"There is no place in American music for Irving Berlin," said Jerome Kern in 1920.
"he IS American music." By that time Berlin had conquered all the styles of pop from ethnic comedy through ragtime , dance steps and love ballads to the Broadway stage. He also controlled the publishing of his work. He was a millionaire. But the man who wrote the de facto national anthem in "God Bless America" led a pitiful childhood, his family having fled a czarist pogrom and set up in abject poverty in New York. By 1910 he had mastered city slicker English and was a cafe entertainer. He started making up songs in his head--at first ethnic stuff, but in 1911 he wrote "Alexander's Ragtime Band" which was to be the signature tune of the rag era. Musically illiterate he was able to capture the sound of the city and the emotions of the nation, and indeed of the world. He worked by night and drugs saw him through the hard times. His wife died on their honeymoon, so he created a heart-rending waltz ballad ("When I Lost You") out of his suffering. It sold a million copies. There was nothing he couldn't do in music-- he even threatened to write an opera.