The Clare Spark Blog

August 7, 2010

American Music and Jewish Composers: Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein

Irving Berlin ca. 1910

I read Joseph Byrd’s negative evaluation of the original lyrics to Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz” ( when it was first posted on a Humanities-Net list July 12 (New Deal Era and its Origins), with Byrd’s linking of the lyric to prior “coon songs” and even blackface. This is what Byrd wrote on the topic of “black female domestics and dancing” (it is followed by my response on H-Net, 8-6-2010, expanded for purposes of this blog):

[Byrd:] That’s exactly the topic of Irving Berlin’s original lyric to “Puttin’ On The Ritz” —

Have you seen the “well to do?”

Up on Lenox Avenue?

On that famous thoroughfare,

With their noses in the air?

High hats and colored collars,

White spats and fifteen dollars.

Spending every dime,

For a wonderful time!

If you’re blue and you don’t know

Where to go to, why don’t you go

Where Harlem flits?

Puttin’ On The Ritz!

Spangled gowns upon the bevy

Of high-brow[n]s from down the levee,

All miss-fits,

Puttin’ On The Ritz.

That’s where each and every Lulubelle goes,

Every Thursday evening with her swell beaus, Rubbin’ elbows!

Come with me and we’ll attend

Their jubilee, and see them spend,

Their last two bits,

Puttin’ On The Ritz.

[Byrd commentary:] Plain and simple, this is a jazz-inflected version of the ubiquitous 20s “coon songs”, like “Hard-hearted Hannah” “I Ain’t Got Nobody”, and “Big Bad Bill Is Sweet William Now”. Why “Every Thursday evening?”  Thursdays in Manhattan were “Maid’s Night Out”. That’s the version Fred Astaire sang in the 1930 hit record (also covered by Harry Richman).  Berlin later cleaned up the lyrics, e.g.,

Dressed up like a million-dollar trooper, Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper, Super-duper!

which while not racist, is not very good either.

Coon songs were the extension of blackface, and indeed, usually performed in blackface (except by women).  Even Berlin’s “Alexander’s Rag-time Band”, which on the surface doesn’t seem to be racist, was turned into a broad dialect comedy duet in its first recording, by Collins and Harlan.  Coon songs were the other side of the “plantation melodies” which expressed nostalgia for the “Old South” (i.e., slavery), songs like “Rockabye Your Baby To A Dixie Melody”, “My Mammy”, “Is It True What They Say About Dixie” et al.  [end, Byrd comment]

[Spark response:] Joseph Byrd, co-founder of The Yankee Doodle Society, has, in prior publications, boldly exposed the attempts of recent musicologists to whitewash the racist lyrics of blackface minstrelsy (for instance in the case of Stephen Foster’s “Oh Susannah!”)  But in this instance, I was not sure that I. Berlin deserved such harsh criticism. So I read several biographies of two composers who, in their contrasting ways, have come to represent American music: I refer to Irving Berlin and  Leonard Bernstein, both of whom were indebted to black and Latin music (as well in Berlin’s case, by Stephen Foster and Tin Pan Alley in general). I thank Byrd for inspiring much-needed research on my part: my curiosity opened up the tradebook genre of the intimate biography of celebrities in American music history, a genre that seems to be focused less on their artistic production and its sources and ideological messages than on inside-dope regarding the composers’ sexual and business practices. (An exception is Charles Hamm’s musicological treatment of Berlin as a participant in the melting pot: see Bibliography.)

It is my sense that the original lyric of “Puttin’ On The Ritz” was more puritanical than “racist.” Irving Berlin was a self-educated immigrant who fled his tenement home in the NYC Lower East Side when he was only thirteen or so. He worked in various dives and was exposed to low life in general, along with the rowdy ethnic music performed in such venues. Throughout most of his productive period, false rumors abounded that he had a little “colored boy” sequestered somewhere who really was the author of his many popular songs. He was also notoriously frugal and abstemious in matters of the flesh. Numerous uptown swells had visited his early haunts, and he had no great respect for their slumming, snobbery, and primitivism. The man was remarkably class-conscious and throughout life embraced the strenuous work-ethic of the middle-class, even as he married Ellin McKay, a renegade from the upper class, who, for a time, sacrificed her relations with her father to marry [the little Jew].

It is also reported that he overcame the objections of his white actors who had refused to take a bow with a black co-star in the successful show As Thousands Cheer (1933) that starred Ethel Waters, and that protested, among other things, lynching (Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing had already made social commentary about US political culture okay on Broadway). Berlin told his leading singers that either EW joined them in their curtain calls, or nobody would enjoy that ritual. Moreover, during his marathon morale-boosting show during world war 2, his black performers and white performers were not segregated, at his insistence. (Not that a blackface act was not part of the revue “This Is The Army,” that traveled throughout both the European and Pacific Theaters of war, with Berlin present throughout.)   (My sources are biographies by Edward Jablonski and Lawrence Bergreen.)

“Puttin’ On The Ritz” (original lyric) was written for a failed film of the same name starring Harry Richman in 1930. There is a clip of the title song on YouTube, and there is no blackface. The film quality is not very good, but I think you can see a large troupe of black dancers joining Richman and the white dancers toward the end of the routine. Also, Fred Astaire’s original recording of the song is included in The American Popular Song CD series, disc one. But perhaps most interesting of all is the fact that the song was written soon after Berlin had lost much of his fortune in the 1929 crash of the stock market. He could have been lecturing himself for writing for the Ritzy upper-classes near the beginning of  his long career in Broadway theater musicals, a step upward from Tin Pan Alley and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Whatever his possible motivation, it is not uncommon for writers with a middle-class ethos to criticize what they view as excessive consumerism in other groups. *

There is no reason to mention Leonard Bernstein in this blog, except in this respect: Irving Berlin was an uncritical patriot and moved toward conservatism, though he did not oppose FDR during the Depression (his wife was an enthused New Dealer). At least one biographer seemed intent on exposing all his frailties (Bergreen). Whereas Bernstein, the offspring of a comfortably well-off Jewish family and Harvard educated, was clearly a fellow-traveler with the Left during his musical and extra-curricular career, and has been recently criticized for not being Left enough in one biography (Barry Seldes). The much longer biography (by the Englishman Humphrey Burton) tends toward lurid gossip without much musicological or other historical analysis. I am speculating that there is an unpleasant insinuation in the Burton tell-all superficially laudatory biography that Bernstein was the epitome of “Jewish” carnality and the will to power.

To sum up, I believe that calling Berlin’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz” as racist and necessarily connected with blackface and “coon song” is to stigmatize the composer too roughly. The only reason I bring up Bernstein’s oeuvre and politics is to remind other students of American popular culture that it is commonly thought among black nationalists that twentieth century Jewish composers improperly ripped off or otherwise abused/parodied the musical ideas of non-whites. I understand that Irving Berlin was criticized on the H-Net list strictly for an alleged connection to faux black culture, but I have noticed elsewhere a larger set of criticisms directed against American popular music when its composers are of Jewish origin and, as in the case of Berlin, are seen as unreflectively patriotic, or who, like the “un-American” Bernstein, are seen as possessed by demons; i.e, as romantic, intuitive artists both are politically unreliable in the eyes of some left-wing critics.

(For a guide to the logic of black nationalism, see the postscript to my prior blog:

*There is a summary on the internet that supports my reading of the original lyric to Puttin’ On The Ritz: “The rise and fall of a popular entertainer provides the basis of this musical drama. Harry Raymond (played by nightclub superstar Harry Richman) begins his career with nothing but his ambition, his talent and the support of friends and loved ones. Eventually he hits the big time and becomes a star. Unfortunately with stardom comes arrogance and selfishness and he disdains his lowly but loyal lover and pals to hang out with the upper crust. His downfall comes from a bottle of tainted homemade gin. Harry nearly dies and ends up permanently blind. Fortunately, at least one of his old crowd is around to help him rebuild his life. ~ Sandra Brennan, All Movie Guide”  This is hardly the message of the Astaire-Rogers movies that followed in the mid-to late 1930s, where upward mobility and luxury were the message, with no down side to the rise of the hoofer, though the upper crust was still mocked. I.e., the true aristocrats are artists: in this case the virtuosic team of Astaire and Rogers. The same goes for subsequent Astaire movies with different female partners.


Bergreen, Lawrence. As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin. Viking, 1990.

Burton, Humphrey. Leonard Bernstein. Doubleday, 1994.

**Hamm, Charles. Irving Berlin, Songs From The Melting Pot: The Formative Years, 1907-1914. Oxford UP, 1997. Highly recommended for serious students of popular song and the impact of black culture on the “melting pot.” Corrects Rogin, I think.

Jablonski, Edward. Irving Berlin: American Troubador. Henry Holt & Co., 1999.

Rogin, Michael. Blackface, White Noise. UC Press, 1996.

Seldes, Barry. Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of An American Musician. UC Press, 2009.



  1. […] American Music and Jewish Composers: Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein / Clare Spark […]

    Pingback by Jeeves & Wooster中的爵士时代(上):爵士乐与摩登女 – Cheryllium's Archive — June 3, 2020 @ 7:22 am | Reply

  2. Harry Richman introduced the song “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in the film PUTTIN’ ON THE RITZ. He didn’t merely cover it.

    Comment by Steve Burstein — May 15, 2017 @ 2:30 am | Reply

  3. […] conscious black writers. Since I wrote about Irving Berlin and, more briefly, Leonard Bernstein (…), I have been studying biographical treatments of George Gershwin, especially his magnum opus, the […]

    Pingback by The “Porgy” controversy « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 18, 2013 @ 7:39 pm | Reply

  4. I was glad to read your response, and thank you for taking the time to write one. The inner conflict I experience as a white person with little true exposure to black culture trying to figure out what is racist or not is ridiculous but a living reality for me. I have loved those movies my entire life, but don’t want to participate in something “racist.” (As I said, I do realize the absurdity of the struggle as an intellectual exercise, but there it is.) I also love 30-rock, and wonder the same things.

    After I read your response, I reflected on the fact that the inclusion of these images in Irving Berlin’s movies could be seen as recognition of talent, and the importance of black musical culture and its influence on his work as a composer.

    Comment by rubypie — January 4, 2011 @ 11:16 pm | Reply

  5. Hello there,
    I ran across your blog while searching to see if there had been anything written about I.Berlin being racist. Watching the movies “White Christmas” and “Holiday Inn” are two of my holiday traditions, but I am continually more disturbed by the presence of racist overtones. It’s not just “Abraham” in Holiday Inn, or Mamie and her children, but the “Minstrel Show” number in White Christmas as well. I think all of these things point to, at the very least, a very reactionary viewpoint on the part of Irving Berlin.

    I am really excited to have found your blog and will be back!

    Thank you,
    Erin Moline

    Comment by Erin Moline — December 23, 2010 @ 7:15 pm | Reply

    • I was watching Swingtime (starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) again recently, and noted the “Bojangles” number, a gorgeous and virtuosic dance tribute to the great Bill (“Bojangles”) Robinson, wherein Astaire put on brown makeup. The minstrel show tradition persists in such as Tracy Morgan on 30 Rock, yet no one criticizes Tina Fey for racism. I don’t take blackface in itself as a sign of reaction. It depends on the individual artist. The fact that Irving Berlin would not allow segregation in his World War 2 theater troupe, and that he made his white performers take their bows with Ethel Waters (against their wishes), speaks well of his sympathy and respect for the people and music that contributed to his early phenomenal success.

      Comment by clarespark — December 23, 2010 @ 7:33 pm | Reply

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