100 years ago: “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” catapults Irving Berlin to prominence
On March 18, 1911, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was published as sheet music for the first time, catapulting the song’s composer, a young Russian immigrant named Irving Berlin, to stardom and one of the 20th century’s most important careers in American music composition.
In spite of its name, the song bore more of the musical trappings of a march than a rag. Nonetheless, it fed off and in turn revived global interest in American ragtime music, associated above all with the African American composer Scott Joplin. Music historians believe that ragtime is a critical link between between 19th century forms of popular music such as minstrels and cakewalks—closely related to African slave songs—and the modern form of jazz, to which Berlin and many of his contemporaries would contribute.
Berlin (1888-1989) was part of a generation of Jewish immigrant musicians who would profoundly shape American music that included George and Ira Gershwin, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, and Jack Yellen. Berlin’s earliest recollection was watching his house burnt at the hands of the czar’s Cossacks in a pogrom. (Interestingly, “Alexanders’ Ragtime Band” was to become a smash hit and ignite a dance craze in Russia). Berlin’s father, a synagogue cantor, died soon after the family’s immigration to New York City’s Lower East Side, and Berlin grew up in appalling poverty. To contribute to his family’s survival, he attracted clients as a newspaper boy by singing adaptations of popular music. From there, Berlin began to sing and play piano in clubs and bars in Tin Pan Alley.
“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” secured Berlin a position in Oscar Hammerstein’s vaudeville show. “The first real American musical work is ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’,” said George Gershwin. “Berlin had shown us the way; it was now easier to attain our ideal.”