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Ordinary Words, Extraordinary Music

`IN April of 1939,'' British composer Ross Parker once recalled, ``my publisher said, `Ross, there's a song doing very well in the States called ``God Bless America.'' Think you can do one like it?' I sat down and wrote, `There'll Always Be an England.''' It's one of the international footnotes that might be added to the eulogies of Irving Berlin, the composer of ``God Bless America,'' as a quintessentially American songwriter ``whose words and music,'' as President Bush said, ``will help define the history of our nation.''

As early as 1914 Mr. Berlin's ``Alexander's Ragtime Band'' made a hit in Russia in a recording by the brass band of the Sumskoi Hussar Regiment. In 1917, at the height of World War I, the title of a Berlin tune reminded the world of America's benign secret weapon, ``Send a Lot of Jazz Bands Over There.''

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Some 1,500 songs later, Berlin's best-known music was as entrenched as popular music can ever be. ``White Christmas'' and ``Easter Parade'' had become just about as inevitable as the holidays they celebrate. ``God Bless America'' was an unofficial national anthem.

Yet, despite Berlin's popularity - or perhaps due to it - his music has often been taken more lightly than that of ``sophisticated'' songwriters such as George and Ira Gershwin, or Rodgers and Hart. Or, to consider only those who wrote both words and music as he did, Berlin has been labeled as simple and sentimental beside the wit of Cole Porter and Noel Coward - or later, Stephen Sondheim.

Well before Berlin's passing at the age of 101 last week, however, revisionists were at work, pointing out the skilled complexities beneath the easy surfaces. They were belated insights. More than 60 years ago the French composer Darius Milhaud was using Berlin's work ``of unquestioned value'' as a kind of touchstone for popular music. Stravinsky said Berlin was a genius.

In more recent years a fellow composer, Alec Wilder, wrote in an analysis of American popular songs: ``It is conceivable [that] the absurd legend to the effect that there was a mysterious ghost-writer tucked away uptown who wrote Berlin's better songs came into being because it didn't seem possible that one man could write on so many levels.''

Yes, how could that cornucopia have flowed from immigrant Israel Baline, brought to America as a child from Russia, working as a singing waiter, able to play the piano only in one key (F-sharp), getting his name Irving Berlin from a printer's error on his first published song?

The answer lies in the mystery of talent. The results are songs that, at their best, so seamlessly combine ordinary words with extraordinary music that they seem natural as conversation yet unendingly fresh.

Berlin was not the Tin Pan Alley automaton knocking out 32-bar choruses always in the conventional pattern of two similar eight-bar segments, a contrasting eight bars, and a return to the original eight bars. In ``Cheek to Cheek'' he went on for 72 bars, with an additional little break-up strain. In ``Puttin' on the Ritz'' he superimposed a three-beat phrase over regular four-beat measures in a way so venturesome it's hard to believe it was 60 years ago. If the words of ``Always'' are the plainest of loving sentiments, the socially conscious words of ``Supper Time'' echo the anguish of a woman bereaved by a lynching. The sunniness of ``Blue Skies'' is really none the less for the minor strains that make it so musically interesting and allow improvising jazz musicians to make it sound bluesy as well as cloudless.

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But, as the literary scholar said, when you're tempted to read something more about Chaucer, read Chaucer again instead. Listen to the old Book-of-the-Month Club album of Berlin songs by everybody from Nelson Eddy to Fred Astaire to Billie Holiday, ``There's No Business Like Show Business'' - or, for interpretations by one superb, swinging voice, Ella Fitzgerald's ``Irving Berlin Songbook'' on the Verve label. It's a lovely day today. Let's face the music and dance.

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