'White Christmas' and the reasons it endures

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It was a peaceful song that became a wartime classic. Its unorthodox, melancholy melody—and mere 54 words, expressing the simple yearning for a return to happier times—sounded instantly familiar when sung by America's favorite crooner. But 67 years after its introduction, some still are surprised to learn that Bing Crosby's recording of the Irving Berlin ballad "White Christmas" became not only the runaway smash-hit for the World War II holidays, but the best-selling record of all time.

Such unrivaled success reflects everything from record-industry trends to the sweep of global history. But it all begins with the songwriting genius of a Russian immigrant, born Israel Baline, who had just turned 54 when Decca recorded the track on May 29, 1942, and already had to his credit hundreds of hits like "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Blue Skies," "How Deep Is the Ocean?" and "God Bless America." (Berlin, 101 when he died in 1989, would have many more across a seven-decade career.)

Equally brilliant, though, was Berlin's insistence that "White Christmas" be introduced by the internationally popular Crosby. Perfectly suited to the casual, romantic style of the then-39-year-old, Berlin's lyric and tune blended the message, about longing for past Christmases, with suggestions of a love song, resonating with families being separated by war.

"'White Christmas' is an icon that transcends analysis for me. It has the simplicity that Berlin always tried to imbue his songs with," says Michael Feinstein, among the premier interpreters of the American Songbook. But Berlin's kind of simple is anything but to the ears of some music commentators.

"We know the song so well that we barely know it at all," Slate's Jody Rosen writes in his 2002 book "White Christmas: The Story of an American Song." Berlin biographer Philip Furia believes the songwriter's lack of formal musical training—he composed mostly on the black keys of F-sharp, often transposing songs with a specially modified piano—led to songs that "subtly depart from the most fundamental tenets of songwriting." While others might have stressed "dreaming" and "Christmas," for example, "Berlin deftly emphasizes the seemingly unimportant 'I'm' with a whole note, then races over the other syllables" before the next whole note, "white."..

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