Before the Civil Rights Era, Irving Berlin Said Black Lives Matter


I knew that perhaps the best known song about lynching, “Strange Fruit,” was written by a Jewish man, Abel Meeropol, in 1939. I didn’t know that six years earlier, Irving Berlin wrote an anti-lynching ballad, “Supper Time,” sung by Ethel Waters.

In his 2019 biography, “Irving Berlin: New York Genius,” written for the Yale Jewish Lives series, James Kaplan tells how the by-then world famous, irresistibly witty and sometimes satirical — but hardly political — songwriter would pen a searing ballad about a lynching.

In 1933, already a household name for a songbook that included “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Always,” “Blue Skies” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” Berlin collaborated with writer/director Moss Hart on “As Thousands Cheer,” a Broadway revue structured like a newspaper. There were songs and bits drawn from the sports pages, the gossip column, even the comics section. But Berlin decided the format demanded a serious news story. As Kaplan describes the show’s second act, “a curtain fell, bearing the headline UKNOWN NEGRO LYNCHED BY FRENZIED MOB. The curtain then rose to reveal a black woman standing by the dinner table in a southern shack and singing a Berlin song in an entirely new key.”

That song was “Supper Time, and the singer was Ethel Waters, the groundbreaking blues singer and actress:

Supper time
I should set the table
‘Cause it’s supper time
Somehow I’m not able
‘Cause that man o’ mine
Ain’t comin’ home no more

There’s a recording of Waters’ version of the song, and it is piercing. (Pandemic tip: There are worse things to do at home than read a lively biography of a great songwriter while asking Alexa to play just about any song the author mentions.) Waters breaks down in tears at the end of the recording, and even if she is putting it on it is very effective.

Some of Berlin’s collaborators worried that the song would stop the show cold. Berlin’s business partner, Sam Harris, stood by the composer, recognizing, another biographer noted, “good theater when he sees it.” The show was a smash.

It wasn’t just the song that broke new ground: “As Thousands Cheer,” writes Kaplan, “marked the first time a black woman had ever starred in a Broadway musical.”

Like a lot of famous white people of his era (an era, I should remind you, that extended from his birth in 1888 in either Siberia or Belarus to his death 101 years later on Beekman Place), Berlin’s racial attitudes and legacy were a mixed bag. Those who dubbed him “The King of Ragtime” conveniently overlooked the debt he and the genre owed to the Black musicians who pioneered it. His early work especially included racial and national stereotypes. And while he would write a legendary revue for the Army during World War II that would include an integrated cast (at a time when the Army was still segregated), he also fought in the same show for a minstrel number with white soldiers in blackface. (He eventually thought better of it.)

But Berlin also bravely stood up to the bigots, and could write sensitively about the Black experience. “The selection of these difficult topics, the powerful lyrics and music, and his steadfast attitude toward equality for the performers indicate that the racial status quo in his country did not sit well with Berlin, and he had the power and the passion to change things,” according to an academic paper on his legacy. And according to Stephen J. Whitfield, “Within the historical limits of Berlin’s long life, he could be considered liberal on the race question too; perhaps his Jewish roots have something to do with that sensitivity.”

And Kaplan tells this great story: During the out-of-town tryouts for “As Thousands Cheer,” “the stars Clifton Webb, Marilyn Miller, and Helen Broderick refused to take a bow with Ethel Waters. To his everlasting credit, Berlin told the three that of course he would respect their feelings – only in that case there needn’t be any bows at all.

“They took their bows with Waters at the next show.”

At this moment of racial reckoning, it’s important to remember people who resisted the status quo, especially from positions of power. You can’t go wrong in celebrating Irving Berlin, for his music and for his influence on American culture writ large.

And if you are in the mood to do so, on Aug. 31, the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center is presenting “Blue Skies Over New York: An Irving Berlin Benefit Concert,” streamed from Berlin’s former home in the Catskills. His great-grandchildren will perform Berlin songs in a benefit for Make the Road New York, an organization fighting the abuse and exploitation of immigrants.

The tribute is also a reminder that Berlin represents how immigrants not only give back to their adopted country, but shape our national narrative, our language and our traditions for the better.