That International Rag
Days before the song's composition, Berlin held a press conference that backfired and led the public to question his musical talent. He wanted to impress his audience with a new song, so he stayed up overnight to compose the number and completed it just before his matinee in London. The performance was well received; it did well on vaudeville and in early sound recordings. The song later appeared in Hollywood films.
In 1913, Berlin accepted an invitation to cross the Atlantic and perform in London. It was his second trip to England, so he called a press conference shortly after his arrival. This decision would have been normal business practice by Tin Pan Alley standards, but it appeared very brash to the British public. Berlin considered the press conference to be even more important than his scheduled appearance at the Hippodrome; his reputation depended more upon the impression he created for the journalists than on how he performed in a single theater.
Berlin made one mistake at the press conference that led to a backlash in the press and started a rumor that would follow him for decades. After admitting that he could neither read nor write music, he offered to compose a song on the spot to any title the journalists chose. One suggested "The Humming Rag", and he created the tune within an hour. In Berlin's enthusiasm to show off his talent for fast composition, he forgot to consider the impression he created when he tapped out the melody for his musical secretary with a single finger. Soon the public was reading that he was not only illiterate in music, but unable to play the piano. Those envious of his success called him "nothing but a hustling, hard-sell sham". As opening night drew near, he discovered that all of his hit songs were already well known to the British public. Needing a new number to open his act, and he composed "That International Rag" overnight in a panic.
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Berlin stayed up the night before his opening performance to create a new song. He was incapable of composing alone because he was primarily a lyricist who created melodies, so he worked with a musical secretary Cliff Hess, who transcribed and arranged the piece. As Berlin readily confessed, "I don't know anything about harmony; but I can make tunes".
They made little progress until around four in the morning. When their work began to disturb neighboring guests at the Savoy Hotel, Berlin answered complaints by filling the piano with bathroom towels in order to muffle the sound. He completed the chorus and began writing the second verse around sunrise.
- London dropped its dignity
- So has France and Germany
- All hands are dancing to a raggedy melody
- Full of originality
"That International Rag" was completed just in time for its first performance. Berlin later described his method of composition in the following words: "I sweat blood... Absolutely. I sweat blood between 3 and 6 many mornings, and when the drops that fall off my forehead hit the paper they're notes."
The most likely reason for the success of Tin Pan Alley was that it drew upon the well-developed and mature vernacular styles that existed in the United States. The reliance upon ragtime piano pieces is a good case in point. Berlin's Alexander's Ragtime Band and later The International Rag (1913) were ragtime songs but not ragtime music. The difference was not too subtle; ragtime music was formally structured, syncopated and used conventional European harmonies. By contrast, ragtime songs were much looser, intending to give feeling to the music without being tied to its arrangement.—David Blanke, The 1910s
As critic Gilbert Chase quips, Berlin's Hippodrome billing as "King of Ragtime" during this tour was "not a total misnomer if we add 'white, commercial, synthetic'." A kinder Gary Giddins concludes "it wasn't ragtime, but it was authentic Americana and it did the trick."
Berlin's performance at the song's debut softened the impression that his initial press conference had given, and it settled some of the doubts about his musical talent.
Berlin's performance at the Hippodrome later that day caught both British audiences and critics by surprise. They had expected heavy, bombastic fare in their own music hall tradition; such was the treatment Berlin's own hits were accorded by English performers. Yet the songwriter's performance was by comparison muted and modest; it did not call to mind skyscrapers, grain elevators, and quick-buck artists. With the imperturbable Cliff Hess accompanying him, Berlin sang 'The International Rag' and all the other hits for which he was known abroad: 'Alexander's Ragtime Band', 'Everybody's Doin' It', and 'When I Lost You'. If his voice was weak, his timing and diction were, as always, impeccable; his sense of conviction was unassailable.—Laurence Bergreen, As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin
Sophie Tucker introduced the song to vaudeville, and the Victor Military Band saw success with an early recording. In 1938 "That International Rag" appeared as a number in the Twentieth Century Fox film Alexander's Ragtime Band. It was also used in the 1948 MGM film Easter Parade, and in 1953's Call Me Madam.
- Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz: The First Century (Oxford University Press US, 1998), 31.
- Laurence Bergreen (1996). As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin. Da Capo Press. pp. 89–93. Retrieved 2008-09-29.
- Gary Giddins (1998). Visions of Jazz: The First Century. Oxford University Press US. pp. 31–32. Retrieved 2008-09-29.
- Philip Furia (1990). The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists. Oxford University Press US. pp. 46–47. Retrieved 2008-09-29.
- "That International Rag (sheet music, p. 4)". University of Colorado. Retrieved 2008-09-29.
- David Blanke (2002). The 1910s. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 188. Retrieved 2008-09-29.
- Gilbert Chase (1992). America's Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present. University of Illinois Press. p. 421. Retrieved 2008-09-29.
- Gary Giddins (1996). Faces in the Crowd: Musicians, Writers, Actors & Filmmakers. Da Capo Press. p. 18. Retrieved 2008-09-29.
- David A. Jasen (2002). A Century of American Popular Music: 2000 Best-loved and Remembered Songs (1899–1999). Taylor & Francis. p. 191. Retrieved 2008-09-29.
- Jane Lenz Elder (2002). Alice Faye: A Life Beyond the Silver Screen. Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. 254–255. Retrieved 2008-09-29.
- Hugh Fordin (1996). M-G-M's Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit. Da Capo Press. pp. 254–255. Retrieved 2008-09-29.