Since many of you seemed to enjoy my cover of Paul Simon’s “Something So Right” last week, I am posting another cover song by another great American songwriter. I have chosen the song “Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)”, written by Irving Berlin for the 1954 film White Christmas, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. Last December, I saw the musical adaptation of the film at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and have since been intrigued by the play, it’s songs, and the Tin Pan Alley songwriters of which Berlin was a paramount figure.
While my research into Berlin and the Tin Pan Alley writers is still in it’s infancy, I find it interesting not only on a musical level, but also on an historical one. A Russian-Jewish immigrant, Berlin’s family settled in New York City when Berlin was five years old. Growing up in the peak of the “melting pot” America, his songwriting career began by depicting the ethnically diverse world of New York City in the early 1900’s. As this market in popular music began to fade as political tension over immigration flared, Berlin was drafted into World War I to write songs in 1917, and wrote “God Bless America” the following year, among other notable patriotic songs. By the early 20’s Berlin was worth over $4 million for his work as a songwriter, with the bulk of his career still in front of him.
While it would be 1954 when the movie White Christmas was released, the title song was written for the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. As Berlin had long established himself as one of the premier songwriters in film of the time, and “White Christmas” one of the most successful songs in American music history, it is no surprise that the song was turned into a movie (and musical) of it’s own. “Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)” has a sentiment to it that I can’t help but find endearing, and I hope that my performance of it is able to portray that to you as you listen. I have come across a handful of different versions of the song, both old and new, that are generally associated with Christmas albums. While that makes sense given the movie, the song never mentions the holiday, and seems fitting outside the realm of seasonal music.
Obviously, the career of Irving Berlin is so vast and influential on American popular music that even to give a bulleted overview of it could fill many more pages than are worth pursuing on this blog. It is for that reason, though, that I wanted to pay homage to Berlin’s work. I am interested in learning more of this music and doing more research on this period in American music history, and if there seems to be as much interest in this as the Paul Simon cover, I would love to share more music from the time period in the future, as well as more information about it’s figure heads. As beautifully orchestrated as many of these songs are, it is difficult to approach them with an acoustic guitar arrangement. I did so in hopes of shedding a new light upon the song, as well as a learning tool for myself, not only as a songwriter, but as a musician as well. There is always something new to learn in music, as I’m sure it is in any field, no matter your level of success. Irving Berlin, when told that he had written more hits than anyone else, humbly replied: “Yeah- and more flops, too.” Thank you for listening.
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