Seven songs into the project, it's high time we met Irving Berlin.
In 1919 Berlin was barely into his thirties, just out of the U.S. Army himself, and already the most famous and influential songwriter in America. He had nearly half a century to go.
If it ever comes to handing out medals, Arlen had a more finely tuned ear, Gershwin was more innovative and fearless, Kern was the subtler artist, Porter was wittier, Carmichael had a livelier sense of the absurd. But Berlin had a hefty endowment of all these qualities, and if you reliably finish second in every event you're probably going to win the decathlon. Plus he had that extraordinary staying power: his career fills all the space between George M. Cohan and Bob Dylan. Thank you, Nicholas II, you murderous bastard, for sending us his family (and the families of so many of the others).
Many of my favorite Berlin songs, including this evil little number about a rich boy's revenge, come from his early period, but I like nearly all his work. Ironically the two exceptions are probably his best known compositions, "White Christmas" and "God Bless America." The former has simply been played to death; the latter, to my ear, is just windy. I have nothing against a good patriotic song, but anthem-writing is a particular skill, one of the few Mr. Berlin, the great miniaturist, seems not to have possessed.
But even here he struck gold: "God Bless America" so infuriated Woody Guthrie that he fired off a response song which he called "God Blessed America For Me." Dissatisfied with that tag line, he changed it in short order to "This land was made for you and me," and birthed as thoughtful and stirring a patriotic song as I've heard in any language. Woody, now, knew how to write an anthem.