....Just Another Tune

Songs & Their History


Irving Berlin
And The "Rhythmic Ballad"


During the first decade of 20th century American popular music was  still defined by ethnic categories. It was the era of the ethnic song and the so-called "coon" song". This is a complex story with a long and equally complex pre-history  leading back to the Minstrel show and the emergence of blackface entertainment in 19th century America. It was also the time of mass emigration to the USA and in these years  New York City became the  center of American popular music.

Songs were usually identified with an ethnic group. The protagonist's ethnicity was defined by names, stereotypical behavior, dialect and musical style. Though since the late 1890s these genre's songs showed a tendency towards integration - especially for the more established immigrant groups like the Irish - and its stereotypes were "gradually muted" (Finson, p. 308), popular songs tended to offer a certain general message here described by Charles Hamm:

    "Nineteenth-century ballads, [...] often deliver the hegemonic message that certain standards of private and public behavior, as defined by Christian dogma filtered through bourgeois social practice during the Victorian era, are desirable. The protagonists of these pieces who adhere to these standards are portrayed as leading happy and fulfilled lives, although circumstances may sometimes delay the gratification and rewards resulting from their exemplary behavior. To give this message more punch, the occasional protagonist who strays from acceptable moral standards is punished. [...] The explicit or implicit protagonists of such ballads are white, Protestant, and British-descended. By contrast, unpunished deviant behavior takes place only among protagonists of ethnic novelty songs, in which Irishmen and Germans drink to excess, blacks are violent and lead loose family lives, Italian men are lazy and promiscuous, and Jews are overly concerned with money and social status" (Hamm, p. 54/5)

Most notorious in this context was the "coon" song:

    "By the late 1890s, ragtime became a national craze as Tin Pan Alley publishers marketed so-called "coon songs" - syncopated (sometimes only barely so) comedy songs that drew upon minstrel show caricatures of blacks. [...]  Musically and lyrically, ragtime coon songs were an antidote to the lachrymose waltz ballads of the turn of the century. [...] With a forthrightness unimaginable in a white romantic ballad, a "coon-shouter," as blackface singers were dubbed, could belt out a sentiment like "All I want is lovin'-I don't want your money," or lament, "You've been a good old wagon but you done broke down" " (Furia, Berlin, p. 32/33)

This is the milieu where Irving Berlin started his career as a songwriter in 1907. His first published work were the lyrics to an "Italian" song, "Marie From Sunny Italy", a parody of another current hit. In these years he wrote for Vaudeville and its multi-dialect entertainers (see Hamm, p. 22ff; Snyder, p. 111) and for an urban multi-ethnic working-class audience out there to have fun, to laugh about themselves and laugh about the "others". Like many other popular songwriters and performers of that era he was a "product of the multi-ethnic and predominantly immigrant/first-generation community of turn-of-the-century New York City" (Hamm, p. 9). It is important to understand in this context that he was not a "white" songwriter. As an Jewish Eastern European immigrant and a member of an ethnic minority he was an outsider too. His perspective was different from that of a non-immigrant writer or performer. 

In fact at that time a young songwriter from an ethnic minority was in a very difficult situation because he had to cope both with an extremely racialized society and with a very long tradition of explicit and implicit xenophobia in popular song. But the immigrant songwriters didn't perpetuate the tradition uncritically, they - especially Berlin - actually started to clean up the mess they were confronted with. Songwriters like Berlin had no ties to the culture that had produced all these stereotypes promoted via "coon" songs. They were a part of the urban "radically multicultural milieu" (Hamm, p. IX) and had a different perspective on  society in general and especially on African-Americans. Berlin had to work with the motifs, topics and stereotypes of the ethnic and "coon" song, but very obviously without sharing the ideology behind them. So these motifs, topics and stereotypes were open to variation and it was possible to discard them if necessary.



"Do Your Duty Doctor" (1909) was formally a "coon" song and the Doctor innuendo here applied to black protagonists must have been quite popular in Vaudeville (and was in the late 20s recycled by Hokum Blues artists like Thomas A. Dorsey):

    Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Doctor (oh, doctor)
    'Won't you kindly hear my plea? (oh, doctor)
    I know, you know, doctor (oh, doctor)
    Exactly what is best for me (oh, doctor)
    Hear me sigh, hear me cry
    Surely you ain't gonna let me die
    For if some love will make me gain
    Do your duty doctor, cure my pain

But Charles Hamm notes that  "protagonists of Italian and German ethnic novelty songs are also sometimes portrayed as being greatly concerned with sex [...] What might appear to be defining features of Berlin's first three 'coon' songs, then, are in fact common to ethnic novelty songs in general" (Hamm, p. 71). "How That German Could Love" (1910) is a good example (1910):

    This girl I could squeeze, and it never would hurt,
    For that lady knew how to squeeze;
    Her loving was killing, more yet, she was willing,
    You never would have to say please.
    I just couldn’t stop her, for dinner and supper,
    Some dishes and hugs was the food;
    When she wasn’t nice it was more better twice;
    When she’s bad she was better than good.

    Oh, how that German could love,
    With a sweetness that's sweeter than sweet.
    Just say what you please,
    You would hug and you'd squeeze
    Just the shoes that she wore on her feet.
    Her smile was like money
    That somebody owed you,
    That somebody wanted to give;
    When you felt like dying
    And she started sighing,
    Ach my, it was worthwile to live

mp3: Irving Berlin, How That German Could Love (1910)

But besides producing more of this kind of standard fare of ethnic songs  Berlin also gave another new twist to these well known stories: he simply wrote the same kind of songs with non-ethnic protagonists. A considerable part of his early repertoire were suggestive and other comical novelty songs where he applied stereotypes and clichés of the ethnic songs to the "other" side, songs where the "protagonists behave in ways contrary to America's public morality and sensibility; and these protagonists are not European immigrants, blacks [...] but rather 'mainstream' Americans. Characters in these songs engage in and obviously enjoy drinking, smoking, flagrant flirtation, the acquisition of costly and ostentatious personal possessions, premarital sex, even adultery" (Hamm, p. 54), there are woman turning the table on their treacherous men and girls receiving money for entertaining men.

"My Wife's Gone To The Country (Hurrah! Hurrah)" in 1909 was his first commercial success as a lyricist. This was a joyful anti-marriage anthem: a man - a non-ethnic character - celebrates the fact that his wife and kids are out of town and Berlin puts the protagonist in scenes more akin to a "coon"-song:

     [4th chorus:]
    My wife's gone to the country, hurrah, hurrah!
    She thought it best, I need the rest, that's why she went away
    She took the children with her, hurrah, hurrah!
    Now I'm with you if you're with me, my wife's gone away

    [5th verse:]
    He called on pretty Molly, a girl he used to know
    The servant said "She left the house about an hour ago
    But if you leave your name, sir, or write a little note
    I'll give it to her when she comes" and this is what he wrote:

mp3: Arthur Collins & Byron Harlan - My Wife's Gone to the Country Hurrah Hurrah (1909)

Here he was writing very frankly about adultery and associating this behavior not with a member of a minority group but with a character belonging to the dominant culture. According to Berlin "ministers preached about" the song (Kimball/Emmett, p. 7) and they were surely not fond of its message. But this song was very successful and  Berlin had to write many more additional verses so the "real" Americans obviously enjoyed it too.

The very popular "Call Me Up On A Rainy Afternoon" (1910) is - especially in the recording by Ada Jones -  a hilarious tale of promiscuity in an American family.  The story told here is a little different from most other current popular songs: a girl picks up a boy at a masquerade,  - "he liked she and she liked he/just a case of love at single sight" -, he takes her home and then she invites him  for the next rainy afternoon to her home to "talk about the weather". But when he arrives she doesn't open the door, instead he overhears her inviting another guy for "tomorrow night" to "put out that fire in the furnace" while her parents are involved in partner-swapping:

    [1st verse:]
    Nellie Green met Harry Lee
    At a masquerade the other night
    He liked she and she liked he
    Just a case of love at single sight
    He took Nellie home that eve
    Also took the number of her phone
    Just before he took his leave
    Nellie whispered in the cutest tone

    Call me up some rainy afternoon
    I'll arrange for a quiet little spoon
    Think of all the joy and bliss
    We can hug and we can talk about the weather
    We can have a quiet little talk
    I will see that my mother takes a walk
    Mum's the word when we meet
    Be a mason, don't repeat
    Angel eyes, are you wise?

    [2nd verse:]
    He look'd wise, then looked for rain
    Sure enough it rained that Saturday
    "Give me three, four, five, six Main
    Nellie dear, prepare I'm on my way"
    When he rang the front door bell
    No one there responded to his call
    Soon he heard his pretty Nell
    Singing to somebody in the hall

    [2nd chorus:]
    Call me up some rainy afternoon
    Then again how's the evening for a spoon
    Call around tomorrow night
    We can then put out that fire in the furnace
    "My mama will sure be out of town,
    She'll be entertained by Mr. Brown,
    My Papa won't be 'round, he will call on Mrs. Brown,
    Angel pet, don't forget, good-bye" (quoted from Hamm, p. 59)

mp3: Ada Jones & American Quartet - Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon (1910)

"Meet Me To-Night" (1911) is a variant, maybe even a parody of 19th century classics like "Meet Me In The Moonlight": boy and girl have to sneak out into the night to meet. But whereas in these old songs the protagonists' intentions  were buried under romantic poetic formulas like "I will show the night flowers their queen" Berlin's lyrics are very explicit (see Hamm, p. 58)

    Love and kisses we'll be pawning
    Till the yawning, dawning, morning
    If you meet me tonight
    That morning when he left her at the door
    She whisper'd, "If you'd like to walk some more
    Meet me tonight, meet me tonight

In "She Was A Dear Little Girl" (1909) "Betsy Brown" receives a check from her millionaire friend:

    Betsy Brown, a manicurist fair
    Dropped in town, to get the city air
    Met the son of some millionaire
    Who had lots of time to spare
    She murmured, "Dear, never fear
    I'll always hold you dear"
    To a check his pen
    Was introduced, but then
    She was a dear, dear girl

All these songs (see Hamm, p. 62/3 for a list) - and Berlin wrote more of them than songs about any other ethnic group - offered satirical vignettes of non-ethnic Americans indulging in not so moral behavior or otherwise making fun of themselves and they are a fine document of how a songwriter from an ethnic minority turns the table on the moral majority.
mp3: AdaJones-Keep Away From The Fellow Who Owns An Automobile(1909)
mp3: Ada Jones & Walter Van Brunt - I'm Afraid, Pretty Maid, I'm Afraid (1912)

I can't say exactly how common these kind of songs were at that time but Hamm claims that "'ordinary' Americans had rarely been the protagonists of novelty songs written for the popular stage (p. 59). A contemporary critic bemoaning not only "that sinous body dance" but also songs laughing "openly at the institution of marriage"  actually "blamed the entire shameful state of American popular songs  on the 'disciples of Irving Berlin & Co.'" (Jablonski, p. 47, see Hamm, p. 56) and called for censorship upon this kind of dangerous songs. So obviously Berlin was already notorious for playing against the rules and it seems he was regarded as a pioneer in this field.



These "subversive" (see Hamm 2000, p. 305) comical novelties allowed the minorities  to laugh back at the moral majority and they may reflect "a desire by the socially and politically marginalized community of which Berlin was a part to suggest that America's dominant population was prone to loose moral behaviour itself, even as it publicly tried to associate such behaviour with the 'lower' classes only" (Hamm, p. 60). But they also helped to blur the stereotypical moral distinctions between the ethnic groups and mainstream America and undermined the hegemonic message of the ethnic and "coon" song.  A close reading of Berlin's song lyrics of this era - and here it is always important to read them in context and chronological order and to check the protagonists' ethnicity - gives the impression that he was systematically shooting the stereotypes of the ethnic songs to little pieces.

For example "Alexander And His Clarinet" with its double entendre was still in the vein of older "coon" - songs:

    [1st verse:]
    Alexander Adams played a clarinet
    Brought out music that no one has brought out yet
    Miss Eliza Johnson was his angel pet
    And Alexander was her one best bet
    Strange to say they quarreled on last Sunday night
    Monday evening Alexander came in sight
    Played his clarinet beneath her window light
    To hear Eliza yell with all her might

    Honey, is that you? yes, yes
    Don't even have to guess, my honey, what brought you?
    Oh pet, I see you brought your clarinet
    My honey, I'm angry, no, no
    For lawdy sake don't dare to go
    My pet, I love you yet
    And then besides, I love your clarinet

mp3: Arthur Collins & Byron Harlan - Alexander And His Clarinet  (1908)

But then nearly at the same time he also wrote "Try it on your Piano" (1910) and here the  lecherous piano playing Mr. Manner, a non-ethnic character, wants to show Miss Lucy Brown "a new way to make love that hasn't been discovered yet" and in the second verse Berlin also treats him to the Doctor cliché. And with all the other suggestive songs about different ethnic groups and "real" Americans "Alexander And His Clarinet" turns out to be just one more song of this type that happens to have a black protagonist but it was no more typical behavior for him. 

But Berlin also wrote - and that is the big difference - non-suggestive songs about black musicians. The same time he put suggestiveness and sexual innuendo into his songs about "ordinary" Americans he took the very stereotypical suggestiveness out of songs with black protagonists.    In "When You Play That Piano, Bill" (1910)  the woman clearly appreciates  the man's abilities as a piano player.  In "That Funny Little Melody" (1913) a fiddler charms a girl with his playing but there's no sexual fantasy, they simply get married and have a bunch of kids. Other songs offer appreciative and enthusiastic portraits of African-American musicians who play music "never heard before [...] like nobody can". These were songs without any stereotypes and without any comical demeaning or patronizing, also very different from the old plantation stereotype that was for example still promoted in the 1912 hit "Waiting For The Robert E. Lee" (Gilbert/Muir).

"Piano Man" is not a comical confrontation of a black protagonist with high culture but this piano player is put in company with Verdi and Beethoven.  "Ephraham Played Upon The Piano" (1911) - a song often performed by Berlin himself at that time - offers an enthusiastic portrait of modern black pianist:

    Ephraham played upon the piano
    Ephraham, he had a great left hand
    Ephraham in his fancy manner
    Made an upright sound like a "Baby Grand"

"When Johnson's Quartette Harmonize" (1912) is a touching and equally enthusiastic vignette about a harmony singing group:

    Come on and hear that harmony sweet
    Come on and have a musical treat
    From your head down to your feet
    You'll be fairly hypnotized
    They harmonize most any old place
    Alto, Tenor, Baritone, Bass
    Ev'ry other chord
    Is a message from the Lord
    When you hear old Johnson's Quartette harmonize

In "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911) some of the standard motifs of the "coon" song were turned around. "Alexander"  was no longer a comical character to make fun of but the leader of the best  band in the world and a black (or integrated?) band playing staples of white cultural tradition like the bugle call and Stephen Fosters "Swanee River" was no more an object of condescension: they play it like "you never heard before". The stereotypical confrontation of an African-American protagonist with white music is turned into an honest and enthusiastic appreciation  of great music. 

Until today it is sometimes implied that the genre of ragtime songs was a somehow diluted, illegitimate, exploitative or inauthentic form of African-American music or in some way less valuable than any "authentic" music or the piano rags á la Scott Joplin. In fact the "coon" or ragtime song in its original form was a parody of black culture carrying a hegemonic message. But the immigrant songwriters sanitized what was at first a pseudo-black song from its very authentic xenophobia and turned it into a new authentic American song. Some of Berlin's early lyrics to ragtime songs like "Wild Cherries" (1909), "Stop That Rag" (1909), "That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune" (1909) or "Draggy Rag" (1910) still have black protagonists but they are simply enjoying the music. Their function was not to deride African-Americans  - he simply had no reason to do so -  but to celebrate the effects of the music.

At the very same time he - as other immigrant songwriters - also wrote ragtime songs starring Jewish or Italian protagonists like "Yiddle, On Your Fiddle, Play Some Ragtime" (1909) or "Sweet Marie, Make-A Rag-A-Time Dance With Me" (1910). Here these kind of songs were clearly defined as "the music of America's marginalized population" (Hamm, p. 86, see also Finson, p. 311), the urban ethnic minorities, they were - in the words of a contemporary writer - "the folk-music of the American city" (Snyder, p. 136).

The turning point was "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911, - the  song that blew "the Coon song to tiny little bits" (Wondrich, p. 155) - with its exultant invitation to everybody to come and listen, a "cheerful revolt against the prejudices of Victorian America" (Rosen, p. 91) :

    "What Alexander succeeded in doing was to take a style already in vogue and make it a national passion. Alexander sold one million copies within a few months; before the end of the year it was the most frequently heard popular song in the country. A success of such formidable proportions had inevitable repercussions. For one thing, the ragtime song displaced the sentimental ballad, dialect song, or vaudeville ditty in popularity. With everybody in tin-pan alley writing ragtime songs, the former emphasis upon formal, stilted melodies was now placed on comparatively less formal and less stilted rhythms. This change of emphasis made it possible for a new vitality to enter the writing of popular song" (Jablonski, quoted in Furia, p. 43)

Charles Hamm is right in assuming that Berlin's "ragtime songs were never intended to represent black people and their culture" (p. 91). They represented  the urban multicultural immigrant culture, and  "combined stylistic and expressive elements from various components of this polyglot society" (dto). Berlin didn't establish "his early reputation as a songwriter" with an "African-American musical style" (Finson, p. 238) but by giving a voice to exactly this new and modern multicultural America. George Gershwin later called "Alexander's Ragtime Band" "the first real American musical work [...] Berlin had shown us the way; it was now easier to attain to our ideal" (Pollack, p. 48)

But in this multicultural context there was a new positive reference to black culture. In the perspective of those immigrant songwriters the music of the African-Americans was a legitimate part of American culture and it also seems to have been regarded as an important vitalizing element, an idea that was later also very important for Swing, Rock'n Roll and Rockabilly as well as Rock music. The message Berlin offered with "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (even the official sheet music for this song seems to picture an integrated band with a black leader, see  Hamm, p.  110) or his 1912 hit "Everybody's Doin' It Now" was strikingly different from the xenophobia  of the early "coon" and ragtime song but also different for example from  the ideology of the Folklore collectors of that era who preferred to define American culture in terms of it Anglo-Saxon "roots" and who "marginalized" and "exoticized" African-Americans (see Filene, p. 31).

mp3: American Quartet with Billy Murray - That Mysterious Rag (1911)
mp3: American Quartet - Everybody's Doin' It Now (1912)

In Berlin's songs from these years black protagonists - especially musicians - were neither "marginalized" nor "exoticized" and Charles Hamm notes that he knows of "no contemporaneous songs by other writers in which the music of black performers is treated with such enthusiasm and professional respect and with such a complete absence of racial stereotyping and 'comical' demeaning" (Hamm, p. 80). In fact he had turned the world of ethnic and "coon" song upside down. The biggest jokes were about "real" Americans while the most positive and enthusiastic songs were reserved for black protagonists. That may very well reflect his personal experiences as a member of one marginalized minority in urban multicultural New York City in these years. I tend to think that Berlin managed to re-humanize the stereotyped protagonists of this era's popular songs. The "real" Americans were saved from the artificiality of the Victorian ballad and the minorities - especially the African-Americans - were de-stereotyped.



These developments had another important consequence: the interesting and progressive elements of the coon song were somehow liberated from its xenophobic and demeaning connotations. Now it became possible to write and sing about love and sex without a mask  and Berlin was amongst the first to grasp these new perspectives. Since 1907 Berlin was experimenting  with ballads and from 1910 onwards he  wrote songs Hamm calls his first "rhythmic ballads". "Stop, Stop, Stop" (1910) was the first these songs that were "innovative in ways extending far beyond the use of syncopated rhythms in songs of romantic expression" (Hamm, p. 164)

    Cuddle and squeeze me honey
    Lead me right to Cupid's door
    Take me out upon that ocean called the "Lovable Sea"
    Fry each kiss in honey, then present it to me
    Cuddle and please me honey
    Anchor at that kissing shore
    My honey, stop, stop, stop, stop, don't dare to stop
    Come over and love me some more

Typical for these songs were first-person lyrics in "vernacular rather than 'poetical language'", "portraying playful or erotic interplay rather than high-flown romantic love and set to music that makes use of the rhythms of contemporary syncopated dances" (Hamm, p. 166). Not at least these songs offered a "new representation of women" and a different idea of love,  they "have female protagonists who, rather than swearing romantic, faithful and lasting love to their male partners, instead offer immediate, willing, and enthusiastic physical gratification [...]  There is no mention of marriage in these songs or of children" (Hamm, p. 168). The ballad was obviously a very conservative genre but here Berlin managed to break the spell of  "eternal love". The message his new ballads was quite different from other contemporary songs like  "Oh You Beautiful Doll" (Brown/Ayer, 1911) with its reference to marriage at the end  or cuddle song like "Cuddle Up A Littler Closer" (Harbach/Hoschna, 1908) with its baby talk á la "love you from your head down to your toesy".

"Doggone That Chilly Man Of Mine" (1911) - written for Fanny Brice - has a woman bemoaning her man's lack of interest  in a language hitherto unusual for a mainstream ballad:

    [1st verse:]
    Did you ever fall in love with a bonehead
    A stoneheaded man
    A man who doesn't know that the lights a-burning low
    Mean he should be most loveable
    That's the very kind of a man I'm in love with
    A dove with no heart
    When he should hug, snug like a bug within a rug
    That's the time he wants to part

    Dog gone that chilly man of mine
    Overboard I'd shove him
    Just because he made me love him
    Dog gone that chilly man of mine
    He's as cold a lover as the pole that Cook discovered
    Dog gone that icy man of mine
    With a heart just like a fan
    For when I'm all fussed up for an ever lovin' spoon
    He's out in the garden making faces at the moon
    And I sigh and I cry
    Dog gone that chilly man

"I've Got To Have Some Lovin' Now" (1912) deals with physical attraction in a directness not known before in ballads:

    I've got to have some lovin' now
    Won't you let me show you how
    Now hug me like a bear
    Come and muss my hair
    Give me a kiss on the brow
    Come, be a nice sweet honey like you should
    And love me while the lovin's good
    I may die in the morning
    So I want some lovin' now

What Berlin actually did was to crossbreed the ballad with the "coon" song via the suggestive novelties. One major reason for this innovation was of course that - as in the case of "coon" songs - he hadn't been socialized to the Victorian  ideology behind the 19th century ballad so he was more prone to break the barrier between the genres. Berlin borrowed elements of the "coon" song - the dance rhythm, a different songwriting language language, keywords like "honey", the directness -  and by applying them to a "white", non-ethnic protagonist  - there is no use of dialect - as well as by conceiving the song as a ballad  he neutralized the "coon" stereotype and cleaned up the language from its racial and demeaning connotations .

The very open allusion to "coon" songs and its language of course gave these songs some of its  effectivity and an "earthy" flavor but it wasn't necessary anymore to sing from behind a mask. It was not a new phenomena that songs describing more physical intimacy between lovers had been influenced by "blackface" entertainment. In the late 1850s a fad for kissing-songs starting with "Kiss Me Quick And Go" (Steel/Buckley, 1856; see Finson, p. 44ff) had swept over from the Minstrel show   Also the integration of new dance rhythms could bring a little more sexuality into songs as was the case with the "lascivious waltz" imported from Europe in the 1880s (see Finson, p. 67ff).

But Berlin's new prototypes  had no "clear antecedents" (Hamm, p. 168), they were provocatively different from both high-class ballads and popular ballads. Harris or Dresser or Stephen Foster hadn't written such kind of songs.   They were neither "coon" songs - a couple of years before they would have been classified as such because of their language - nor suggestive novelties. As with "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and the universalisation of the "ragtime song" Berlin's first rhythmic ballads helped to abolish the very authentic tradition of the "coon" song.  Instead he brought syncopation and sex into the American popular ballad, allowed white performers to sing without a mask about the more interesting things in life and thus freed the ballad from its Victorian constraints. This seems to me like a major victory against bigotry and xenophobia in popular music.

Of course this was at first no revolution, only the starting point of a longer process.  There were very few comparable ballads published at that time (see Hamm, p. 166, 169). "Put Your Arm Around Me" (Von Tilzer/McCree) seems to have been another important transitional song as also Shelton Brooks' great and equally influential "Some Of These Days" (1910) although these two songs were stylistically more akin to the "coon"-genre. But - to take one more example  - a song like Berlin's "You've Got Me Hypnotized" (1912) is much closer in its lyrical and musical style to many popular songs from the 20s and 30s - from "I Wanna Be Loved By You" to "I'm In The Mood For Love" -  than to any ballad written before 1910 and Charles Hamm concludes  that "it appears that more than any other subgenre, the rhythmic ballad was Berlin's creation" (Hamm, p. 169);

    You've got me hypnotized
    I'm certainly mesmerized
    I thought I was wise
    Till I gazed in your beautiful eyes
    That very day
    You stole my heart away
    I'm doing things I shouldn't do
    Things I wouldn't do
    Things I couldn't do
    I could do for you
    Just because you've got me hypnotized

mp3: Ada Jones & Billy Murray - You've Got Me Hypnotized (1912)
mp3: Arthur Collins & Byron Harlan - You've Got Me Hypnotized (1912)

And from here there is of course a very clear trace to contemporary music. Bob Dylan's "I Want You" (1966) is for example also a part of that tradition, Hamm's definition of Berlin's "rhythmic ballads" fits this song, too. Not at least Dylan could only sing "Honey, I want you" because this kind of language had been sanitized from its racial and derisive connotations. In 1906 this line would have been exclusively identified with a black protagonist in the context of a "coon" song. Today this kind of directness is a natural part of the language of popular song.  The years around 1910/11 obviously saw the start of a massive cleanup in American popular music and Berlin seems to have played a major role in this process. He was at least partly responsible for throwing a not so pleasant piece of authentic Americana into the dustbin of history and rendering it useless and for creating both a new kind of ballad as well as a new kind of rhythm and dance song for mainstream pop music.



  • Charles Hamm, Irving Berlin, Songs From The Melting Pot: The Formative Years 1907 - 1914, New York & Oxford 1997 [This article is mostly built this seminal and outstanding work on Berlin's early songs & I'm using Prof. Hamm's classification of the songs. I have simplified the whole story a little and have concentrated on Berlin's way to his first rhythmic ballads. The background was of course much more complex and complicated. It should also be noted that around 1910/11 Berlin started to write for the stage, also one of the reasons for a change of style, for the development of the rhythmic ballads as well as  his retreat from the genre of ethnic songs. About Berlin's long-running fascination with "blackface" and Minstrel Show see here, p. 100f]
  • Charles Hamm, Genre, Performance And Ideology In The Early Songs Of Irving Berlin, in: Richard Middleton (ed.), Reading Pop. Approaches To Textual Analysis In Popular Music, Oxford & New York 2000, p. 297 - 306
  • Edward Jablonski, Irving Berlin. American Troubadour, New York 1999
  • Robert Kimball & Linda Emmet (ed.), The Complete Lyrics Of Irving Berlin, New York 2000
  • Robert W. Snyder, The Voice Of The City. Vaudeville And Popular Culture In New York, Chicago 2000
  • Howard Pollack, George Gershwin. His Life And Work, University Of California Press 2006
  • Philip Furia, Irving Berlin. A Life In Song, New York 1998
  • Jody Rosen, White Christmas. The Story Of An American Song, New York 2002
  • Jon W. Vinson, The Voices That Are Gone. Themes In 19th Century American Popular Song, New York & Oxford 1994
  • Benjamin Filene, Romancing The Folk. Public Memory & American Roots Music, Chapel Hill & London 2000
  • David Wondrich, Stomp And Swerve. American Music Gets Hot 1834 - 1924, Chicago 2003
  • Lynn Abbott & Doug Seroff, Ragged But Right. Black Travelling shows, "Coon Songs" & The Dark Pathway To Blues And Jazz, Jackson 2007
  • The mp3s used here were downloaded from the Internet Archive. Many thanks to the uploaders there!

[first published 23.2.2008 on my former website www.morerootsofbob.com]


© Jürgen Kloss

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