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September 1997

Charles Hamm
Irving Berlin
Songs from the Melting Pot: The Formative Years, 1907-14

Composer Alec Wilder called Irving Berlin “the best all-around, over-all song writer America has ever had.” Berlin was certainly prolific and successful, dedicating himself ferociously to the art of songwriting for over 50 years—from his first published song, “Marie from Sunny Italy” (1907), to his last show, Mr. President (1962). He could also be ferocious with writers wishing to study his work, as revealed in Lawrence Bergreen’s 1990 biography, As Thousands Cheer.

Recently the distinguished music historian Charles Hamm has been exploring the earliest phase of Berlin’s remarkably creative life: first with a three-volume scholarly edition, Irving Berlin: Early Songs, 1907-1914 (A-R Editions, Madison, Wisconsin), now with an independent monograph covering the same period. In Songs from the Melting Pot, Hamm vividly demonstrates how Berlin launched his career by adopting the conventions of his day, turning out novelty numbers, ballads, and syncopated two-steps for the New York stage.

Hamm is particularly adept in fleshing out the cultural context for Berlin’s “ethnic novelty songs” and clearing up misconceptions surrounding his greatest hit from these years, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” A list of historical performances on disc and cylinder, compiled by Paul Charosh, rounds out the volume.

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