Berlin at piano 1938 with Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, and Don Ameche.

Nothing conveys holiday sentiment like the wistful White Christmas and its longing for the perfect holiday setting. Crooner Bing Crosby’s 1942 recording of the classic wartime ballad is the world’s best-selling single and has sold more than 50 million copies.

But 22 years before Irving Berlin wrote it, he was a U.S. Army GI stuck on KP peeling potatoes at the remote Camp Upton in Yaphank in eastern Long Island. It was there, 100 miles from his beloved, bustling Manhattan, that the immigrant made the best of a sad situation — as he often did — by writing and performing songs.

OH, HOW I HATE TO GET UP IN THE MORNING

He was already a successful legendary lyric and melody writer by the time he turned 30 in 1918. Wanting to serve his country, he became a naturalized citizen and was drafted three months later. He wound up in boot camp surrounded by potato fields with other recruits who would likely be sent to France to fight. Aside from being away from home and family, what he hated most was getting jolted out of sleep by the early morning bugle.

World War I was in its fourth year. His commander tapped Berlin’s musical talent to give the fellas a morale booster and raise money for a community house for visitors. Berlin struck a deal: He would write songs for a show if he could sleep through reveille. The dreaded bugle inspired one of the songs, “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” and in three months Berlin wrote and produced Yip, Yip, Yaphank. Subtitled “a military mess cooked up by the boys at Camp Upton,” the show dressed enlisted men as hairy-chested chorus girls, in a parody of Broadway’s lavish hit, The Ziegfeld Follies.

Berlin was adept at using music to entertain and put food on the table. When Isadore (“Izzy”) Berlin was just 5, his family had fled the persecution of Jews by the Russians and come to America from Siberia in 1893. When he was 13, his father died, so Berlin left school to earn money for the Lower East Side family of eight, working as a street busker singing for pennies and a singing waiter in a café in Chinatown.     

GOD BLESS AMERICA

At Camp Upton, Berlin wrote God Bless America. His mother, despite the family’s poverty, had often praised the country that sheltered her family of refugees, declaring, “God bless America.” But Berlin thought the song was too solemn for a comedy, and put it away in a trunk.

He continued composing nonstop, by ear, employing a transcriber to write down melodies because he had never learned to read or write music. He would write some 1,500 songs, many of them patriotic and mindful of fascism in Europe, which was escalating especially during the Great Depression starting in 1929. Wanting to write a song about peace, he revised the unpublished God Bless America in 1938. 

His daughter Mary Ellin Barrett later said that her father meant every word: “He, the immigrant who had made good, was saying thank you.” A refugee’s grateful song to his adopted country, penned at a desolate military installation, became an unabashedly proud, timeless unofficial national anthem.

“MAY ALL YOUR CHRISTMASES BE WHITE”

In 1940 Berlin composed White Christmas. The holiday brought mixed feelings: Being Jewish, he didn’t celebrate Christmas; his infant son had died from crib death on Christmas Day 1928, and each December 25, he and his wife visited the grave. So what some called the most wonderful time of the year often brought sadness.

As to the song’s origin, some say he wrote the melody in 1938, then shelved it until Paramount Pictures signed him to write the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. Others said he longed for a wintry setting while at Southern California’s La Quinta Hotel — or at the Arizona Biltmore. No, he was in Los Angeles, some maintain, with Tinseltown people lounging poolside, showing a false veneer of nostalgia. 

All these speculations would explain his rarely heard verse about palm trees: “The sun is shining/The grass is green/The orange and palm trees sway/There’s never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A./But it’s December the twenty-fourth/And I am longing to be up North.”

Bing Crosby premiered the song on his NBC radio show The Kraft Music Hall on Christmas Day, 1941, 18 days after the Pearl Harbor attack and the U.S. entry in World War II. The war song that wasn’t about wars, but about peace, became a runaway hit, to its composer’s surprise, and inspired him to suggest a 1954 film based on the song.

Berlin told the Jamaica (Long Island) Press in September 1954, “Much as I’d like to take a bow and say I anticipated its future success, I must admit I didn’t.”

Irving Berlin died at age 101 in Manhattan in 1989.

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