father always fled the room as did my brother later. But the rest of us sang along happily. Irving Berlin is such an interesting person – I remember seeing him in a film about World War II (but partly set during the first war). I’m going to look for this, thanks! And Merry Christmas!