The Story of Irving Berlin for Kids

Welcome to Bedtime History

Have you ever thought about how music is made? Some of the classic hits that we all hear regularly were once ideas in someone’s head.  How do these turn into the songs we hear on the radio today?

Tonight we are going to learn about an immigrant named Irving Berlin who later became one of America’s greatest songwriters. America has always been called a “land of immigrants” because ever since the beginning of our nation, immigrants have come here to start new lives with their families.An immigrant is someone who moves from one country to another. 

Irving Berlin was born May 11, 1888 in Russia. Irving Berlin’s family were of the Jewish religion. It was not an easy thing to be Jewish in Russia when Irving was little because Jews were persecuted for their beliefs. Persecuted means to not be treated fair or nice. Some were beaten, made fun of, and even had their things taken from them and destroyed. One of Irving’s first memories is sitting on the side of the road watching his house burn down. It was a scary time, so when Irving was only 5 years old, his Mom and Dad decided to move away from persecution and move to America in 1893.

Back in those days, the only way to get across the ocean to the United States was to sail on big steamships. These journeys were very dangerous and could take several weeks. Many times they would run into big storms and the ship captains had to watch for icebergs along the way. People would get seasick on the boat and some of the passengers would even die. But Irving‘s parents knew that if they could make it to America they would have a chance for a better life; so they took the risk and took their young family across the ocean.

Irving’s family settled in the big city of New York. New York was a bustling city even back then, and had lots of people and crowded streets. Life was hard for Irving and his family. It was a new place they had never been before; they had to learn a new language because they

didn’t speak English. They were very poor and lived in a basement of a small apartment. Irving’s dad had a hard time finding a job to earn money and did anything he could to earn money to support his family. Everyone in the family had to work hard just to get enough money to buy food. When Irving was only 8 years old, he went to work as a newspaper boy. He had 3 sisters that had to work too. Can you imagine having to work a real job at 8 years old?

On the way home after his first day on the job, Irving decided to go to the shipyard and look at the big ships that were getting ready to set sail. A big swinging crane that loads up the ships with cargo accidently swung around and knocked him into the water. When the men that worked at the shipyard pulled Irving out of the water, he was still holding onto the 5 pennies he had earned that day. He had worked so hard for that money, that he did not want to let it go.

When Irving was 13 years old, his father died.  He was sad but he also worried about his family.  Irving felt like he needed to move out of the home and support himself so his mom wouldn’t have to worry about taking care of him and feeding him. So at 14 years old, Irving left home and slept in a homeless shelter with other newspaper boys.

Irving always loved to sing and was taught to sing at an early age by his father. His dad was a cantor. A cantor is someone who leads the singing and prayer at a synagogue, which is the name for a Jewish church. When Irving was selling newspapers on the streets he learned lots of different songs and sometimes he would sing on the streets and in the saloons, café’s and restaurants. Customers would throw him pennies because they liked his songs. 

Irving paid close attention to the people who threw money for him and figured out what kind of songs people liked best.  He was very smart and figured out which songs would give him the most money and he would sing more of those songs. Pretty soon, Irving was singing full time as a job. He worked hard and long, and he later said one of the reasons he did was so he could buy his mother a rocking chair. He knew she didn’t have the money to buy one for herself and he thought it would make her happy.

In his spare time and when the restaurants were closed, Irving would ask the owners if he could play their pianos. Irving taught himself to play the piano, and soon was singing, playing and putting on shows in the restaurants, music halls and city squares. He also learned from others how to make up new songs and write music.

Irving’s first big hit was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. Ragtime music was very popular back then. It was music that marched and bounced. People loved his song. Irving’s music was being made into records and people loved to buy them because his music was great to dance to.  After this hit song, people knew Irving’s name and he became famous.

In 1917, America entered a big war that was going on in Europe. This war was called “the Great War” and later became known as World War I. Irving Berlin was asked to do a special mission for the United States Army; to write songs for a group that would perform for soldiers. The Army and Country’s leaders knew that music helped to keep the soldiers happy and inspired.

One of the songs he wrote at this time was a song called “God Bless America”, but he didn’t add it to the show. Not until 20 years later, he released the song to the public for the first time; It was

during the Great Depression and right before World War II. A depression is a time when there are not very many jobs and lots of people are poor and hungry. “God Bless America” became very popular and it meant a lot to people who had been struggling for years. The people felt that even though they had lived through hard times, God still helped them and loved them. Today, the song is still beloved and sung at very special events like the 4th of July.

Irving Berlin loved America. To love your country is to be patriotic. He once said he owed all his success to his adopted country. He also said he wrote “God Bless America” as “an expression of my feeling toward the country to which I owe what I have and what I am.”

Irving Berlin wrote many many more very popular songs. He wrote songs for the radio, movies, musical plays, Broadway and other shows. People sang his songs everywhere. He was the most successful songwriter of his time and people still sing his songs, many not even knowing who wrote them. One of his other most famous songs is the very popular Christmas tune “White

Christmas”. There are lots of beautiful versions of this song, but the one we hear most today is the version sung by the famous singer Bing Crosby.

Irving Berlin knew that music can be very powerful. Music can tell stories and music can make us feel better. It can lift us up when we are sad. It reminds us of people we love and places we

want to visit. Music sparks imagination and creativity. Irving Berlin understood that music is very important and he wanted to fill the world with good and uplifting music. He won several awards for his music and many historians call Irving Berlin, “America’s Songwriter” because of how his music has changed and influenced America.

Irving Berlin died in New York City at the age of 101 years old. He had lived a long and happy life, and had blessed many lives with his music. Even though Irving became very famous and rich, he never forgot his childhood and living on the streets. He felt that having those hard experiences and not always getting what he wanted made him a better person; it made him grateful for what he had. He believed that America was the land of opportunity. From Irving Berlin we learn that with hard work and dedication you can better your life and make a difference.

Do you enjoy singing to music you hear on the radio?  Have you ever thought of writing your own songs?  These are things that Irving Berlin because he loved music and was inspired to learn how to make it himself.  He taught himself to sing and play piano and write songs.  If he taught himself to do that, you can too!  We are all capable of great things if we are dedicated to our goals and strive to reach them.