American Music from Immigrant Roots

This post was written by Museum docent Maxine Simson.

Irving Berlin has been called the greatest songwriter in the history of popular music. His career spanned most of the 20th century and his beloved songs are still heard all over the world. An amazing fate for a man who could only play the piano in one key!

Irving Berlin’s rags to riches story began when he stepped on to Ellis Island at the age of 5 in 1893. He was on his way to the teeming Lower East Side. This densely populated neighborhood, though impoverished, would come to produce politicians and gangsters, film moguls, retail empires and all manner of professionals in the early 20th century.

This Russian immigrant had a gift that would come to embody American music and define it for an entire generation. Many of his songs became popular themes and anthems including Easter Parade, White Christmas, There’s No Business Like Show Business, God Bless America, Blue Skies and Heat Wave. In fact, Berlin practically invented Christmas songs; prior to White Christmas, there was no Christmas song industry in the US. The song’s popularity paved the way for the thriving industry that exists today. And whether he was writing a song about a cozy holiday, a soldier who couldn’t get up in the morning or nothing but blue skies, Irving Berlin’s words and music have embedded themselves in popular culture all over the world.

Of course Irving Berlin wasn’t the only Eastern European immigrant who would make a name for himself. Al Jolson is another personality whose talent catapulted him to stardom. Born in a small Jewish village in today’s Russia, his family migrated to America for a better life. Jolson was inspired by the vibrant multiculturalism of his new country and innovatively melded disparate cultures together to create a distinctive genre of musical performance. Jolson climbed to the top of the American entertainment industry by redefining the image of the public performer.

The mixing and melding of his immigrant experience is deftly depicted in the The Jazz Singer. Known as the first “talkie,” the film tells the fictional story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a young man who resists the traditions of his devout Jewish family by becoming a jazz singer. This 1927 American musical film signaled the end of the silent film era, and went on to become the model for American success in film. The Jazz Singer was named one of the best American films of all time by the American Film Institute. What makes it so American is its sharing of ideas and cultures – the Jewish experience mixing with the black American tradition of jazz.

At the peak of his career Al Jolson was dubbed the world’s greatest entertainer. With a bold and extroverted performing style he popularized a large number of songs that he delivered with a “shamelessly sentimental and melodramatic approach.” Jolson was also a complicated figure. He was to jazz, blues and ragtime what Elvis Presley was to rock n roll – he delivered traditionally black American music to a predominantly white crowd. And those methods of delivery weren’t always so respectable. Jolson was famous for performing in blackface, where he would masquerade as a black man and act out harmful racial stereotypes for entertainment and comedy. However, he was also known for actively fighting against discrimination in the music industry, where black performers were often barred from venues, paid less money, and seen as second class stars.

We’ll be exploring the nuanced lives of Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, and many others in a two-session class entitled Immigrants as Artistic Pioneers. Each session will include discussions, rare film clips and early recordings as we details the extraordinary influence these early immigrants had on American culture. The first class starts Monday, April 16 at 11 a.m. and the class continues the next Monday, April 23. Sign up for both, or join us for either Monday.


Maxine Simson is a docent and educator at the Museum at Eldridge Street. She is a lecturer with the NYC Department of Aging and the owner of The Natural Resources Public Relations DBA, a PR and multi-media company.

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