We all know that Bing could sing. He could sell, too, as 396 of his tunes hit the charts, including 38 No. 1 hits (the Beatles, by comparison captured the top spot 24 times). Worldwide, Crosby has sold more than 400 million records, but for all of his tunes - most done, famously, in a single take - one outsold, out-stripped, outlasted them all: "White Christmas," with total sales of more than 100 million copies.
Even though the song has been covered by everyone from underground pop whiz-kids The Flaming Lips to the drippy Michael Bolton, The Three Tenors to arena-kings Kiss, it's still Bing Crosby's 1942 version that defines the song.
But, as Jody Rosen demonstrates in his phenomenal cultural history "White Christmas," our focus on Crosby is a function of the ascendance of the singer at the expense of the songwriter. And the wild success of the 1942 release of "White Christmas" helped catalyze this "shift from the emphasis on the sale of sheet-music scores to records - from the songs themselves to performances by singing charismatics." The unwitting victims - at least in terms of fame if not royalties - were the standard writers of Tin Pan Alley, and, most notably, the esteemed Irving Berlin.
On Jan. 8, 1940, Berlin handed Helmy Kresa, Berlin's musical secretary, the 48 measures (which would be reduced to 32) of "White Christmas" and heartily proclaimed, "I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it's the best song anybody ever wrote."
Berlin, as students of pop music know, was Tin Pan Alley. Over a storied career, this Jewish immigrant from Siberia published 812 songs, of which 451 became hits. He did Hollywood, he did Broadway, he did USO shows. Berlin wrote in a variety of styles, constantly keeping his songs in step with what America wanted - war songs, ragtime, or, in the case of "White Christmas," nostalgia for something lost - perhaps, Rosen speculates, the death of Berlin's 24-day-old son, Irving Berlin Jr., on Dec. 1, 1928.
In his focused and thoroughly engaging book, Rosen presents the reader with the luxuriant tapestry of American popular song through the microcosm of "White Christmas." The results - merry and bright - show more than just a story of one song, they catalog the expansion of American music, the pressing desire for assimilation by Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century, how songs define Americans and their visions of the past, and, most important, how Christmas came to be Christmas.
What's so strange in all of this, as Rosen rightly points out, is that the now-deleted first stanza of the song endows the tune with the stuff of satire, not longing:
The sun is shining.
The grass is green.
The orange and palm trees sway.
There's never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it's December the twenty-fourth,
And I'm longing to be up north.
Rather than the lungful paean we've come to love (or hate), the verse satirizes Hollywood. It was planned as a first-act show-stopper for Holiday Inn, and, "was, in its inventor's initial conception, something else entirely: wry, parodic, lighthearted - a novelty tune."
It was Berlin himself who ordered the stanza cut from all future sheet music in 1942 after hearing the power of the song in Crosby's unmistakable croon and watching "White Christmas" rocket up the charts a full four months before Christmas.
Ironies, abound, of course, since a secular Christmas song written by a Jewish immigrant became the embodiment of holiday nostalgia. Further, the very selling of the idea of a more tranquil, innocent, idealized holiday past helped fuel the American commercialization of Christmas. Rosen revels in these quirky aspects of our culture, and his "White Christmas" glides through this song's snow-capped history with verve, intelligence, and sleigh-bell jingling aplomb.
• Mark Luce lives in Kansas City, Mo. He serves on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.