White Christmas: The Story of an American Song , by Jody Rosen. Scribner, 213 pages, $24.
Are you dreaming of a white Christmas? If so, the odds are that it’s not like the one you used to know, but like the one Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby persuaded us we used to know. I mean, I grew up here in the Northeast, where it used to snow a lot more than it does now, but I don’t recall sleigh bells tinkling in the snow. Nor were there all that many glistening treetops to be seen on West 96th Street.
I do, however, remember the fall of 1942, when “White Christmas” was No. 1 on Your Hit Parade and pouring out of every radio and jukebox. America was a year into the war, and things weren’t going well for us: Our young men were dying in the South Pacific, far from sleigh bells, and nobody’s days seemed very merry or bright. The overwhelming success of this song, given its instant nostalgia for a simpler world, made total sense. But at the time, no one could have predicted its transfiguration into an American icon; apart from anything else, it was simply another predictable hit for Bing-a couple of months earlier, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” was No. 2; a couple of months later, “Moonlight Becomes You” was No. 1.
Today, 60 years later, “White Christmas” remains a ubiquitous annual presence (think of malls and Muzak), probably the most omnipresent song ever written, and together with Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (and shopping), the foundation of our secularized Christmas. Of course, some people still go to midnight mass, listen to (or sing in) Messiah and celebrate the birth of Christ with carols-the religious impulse and the combination of sentiment and consumerism aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. But Scrooge and Santa and Irving and Bing have made it easy for others to experience Christmas without a nod to Christianity.
In his new book, White Christmas , Jody Rosen spends a lot of time on this secularizing of a Christian festival by a Jewish songwriter-and of the general influence that Jewish writers and Hollywood moguls have had over America’s cultural consciousness. His thinking is fuzzy (though not as fuzzy as his writing), but he’s accurate in this: Berlin and Gershwin and Rodgers and Louis B. Mayer and the brothers Warner preferred to see themselves as Americans rather than as Jews. (Not coincidentally, the most sympathetic 30′s Hollywood movie about Jews-and a big hit-was 20th Century Fox’s The House of Rothschild , made by Hollywood’s only Gentile mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck.)
Mr. Rosen’s little book is an oddity, not least because the subject can’t really sustain an entire volume on its own, which is why it reads at times like a piece of inflated feature journalism. It also suffers from the author’s lack of context. He is, he tells us, a product of the era of “rock and soul and hip-hop,” his book “inspired by [his] curiosity about the music”-that is, about the standards that make up the so-called Great American Songbook. In other words, he was starting from scratch. The good side of this is that he approaches Berlin and Crosby and their world with naïve enthusiasm, trotting out well-known facts and stories and legends as if they were real discoveries-which they clearly are to him. He’s diligently read his way through the ever-expanding literature on popular music, and he’s earnestly tried to sort it all out. As a result, his book, whatever its flaws, isn’t cynical-it’s a product of sincere infatuation, not calculation.
But Mr. Rosen’s lack of context constantly undermines his authority. There’s a lot in here about the movies-partly because “White Christmas” first turned up in the Crosby-Astaire picture Holiday Inn . (It’s set in Connecticut; Chritsmas could be white.) But Mr. Rosen knows even less about Hollywood than he does about Tin Pan Alley. I’m not talking about careless surface errors, like spelling Aaron Copland “Aaron Copeland”; everybody makes them. But when he refers to Adolph Zukor, who spent his life creating and running Paramount, as head of 20th Century Fox (Zucker was still Paramount’s chairman emeritus when he died, at the age of 103, in 1976) or to Samuel Goldwyn as the “head of Paramount’s rival studio M-G-M”-this is in 1942, almost 20 years after he set up his independent Samuel Goldwyn Productions-he’s revealing fundamental ignorance about his subject.
As for his knowledge of popular music, anyone who cites Johnny Mercer, a great lyricist who tossed off half a dozen or so tunes, as one of “Tin Pan Alley’s most celebrated composers” along with Cole Porter and Harold Arlen, is out of his depth. Mr. Rosen is also wrong about there being almost no Depression-era songs that reflect the Depression. And he’s wrong about the songs of the classic period speaking “almost exclusively in the voice of the white middle class”-Fats Waller and Andy Razaf and, for that matter, Cole Porter would have been surprised to hear that that’s whose voice they were speaking in. It’s hard to trust a guide who doesn’t know the basic terrain.
Mr. Rosen’s writing is terminally over-excited: Berlin “frostily refused permission to reprint his lyrics even to friends working on fawning tributes.” And: “Berlin’s cranky reputation was well-known, and the legends that swirled around his final years depicted a livid, thin-skinned old man, stalking the gloomy rooms of his East Side mansion: the Hermit of Beekman Place.” And: “What the songwriter scarcely realized was that the most significant development in the saga of ‘White Christmas’ was to take place some months later, in the spring of 1942, back in California.” It’s his enthusiasm that carries him away; when he settles down, he can come up with interesting material. His account of how “White Christmas” began as a specialty number for a revue, then was held back and modified until Berlin found the ideal time and place and singer for what he knew was a great song, is entertaining in itself, as well as instructive about Berlin’s shrewdness. He’s right to emphasize that “White Christmas” was a wartime song, yet was “no ‘Over There.’ It was an ‘over here,’ a vision of home-front serenity, of the imperiled ‘American way of life’ that the nation was fighting to defend.” And he draws an interesting parallel between the Jewish musicians, from Al Jolson to Harold Arlen, who were the sons of cantors, and “the great church-reared African-American singers-Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, James Brown, to name just the most illustrious-who reinvented sacred gospel music as secular soul and R&B.”
In sum, this is not a book the world really needed-it’s padded out, notional and factually unsteady-but it means well, and it reflects some of the virtues of its subject: sincerity and a corny and touching simplicity. So let’s wish it and its author and its publisher a very merry Christmas. And may all our own Christmases be white.
Robert Gottlieb is the co-editor of Reading Lyrics (Pantheon).