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There’s no business like Irving Berlin’s business

By Jeffrey Magee and Benjamin Sears
On 11 May 1888, somewhere outside Mogilyov in Belarus, Irving Berlin was born. The son of a poor Jewish family who fled the pogroms to New York City, Berlin went on to pen some of the most memorable American classics from the patriotic “God Bless America” to wistful “White Christmas.” Without any formal training in music composition or even the ability to notate melodies on a musical staff, he took a knack for music and turned it into the most successful songwriting career in American history. Jeffrey Magee, author of Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater, and Benjamin Sears, editor of The Irving Berlin Reader, composed this quiz to celebrate the composer’s life and work.

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Plagiarized or original: A playlist for the contested music of Ira B. Arnstein

From the 1920s to the 1950s, Ira B. Arnstein was the unrivaled king of music copyright litigants. He spent the better part of those 30 years trying to prove that many of the biggest hits of the Golden Age of American Popular Song were plagiarized from his turn-of-the-century parlor piano pieces and Yiddish songs. “I suppose we have to take the bad with the good in our system which gives everyone their day in court,” Irving Berlin once said, but “Arnstein is stretching his day into a lifetime.”

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How Broadway’s Hamilton contributes to the long history of small screen racial discourse

On 3 July 2020, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton—perhaps somewhat inadvertently—took its place alongside decades of Broadway shows and stars which had helped foster an awareness of American race relations via the small screen. When Disney won the $75 million bidding war for the global theatrical distribution rights of Hamilton, the filmed recording of the show’s original cast performing […]

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Six jazz movies you may not know

The film industry started making jazz-related features as soon as synchronized sound came in, in 1927: “I’m gonna sing it jazzy,” Al Jolson’s Jack Robin optimistically declares in the pioneering talkie The Jazz Singer, before taking off on Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” (He gets closer to the jazzy mark whistling a quasi-improvised chorus of “Toot Toot […]

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The Broadway song that nominated a president

The astounding success of Hamilton, its capacity to engage audiences from third graders to the president and first lady, reminds us that Broadway musicals have a healthy tradition of mining political history. From 1776 to Evita, songwriters have been fascinated by political power. What drives people to become leaders? How do they rally supporters around them? What reservations do they have about their failures and successes?

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Gershwin and color: how blue is the Rhapsody?

Everyone knows George Gershwin as a composer, songwriter, pianist and icon of American music. But few know of his connections to the world of paintings and fine art. As a practicing artist himself, Gershwin produced over 100 paintings, drawings, and photographs.

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This land is your land

Seventy-five years ago folk singer Woody Guthrie penned the initial lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land,” considered by many to be the alternative national anthem. Sung in elementary schools, children’s summer camps, around campfires, at rallies, and during concert encores, “This Land Is Your Land” is the archetypal sing-along song, familiar to generations of Americans. But what most do not know is that Guthrie, the “Oklahoma Cowboy,” actually wrote the song in New York and that its production and dissemination were shaped by the city’s cultural institutions.

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We’ll have Manhattan: 10 hits from Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart

With the catchy melodies of Richard Rodgers’ music, and the cheeky wit of Lorenz Hart’s lyrics, the early collaborative songs of Rodgers-and-Hart are characteristic of 1920s jazz at its finest — and some of the best examples of early classics from the Great American Songbook. Most of the shows from this period have sunk into obscurity, but the songs have stood the test of time. You won’t be able to resist tapping your feet along to these ten great hits!

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Performing for profit: 100 years of music performance rights

By Gary Rosen
This February marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers. Though little known outside the music industry today, its creation set in motion a series of events that still reverberates in the popular music of our time.

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“God Bless America” in war and peace

If you watched the World Series this year, you may have noticed a trend in the nightly renditions of “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch: all five performances were by soldiers in uniform.

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Six surprising facts about “God Bless America”

By Sheryl Kaskowitz
Some of my friends hate “God Bless America.” They find it sentimental, old-fashioned, cheesy. They bristle at its over-the-top jingoism, at its exceptionalism that seems out of step with the globalism of the twenty-first century. They say it violates the separation of church and state. They associate it with Bush, or Reagan, or Nixon, with the boring, mainstream, un-groovy side of American culture.

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Sounds of the swing era

The sound of a big band in full flight must surely rank as one of the defining timbres of twentieth century music. It continues to be preserved by, among many others, Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, remixed by DJs and artists like Matthew Herbert, re-popularised by stars including Michael Bublé, rejuvenated for a new teen audience by West Coast composer Gordon Goodwin

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Living Anthems

By Mark Clague
The Fourth of July, aka “Independence Day” (the annual federal holiday in the United States marking the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence from Britain), is cause for national celebration and certainly the celebration of nationalism. Fireworks, orchestral concerts, parades, 5-K runs, carnivals, family picnics, and political speeches are common holiday happenings. Many are accompanied by music, especially by a haphazard class of folk tunes known as patriotic song that often defy historical logic, but nevertheless have become potent cultural symbols.

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“Fiddlers” to Take a Bow

By Philip Lambert
They never had the marquee allure of Rodgers and Hammerstein. They didn’t enjoy the longevity of their contemporaries Kander and Ebb, who wrote songs for shows like Cabaret and Chicago for almost forty-two years. But they are one of Broadway’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful songwriting teams, and on November 1, 2010, composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick will be honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Dramatists Guild, at a ceremony in New York.

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