Irving Berlin: “White Christmas is not only the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote”

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Irving Berlin was born on May 11, 1888, in Tyumen, Russia. He arrived in New York in 1893 when he was only five years old. He would later become one of the most prolific songwriters of the 20th century.

During his career, he wrote nearly a thousand songs, including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Cheek To Cheek,” “What’ll I Do,” and of course “White Christmas,” which has proved to be his most popular song.

Portrait of Irving Berlin

Berlin liked the song so much that he told his secretary Helmy Kresa: “Grab your pen and take down this song. It’s the best song I ever wrote. Hell, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.” So far, the sales numbers surely support his claim.

Berlin wrote the song for the box office hit “Holiday Inn” which was released in the summer of 1942. “White Christmas” was performed for the first time by Bing Crosby on Christmas Day, 1941, on Crosby’s weekly NBC radio program, The Kraft Music Hall.

During World War II, Crosby performed the song for the troops overseas and it became so popular that troops continued to request records of “White Christmas” during the winter months.

It was May 29, 1942, when Bing Crosby recorded the song with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers and Chorus for Decca Records. It was published on July 30 as a single at the same time “Holiday Inn” hit the movie theaters.

1945 V-Disc release by the U.S. Army of "White Christmas" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Bing Crosby as No. 441B


By the end of World War II “White Christmas” was the best-selling song of all time for the next 56 years, until Elton John’s re-release of “Candle in the Wind” after Princess Diana’s death in 1997.

Bing Crosby publicity photo, c. 1930s

“White Christmas” was so popular that Crosby had to re-record it in 1947, because the masters of his 1942 recording session were worn beyond use. After 75 years “White Christmas” is still the best-selling Christmas song of all time and it remains, to this day, the most popular recorded holiday song ever.

No one knows for sure what motivated Irving Berlin to write the song. It is widely assumed that it was written in either New York or LA in the early 1930s. Many suggest that when he wrote the song he was on the West Coast, missing his family, and gathered inspiration from the snowy winters of New York.

Berlin didn’t celebrate Christmas and his own feelings about the holiday were certainly ambivalent. He spent each Christmas Day visiting the grave of his son, Irving Berlin, Jr., who died on Christmas Day, 1928, at only three weeks old.

Irving Berlin singing and conducting aboard USS Arkansas, 1944

With just 54 words and 67 notes, “White Christmas” is the most popular Christmas song in America.

“White Christmas” has been recorded by numerous artists and it’s even listed in the Guinness World Records for selling more than 100 million copies worldwide.

By Goran Blazeski

“The House of the Rising Sun” predates New Orleans, it begins with 16th century bawdy houses fatal to young men

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Undoubtedly, “The House of the Rising Sun” is one of the most famous songs ever written. It became popular thanks to the British rock band the Animals, but before that happened, there is a huge story-line to be tackled.

Originally a traditional folk song, “The House of the Rising Sun,” also known as “Rising Sun Blues,” tells of life in New Orleans, back in the day when poverty was the fate of many people. Like the majority of classic folk ballads, the authorship of “The House of the Rising Sun” is tricky and uncertain.

Musicologists say that it is certainly based on the broadside ballad tradition; a type of ballad which differentiated from traditional ones. They were popular between the 16th and the 19th century and unlike the traditional ballads, which were more epic in nature, they spoke of love, religion, legends, and wonders, and some were even drinking songs. The ‘broadsheet’ contained the lyrics of the song, along with the name of some popular tune that would match with the lyrics.

In the case of “The House of the Rising Sun,” the theory is it resembles “The Unfortunate Rake,” a 16th-century folk song which over time has evolved into a huge number of variants. The earliest known variant of “The Unfortunate Rake” laments over a young man dying of syphilis. Other variants lament over the fate of young soldiers, sailors, cowboys, or maids, all of whom had lost their life too early.

According to Alan Lomax, a distinguished American collector of folk songs of the 20th century, “Rising Sun” was used as the name of a bawdy house in two traditional English songs, as well being used for pub names across England. He also suggested that the ‘location of the house’ changed from England to New Orleans by white southern performers.

Other sources suggest that the “Rising Sun” originated from France, and referred to a decorative use of sunburst insignia dating all the way back to Louis XIV; it could have been brought to North America by French immigrants.

There are also further unconfirmed implications of “The Rising Sun” being related to other folk songs, one of which, is the folk song “Matty Groves”.

One thing is clear, that the original “The House of the Rising Sun” is older than New Orleans itself, as the city was founded in 1718. Its lyrics were also varying and different than the one we are familiar with today.

The oldest published version of the lyrics is printed by Robert Winslow Gordon in 1925, in the Adventure Magazine, where Gordon ran a folk music column, ‘Old Songs Men Have Sung’; the magazine collected information on traditional American music from magazine’s readers. The lyrics of that version are as follows:

There is a house in New Orleans, it’s called the Rising Sun,
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl,
Great God, and I for one

During the 1930’s, the first recordings of the song started to appear. The earliest known recording was released by Appalachian artists Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster. Their title was “Rising Sun Blues”.

On a further note, Alan Lomax, along with his father, curated the Archive of American Folk Songs for the Library of Congress. As part of their job, they worked on the field and were able to record a number of performances of the legendary song. In 1937, Alan produced a recording by the American folk singer, Georgia Turner. Her version of the song, entitled “The Rising Sun Blues” became the standard. This was the ancestor of hundreds of covers that were later on released by numerous performers, included Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and of the course The Animals, who first helped the song become a worldwide hit.

The Animals version made the folk song a number one hit in the UK, France, and the USA. As it was a traditional song recorded by an electric rock band for the first time, music critics regarded it as the “first folk-rock hit”. The American music critic and radio talk show host Dave Marsh would comment that the version by The Animals was “as if they’d connected the ancient tune to a live wire”.

BBC writer Ralph McLean would also note on the 1964 release that is had been “a revolutionary single” after which “the face of modern music was changed forever”.

 Stefan Andrews

This is the oldest surviving melody dating back to 1400 BC

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The Hurrian songs are a group of stone tablets with music inscribed in the cuneiform writing system. These were unearthed from the ancient Amorite city of Ugarit and date to approximately 1400 BC.

One of these tablets (h.6), contains the Hurrian hymn to Nikkal, making it the earliest markedly entire piece of composed music in the world. On some of the broken pieces, the composers’ names are inscribed, but h.6 is an anonymous work.

H.6 is one of about 36 such hymns in ancient Sumerian writing, and it’s the only one that remained in a substantially complete form. The other hymns were found on fragments of stone tablets, unearthed in the 1950s from present-day Ras Shamra, Syria, on the site of the ancient Royal Palace at Ugarit. They were discovered in a layer of earth dating from the 14th century BC. An account of the group of hymns was published in 1955 and 1968 by Emmanuel Laroche, who cataloged all of the song tablets with the designation ‘h’ for “Hurrian.” The entire hymn is identified as h.6 in the list; it was revised and published in 1975.

The lyrics of the h.6 tablet are a hymn to Nikkal, a Semitic goddess of orchards. It also contains inscribed directions for a singer playing a nine-stringed sammûm, a type of harp or, more likely, a lyre. Instructions for how to tune the harp are also contained on some of the tablets.

Several other survived early works of music, such as the Seikilos epitaph and the Delphic Hymns, are pre-dated by the Hurrian hymn by nearly a thousand years, but the Hurrian transcription remains contentious. A reconstruction of the lyrics by Marcelle Duchesne-Guillemin may be heard at the Urkesh web page, though this is only one of at least five differing interpretations of the wording, and each one bears an entirely remarkable result.

The composition of the h.6 tablet assigns the Hurrian words of the hymn on the top of the tablet, under which lies a paired division line. The hymn text is written in a continuous spiral, alternating between the front and back sides of the tablet – a layout not found in Babylonian texts. Below this text, there are Akkadian musical instructions, comprised of separated names followed by number signs. The differences in transcriptions focus on the interpretation of the meaning of these paired number signs and the association to the hymn text.

Below the musical instructions, there is another dividing line, a single one, underneath which there is an imprint in Akkadian which reads, “this nitkibli [i.e., the nid qabli tuning] song, a zaluzi to the gods… written down by Ammurabi”. This name, along with another scribe’s name, Ipsali, found on one of the other tablets, is Semitic.

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There is no songwriter signed for the complete h.6 hymn, but four composer names, which are all Hurrian, are found on five of the other fragmentary pieces

The tablet is now part of a collection at the National Museum of Damascus.

Take a Peek Inside The Leonard Cohen Exhibit In Montreal

Visitors to Montreal still have time to see Une brèche en toute chose (“A Crack in Everything”), a multimedia art exhibit that pays tribute to the late Leonard Cohen.

More than a year after his death, Montreal is still celebrating Leonard Cohen’s life. The poet, novelist, songwriter and singer is everywhere—from the Main Deli, where he enjoyed smoked meat in the second booth against the wall, to the Jewish Public Library, with which Cohen was affiliated. But one of the largest tributes began two years before Cohen’s death—at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) as part of the city’s 375th anniversary celebration. It opened one year after his passing.

The exhibit contains no artifacts belonging to Cohen; no fedoras, long black coats or guitars—only his olive-green Olivetti manual typewriter on which he composed his first novel. What there is, though, is more impressive: filmmakers, musicians, contemporary artists and their takes on how Cohen influenced society.

The exhibit—which runs until April 9, 2018— titled Une brèche en toute chose(“A Crack in Everything”) features tribute pieces from filmmakers, musicians and contemporary artists.

With Cohen’s blessing, and with his complete artistic output made available to them, curators John Zeppetelli and Victor Shiffman, compiled the museum’s most ambitious exhibition, commissioning 20 works from 40 artists representing 10 countries to bring a unique vision to Cohen’s effect on music and literature.

Consider Berlin-based Candice Breitz’s offering: the life-sized projection of 18 ardent male fans aged 65 and older encircling the viewer as they sing, “I’m Your Man,” backed by the all-male Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir (the synagogue Cohen attended throughout his life).

British Columbia-based Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller pay homage to Book of Longing with an interactive sound installation called “The Poetry Machine.” Pressing a single key on the vintage Wurlitzer organ generates Cohen’s voice reading an excerpt from the book from one of the gramophone horns. Play more than one key, and the room is filled with Cohen’s voice reading several selections simultaneously.

American Taryn Simon offers a mixed media installation of the front page of the New York Times, Friday, Nov. 11, 2016, with Cohen’s obituary published beneath a photograph of the first meeting between Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump. Cohen is doffing his hat in greeting or farewell.


Jazz, blues and gumbo in the Deep South

The French Quarter in New Orleans is brimming with antique buildings and music
The French Quarter in New Orleans is brimming with antique buildings and music   GETTY IMAGES

‘So can we go upstairs?” An overworked guide gives me a weary look. “Nobody goes upstairs, nobody but family.” My grown-up daughter and I are on the porch of Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, at the end of a road trip through the Deep South that has brought us to the second most visited house in America.

I know from the books that above us is the “death bathroom” where a heart attack felled Elvis Presley, supposedly as he read A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus on the loo. With no chance of inappropriate selfies, we settled into our basic $43.75 tour.

The first striking fact is that, unlike everything else in America, Graceland is smaller than you expect: a solid suburban home gussied up by a portico with four Corinthian columns. The second surprise is that for all the green shag carpeting on ceilings, the white settees, the faux fur upholstery and the indoor waterfall, the interior is really rather intimate and homely. You can see why Elvis loved the place.

Visitors to Graceland are forbidden from seeing the bathroom where Elvis died
Visitors to Graceland are forbidden from seeing the bathroom where Elvis died   MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

Long before reaching Presley’s doorstep, music and food had become the twin Corinthian pillars of our trip from Louisiana up Highway 61, the old “blues highway” through Mississippi. The adventure had begun, as many do, in New Orleans, specifically on that garish slash of neon, Bourbon Street, which cuts through the picturesque and otherwise charming French Quarter. Just off the plane, we went to the Desire Oyster Bar for our Welcome to Louisiana meal. Its no-nonsense menu was not for the weak-stomached: firecracker oysters, fried alligator (like chicken but saltier) and gumbo (southern stew). When a towering plate of shrimp and grits (similar to polenta) and a case of over-ambitious ordering defeated me, Kentrell, the oyster man, told me about the diner who downed nine orders of a dozen oysters. Yes, but that probably wasn’t at 3am UK time.

The next day we ventured farther into the French Quarter. In the balmy sun, surrounded by colourful, flower-bedecked antique buildings, you would have to try hard not to have a good time. Music was, of course, everywhere — a funky brass band, country blues buskers. Yes, this is tourist land but the standard was high, save for a lone trumpeter in Woldenberg Park by the Mississippi who seemed to slip into Baa, Baa, Black Sheep every time inspiration flagged. Even the living statues were a cut above, though the one we admired most, an eccentric figure in Canal Street, turned out, in fact, to be just a statue.

The restaurants too have their surprises. At ancient Napoleon House they showed us the upstairs chambers supposedly prepared for Bonaparte’s exile (never used after he died in St Helena). Above Arnaud’s Jazz Bistro there is a museum showing the costumes worn by the founder’s daughter at Mardi Gras balls. We inspected rows of ghostly mannequins clad as a mix of Disney princesses and Marie Antoinette.

John Bungey takes a break from Highway 61
John Bungey takes a break from Highway 61

By now, however, the road was calling — Highway 61, the legendary road as revisited by Bob Dylan. At first, however, the journey was dull unless you are a fan of swamp and low-budget ribbon development. However, excitement grew as it began to rain — and rain. By the time we reached picturesque Natchez, tornado warnings were gusting all over cable TV. Our hotel, the Grand, sat on a bluff high over the Mississippi, which was not, as in the Paul Simon song, “shining like a National guitar”. Instead Ol’ Man River brooded grey and ominous.

Natchez is known for the glories of its plantation houses — not so glorious if you were one of the four million slaves in the South labouring amid the cotton and sugar cane. The most spectacular residence we saw was Longwood, a six-storey mansion designed in Moorish style that comes with a poignant backstory. Only the basement was fitted out internally when the Civil War broke out and the northern builders fled. Its owner then died and his wife, reduced to penury, lived on with the children in the basement — as did their descendants for 100 years — never having the money to complete the interiors. The grand and ghostly upper floors are now a favourite for vampire movie-makers.

On we drove, the road taking us past more swamp and shacks and what looked in places like picturesque poverty, but real poverty nonetheless. We stopped at little Greenwood where the Alluvian was a fine boutique hotel, much-loved by weekending Americans. However, the rest of this little cotton city was a puzzle. For all its period buildings, the centre has been “hollowed out” by suburban growth. Trying to walk to a shop where you could buy, say, a banana or even (mad idea) a newspaper proved impossible. Instead we took the car to the Museum of the Mississippi Delta where they had the skeleton of a local mastodon, a re-creation of a swamp, and made a game attempt at explaining the convulsions of the Civil War and the bitter civil rights struggle in these parts.

Next came blues day. We drove out of town to the rustic little Zion Missionary Church to pay our respects at what may be the grave of the commercially insignificant but hugely influential bluesman Robert Johnson. There are two other alleged burial sites to choose from. Our route then took us past the crossroads where Johnson is said to have met the Devil to sell his soul in return for supernatural musical powers. Today Beelzebub would be crushed by the 18-wheelers trundling past before he could make the deal.

Halfway to Memphis we stopped at Clarksdale, touted as the birthplace of blues music. At the Delta Museum they were handing out fairy cakes to mark the birthday of Muddy Waters. The Ground Zero club is one part tourist trap, one part blues cliché and one part a very good time. We sipped root beer and listened to some righteous guitaring.

In Memphis we arrived at the new Napoleon Hotel, which pulls off the trick of being homely and hip. We told the valet we wanted to visit Sun Studio, cradle of early rock’n’roll. He pointed down the street. But it was one of those American urban forays via crumbling or non-existent sidewalks and past wandering lost souls that proved impossible for us. So we retreated and caught a bus. Sun Studio is small and airless, bedecked with pictures of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and sundry lost legends. At one end is a drum kit left behind when U2 rattled and hummed here in 1987; at the other end our guide, Nina, unveiled an ancient Shure 55 mike that Elvis may or may not have sung into. “Do not kiss it or lick it,” she implored, as the holy relic was passed round.

Downtown Memphis was smart and shiny, the rest was not. We ate a decent plate of gumbo in Beale Street, the music quarter, which is heavily touristy. But the National Civil Rights Museum, built around the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot in 1968, is hugely moving. King’s bedroom is preserved as on the day of his death. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, celebrating the mighty local label, was also $13 well spent.

After our Graceland foray, it was a six-hour straight drive down the Interstate 55 for another brief taste of New Orleans. At a final brunch at Commander’s Palace, I drank a potent local Sazerac cocktail, then another, and not surprisingly fell asleep on the plane home. I had a dream that I was back in Graceland and the reincarnated Elvis himself was showing me round upstairs. Yet as we reached his inner sanctum he morphed into an air stewardess who was telling me to buckle up for landing. Some things in the Deep South will for ever remain a deep mystery.

Pattie Boyd was the real-life “Layla,” who married George Harrison and became the romantic obsession of his close friend, Eric Clapton

Beatles guitarist and singer George Harrison with his wife, Patti Boyd. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

During the golden era of rock and roll, there was a muse who captivated two of the most eminent music icons in history.

One of them sang to her “Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like no other lover,” while the other sang, “Layla, you’ve got me on my knees/Layla, I’m begging darling please,” longing for her love.

How does one choose between George Harrison, the unforgettable Beatle, and Eric Clapton, the fierce guitar legend? Well, Pattie Boyd was the woman who was forced to make up her mind between these two.

Patricia Anne “Pattie” Boyd was born on March 17, 1944, in Somerset, England. During the 1960s, her family moved to London, and she soon began a modeling career. First, Boyd worked as a shampoo girl in Elizabeth Arden’s salon, but when a client from the fashion industry spotted her beauty, she was launched into the world of modeling. She worked in London, New York, and Paris, side by side with the world’s top models. Boyd appeared in the UK and Italian editions of Voguemagazine, as well as in several commercials.Pattie Boyd wearing a Ossie Clark dress back in 1973.

Her turning point came in 1964 when she was cast in a very small part in the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night, where she met George Harrison. Pattie was immediately attracted to him, and she explains that he was incredibly good-looking but rather shy.

Harrison was also swept off his feet by the gorgeous Boyd, but there was an obstacle in the way. At the time, Boyd was still dating the photographer Eric Swayne, and thus, she refused Harrison’s proposal. According to her, he said, “Will you marry me? Well, if you won’t marry me, will you have dinner with me tonight?”

Several days later, she broke up with Swayne and went out with Harrison. On Jan. 21, 1966, Boyd and Harrison sealed their intense romance with a wedding, with Paul McCartney as their best man. Harrison’s young love for Boyd inspired him to write “Something,” one of the Beatles’ best songs.

However, a few years later, their marriage began to disintegrate, due to alcohol and drug overuse as well as numerous affairs. During this period, Harrison became a close friend of Eric Clapton, writing music and performing with him.

One day, Boyd received a letter in which someone, who signed just as “E,” declared his love for her. Boyd assumed that she just had a secret admirer, until one evening at a party in Clapton’s manager’s house, when Eric, whom she thought of as a friend, showed up and asked her if she had received his letter.

Boyd was shocked but at the same time flattered. She could not hide the unfolding melodrama from Harrison, who saw what was happening at the party. She was asked to decide who she was going to go home with that night and she decided upon Harrison. She says about that night, “I held marriage very dearly but felt torn at that moment.”

In 1974, Boyd decided to separate from Harrison due to his endless infidelities, including with Ringo Starr’s wife. She described the last year of her marriage with Harrison as “fueled by alcohol and intolerable.”

Clapton was madly in love with Boyd. She was the muse who inspired him to create the legendary songs “Wonderful Tonight,” “Layla,” and “Bell Bottom Blues.”

Before she made the decision to leave Harrison, Boyd had refused Clapton’s advances, and the fragile musician descended into heroin addiction and deep depression.

In 1979, though, Boyd decided to move in with Clapton and married him. Тhe period of love’s delusion and sweet delight was soon over, though, when the couple faced marriage struggles.

Regular drug and alcohol abuse, as well as Clapton’s many affairs, provoked Boyd to leave him in 1987 and later divorce him in 1989. In a recent interview, when Boyd was asked to answer who her greatest love was, she said, “That is so difficult, but I would say [Harrison]. He will always stay with me.”

In 2007, Boyd published her autobiography Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me.  After the intensity and turmoil of Boyd’s relationship with both Clapton and Harrison, she had decided to stay with neither of them, marrying for the third time in 2015 a property developer named Rod Weston she’d known for a long time. It’s almost our silver anniversary, so we thought we had better get on with it,” her husband declared jokingly.

By Brad Smithfield