The Two-Way Street
For much of his very long life, Irving Berlin was dogged by rumors that he had plagiarized many of his best-known songs. In the most widely circulated version of this canard, it was whispered that a “little colored boy” actually wrote Berlin’s early hits. Andy Razaf, a black songwriter who was thought by some to have been the “colored boy” in question, unequivocally denied it:
I, for one, would like to see this ridiculous legend placed in a coffin and given a permanent burial. . . . [I]f such a “colored boy” existed, many would-be [song] writers today could really use him. To think of it, I could give him some part-time work myself.
Still, the rumor—for which there is no evidence whatsoever—continues to circulate, and one of the underlying reasons for its persistence is the widespread belief that black musicians were victimized throughout the 20th century by whites who stole their music and profited from doing so. This mistaken conviction, which in its extreme form borders on conspiracy theory, arises from the undeniable fact that while blacks played central roles in the emergence and development of many major styles in American popular music, including jazz and rock, it was white musicians who in most cases introduced these styles to the general public—thus reaping a larger share of the resulting profits.
About the Author
Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, wrote about the Detroit Symphony Orchestra strike in the last issue. He is at work on a biography of Duke Ellington.