Monday, December 21, 2009

Irving Berlin. He Wrote the Songs that Made America Sing.


I’m Phoebe Zimmerman.


And I'm Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program PEOPLE IN AMERICA. Today, we tell about Irving Berlin. He wrote the words and music for some of the most popular songs of the twentieth century.



Irving Berlin lived to be one hundred one years old. He died in nineteen eighty‑nine. During his long life, he wrote more than one thousand songs. Many of his songs have become timeless additions to America's popular culture.

Irving Berlin's music helped spread that popular culture throughout the world. Berlin was born in Russia. But he captured the feeling, the people and the customs of his new country. And he put those ideas to music.

Another composer, Jerome Kern, once said of Irving Berlin: "He has no place in American music. He IS American music."


Most American children grow up hearing and singing some of Irving Berlin's songs. Two of the best known are linked to Christian religious holidays. They are "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade."

Many Americans think the perfect Christmas Day on December twenty‑fifth should be cold and snowy. Irving Berlin thought so, too. He wrote "White Christmas" in nineteen thirty‑nine. It was sung in the movie "Holiday Inn" in nineteen forty‑two. "White Christmas" became one of the best‑selling songs of all time. Here is Bing Crosby singing his famous version of "White Christmas."



Irving Berlin's song for the Easter holiday captures another American tradition. "Easter Parade" is about a tradition in New York City. There, on Easter morning, people walk up and down Fifth Avenue after church services to enjoy the spring weather. Women wear new hats and dresses. Berlin wrote the song for a musical play in nineteen thirty‑three. It was the main song in the musical film "Easter Parade" in nineteen forty‑eight. Here is Judy Garland singing "Easter Parade."



Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline in eighteen ­eighty‑eight in the Russian village of Temun. He was the youngest of eight children. His family was Jewish. They fled Russia because of religious oppression.

The Baline family came to America in eighteen ninety‑three. They did not have much money. They moved into an area of New York City where many other poor Jewish immigrants had settled when they moved to the United States. Israel's father died when the boy was eight years old. The young boy left his home to find work. First, he got a job helping a blind street singer. Then he began earning money by singing on the streets of New York. Later, he got a job singing while serving people their food in a restaurant. Israel taught himself to play the piano. But he could play only the black keys.


Soon Israel began writing his own songs. He never learned to read or write music. He wrote his songs by playing the notes with one finger on the piano. An assistant wrote down the notes on sheets of paper. When the songwriter's first song was published, his name was spelled wrong. Israel Baline had become I. Berlin. Israel thought the name sounded more American. So he re­named himself Irving Berlin.

Between nineteen twelve and nineteen sixteen, Irving Berlin wrote more than one hundred eighty songs. By the time he was in his late twenties, his songs were famous around the world.


Berlin became an American citizen in nineteen eighteen. A few months later, he was ordered into military service. The United States was fighting in World War One. Berlin was asked to write songs for a musical about life in the military. He called the show "Yip Yip Yaphank." All of the performers in the show were soldiers. Many of the songs became popular.

After he served in the army, Berlin returned to New York. He formed his own music publishing company. He also established a theater for his musical shows near Broadway.


Irving Berlin loved America for giving a poor immigrant a chance to succeed. He expressed his thanks for this success in his songs. One of these songs is "God Bless America." He wrote the song in nineteen eighteen. But it did not become popular until Kate Smith sang it in nineteen thirty‑nine. She sang the song to celebrate Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of World War One. Many people feel "God Bless America" is the unofficial national song of the United States.

Berlin gave all money he earned from "God Bless America" to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America. Here is Kate Smith singing "God Bless America."



The United States entered World War Two in nineteen forty‑one. Berlin agreed to write and produce a musical show called "This is the Army." It was a musical about life in the military. All the performers were soldiers.

The show was performed in many cities across the United States. It helped increase support for America's part in the war. It earned ten million dollars for the Army Emergency Relief Fund. "This is the Army" also was performed for the American troops at military bases around the world. Irving Berlin appeared in most of these performances. He sang the song he had written earlier. The song is about what he had hated most about being in the army. Here, Irving Berlin sings "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning."



After the war, Berlin continued to write songs for movies and plays. He wrote songs for more than fifteen movies from the nineteen thirties to the nineteen fifties. Many of the songs were used in movies starring the famous dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Here is Fred Astaire singing a song that appeared in several movies, "Puttin’ on the Ritz."



Irving Berlin also wrote the music for seventeen Broadway plays from the nineteen twenties to nineteen fifty. His most successful Broadway musical was “Annie Get Your Gun” in nineteen forty-six. Irving Berlin retired in nineteen sixty-­two after his last Broadway musical, "Mister President," failed. He died in nineteen eighty-nine. But the songs that he gave America will be played and sung for many years to come.



This Special English program was written by Shelley Gollust. It was produced by Lawan Davis. Our studio engineer was Sulaiman Tarawaley. I'm Phoebe Zimmerman.


And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry from VOA

A Special Christmas Story: The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. A husband and wife give each other the most special Christmas gift of all.


Now, the VOA Special English program, AMERICAN STORIES.


We present a special Christmas story called "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry. Here is Shep O'Neal with the story.


One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it in the smallest pieces of money - pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by negotiating with the men at the market who sold vegetables and meat. Negotiating until one's face burned with the silent knowledge of being poor. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but sit down and cry. So Della cried. Which led to the thought that life is made up of little cries and smiles, with more little cries than smiles.

Della finished her crying and dried her face. She stood by the window and looked out unhappily at a gray cat walking along a gray fence in a gray back yard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only one dollar and eighty-seven cents to buy her husband Jim a gift. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result.

One Dollar and ...

Eighty-seven cents
Jim earned twenty dollars a week, which does not go far. Expenses had been greater than she had expected. They always are. Many a happy hour she had spent planning to buy something nice for him. Something fine and rare -- something close to being worthy of the honor of belonging to Jim.

There was a tall glass mirror between the windows of the room. Suddenly Della turned from the window and stood before the glass mirror and looked at herself. Her eyes were shining, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Quickly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, Mister and Missus James Dillingham Young had two possessions which they valued. One was Jim's gold time piece, the watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair.

Had the Queen of Sheba lived in their building, Della would have let her hair hang out the window to dry just to reduce the value of the queen's jewels.

So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her, shining like a brown waterfall. It reached below her knees and made itself almost like a covering for her. And then quickly she put it up again. She stood still while a few tears fell on the floor.

She put on her coat and her old brown hat. With a quick motion and brightness still in her eyes, she danced out the door and down the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: "Madame Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds." Della ran up the steps to the shop, out of breath.

"Will you buy my hair?" asked Della.

"I buy hair," said Madame. "Take your hat off and let us have a look at it."

Down came the beautiful brown waterfall of hair.

"Twenty dollars," said Madame, lifting the hair with an experienced hand.

"Give it to me quick," said Della.


The next two hours went by as if they had wings. Della looked in all the stores to choose a gift for Jim.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. It was a chain -- simple round rings of silver. It was perfect for Jim's gold watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be for him. It was like him. Quiet and with great value. She gave the shopkeeper twenty-one dollars and she hurried home with the eighty-seven cents that was left.

When Della arrived home she began to repair what was left of her hair. The hair had been ruined by her love and her desire to give a special gift. Repairing the damage was a very big job.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny round curls of hair that made her look wonderfully like a schoolboy. She looked at herself in the glass mirror long and carefully.

"If Jim does not kill me before he takes a second look at me," she said to herself, "he'll say I look like a song girl. But what could I do--oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?"

At seven o'clock that night the coffee was made and the pan on the back of the stove was hot and ready to cook the meat.

Jim was never late coming home from work. Della held the silver chain in her hand and sat near the door. Then she heard his step and she turned white for just a minute. She had a way of saying a little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: "Please God, make him think I am still pretty."


The door opened and Jim stepped in. He looked thin and very serious. Poor man, he was only twenty-two and he had to care for a wife. He needed a new coat and gloves to keep his hands warm.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a dog smelling a bird. His eyes were fixed upon Della. There was an expression in them that she could not read, and it frightened her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor fear, nor any of the feelings that she had been prepared for. He simply looked at her with a strange expression on his face. Della went to him.

"Jim, my love," she cried, "do not look at me that way. I had my hair cut and sold because I could not have lived through Christmas without giving you a gift. My hair will grow out again. I just had to do it. My hair grows very fast. Say 'Merry Christmas!' Jim, and let us be happy. You do not know what a nice-- what a beautiful, nice gift I have for you."

"You have cut off your hair?" asked Jim, slowly, as if he had not accepted the information even after his mind worked very hard.

"Cut it off and sold it," said Della. "Do you not like me just as well? I am the same person without my hair, right?

Jim looked about the room as if he were looking for something.

"You say your hair is gone?" he asked.

"You need not look for it," said Della. "It is sold, I tell you--sold and gone, too. It is Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it was cut for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with sudden serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the meat on, Jim?"

Jim seemed to awaken quickly and put his arms around Della. Then he took a package from his coat and threw it on the table.

"Do not make any mistake about me, Dell," he said. "I do not think there is any haircut that could make me like my girl any less. But if you will open that package you may see why you had me frightened at first."

White fingers quickly tore at the string and paper. There was a scream of joy; and then, alas! a change to tears and cries, requiring the man of the house to use all his skill to calm his wife.

For there were the combs -- the special set of objects to hold her hair that Della had wanted ever since she saw them in a shop window. Beautiful combs, made of shells, with jewels at the edge --just the color to wear in the beautiful hair that was no longer hers. They cost a lot of money, she knew, and her heart had wanted them without ever hoping to have them. And now, the beautiful combs were hers, but the hair that should have touched them was gone.

But she held the combs to herself, and soon she was able to look up with a smile and say, "My hair grows so fast, Jim!"

Then Della jumped up like a little burned cat and cried, "Oh, oh!"

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful gift. She happily held it out to him in her open hands. The silver chain seemed so bright.

"Isn't it wonderful, Jim? I looked all over town to find it. You will have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it."

Instead of obeying, Jim fell on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

"Dell," said he, "let us put our Christmas gifts away and keep them a while. They are too nice to use just right now. I sold my gold watch to get the money to buy the set of combs for your hair. And now, why not put the meat on."


The Magi
The magi were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Baby Jesus. They invented the art of giving Christmas gifts. Being wise, their gifts were wise ones. And here I have told you the story of two young people who most unwisely gave for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts, these two were the wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.



You have heard the American story "The Gift of the Magi." This story was written by O. Henry and adapted into Special English by Karen Leggett. Your storyteller was Shep O'Neal. The producer was Lawan Davis.

I'm Shirley Griffith.


1. Jim and Della have very little ____________ .
a. time
b. affection
c. money
d. experience

2. The treasures of their house are Jim's gold watch and ____________ .
a. Della's combs
b. Della's long hair
c. Jim's silver chain
d. Jim's overcoat

3. In order to raise money for Della's gift, Jim ____________ .
a. works overtime
b. sells Della's hair
c. sells her combs
d. sells his gold watch

4. Della had a dollar and eighty-seven cents. 60 of the cents were ____________ .
a. all pennies
b. six dimes
c. a dime and two quarters
d. a quarter, a nickle and three dimes

5. The "Magi" in the story refer to ____________ .
a. meat and vegetable sellers who negotiate
b. wise men who gave gifts to the baby Jesus
c. shepherds who visited the birthplace of Jesus
d. purchasers of watch chains and long flowing hair

6. Neither of the presents Jim and Della gave each other were ___________ .
a. expensive
b. useful
c. important
d. beautiful

7. When Della sold her hair, she was afraid Jim would no longer think ___________ .
a. she was his wife
b. she loved him
c. she was beautiful
d. her hair would grow back

8. Della bought a watch chain. It was the perfect gift for Jim except that _________ .
a. Jim's watch was broken
b. Jim had a wrist watch
c. Jim no longer had a watch
d. Jim had given his watch to a friend

9. Another name for this story could be _______________ .
a. "A Poor Couple in NY"
b. "True Love Matters Most"
c. "The Best Deals for Christmas Shoppers"
d. "The Wisest Gift Givers"

10. This story is a mainly about a young married couple who ____________ .
a. gave with their hearts
b. can't afford Christmas
c. miss the chance to make each other happy
d. struggle to survive in New York

The following is a retelling of the story from Youtube: