Wednesday, December 13, 2006

White Christmas: The Story of an American Song by Jody Rosen

Bonnie attended a dinner last week at which each congregant was asked to name a favorite Christmas song and tell what the song meant to her. Most she reported named a carol, such as "Silent Night" or "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Several, however, said the popular song "White Christmas." Her story reminded me of White Christmas: The Story of an American Song by Jody Rosen.

According to Rosen, "White Christmas" is the top selling piece of popular music from the twentieth century. It is beloved by listeners across many classes who dream of quiet snowy scenes with family and horse drawn sleighs. Memories of World War II and of watching Bing Crosby in either of two movies are also evoked. It differs from many other pieces by Irving Berlin in tone so that many people do not even realize that it was written by the prolific composer.

Much of the book is about Berlin. When he first began to write his most famous song, it was a satire of unhappy nuevo-rich living in California, partly a self-critical statement. The original first verse including an image of bored people languishing around a swimming pool. Without that verse, the song took a completely different character, allowing any listener to imagine her own setting.

Berlin became very proud of the piece and produced two movies around it. He also tried unsuccessfully to stop radio stations from playing Elvis Presley's recording of the song. He prospered as the large demand for the record transformed the music industry.

If your library has a copy of White Christmas, now is the time to put it on display.

Rosen, Jody. White Christmas: The Story of an American Song. New York: Scribner, 2002. ISBN 0743218752

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