That International Rag

That International Rag

"That International Rag" is a popular song composed by Irving Berlin in 1913. Berlin wrote the song the night before its debut, when he needed a new opening number for his act while on tour in England.

Days before the song's composition, Berlin held a press conference which 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.


Berlin had accepted an invitation to cross the Atlantic and perform in London.cite book |accessdate=2008-09-29|url=|author=Laurence Bergreen|title=As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin|publisher=Da Capo Press|date=1996| pages=89–93] cite book |accessdate=2008-09-29|url=,M1|author= Gary Giddins|title= Visions of Jazz: The First Century|publisher=Oxford University Press US|date=1998| pages=31–32] 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. He needed a new number to open his act, and composed "That International Rag" overnight in a panic.


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.cite book |accessdate=2008-09-29|url=|author=Philip Furia|title=The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists|publisher=Oxford University Press US|date=1990| pages=46–47] 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"cite web|url=|title=That International Rag (sheet music, p. 4)|publisher=University of Colorado|accessdate=2008-09-29]

"That International Rag" was completed just in time for its first performance. Berlin would later describe 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."

Despite the song's title, critics doubt whether the work is actually ragtime. David Blanke explains the distinction between Tin Pan Alley rag and classic rag in the following manner:

quote|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.cite book |accessdate=2008-09-29|url=|author=David Blanke|title=The 1910s|publisher=Greenwood Publishing Group|date=2002| pages=188]
David Blanke|"The 1910s"

Or 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'."cite book |accessdate=2008-09-29|url=|author=Gilbert Chase|title=America's Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present|publisher=University of Illinois Press|date=1992| pages=421] A kinder Gary Giddins concludes "it wasn't ragtime, but it was authentic Americana and it did the trick."cite book |accessdate=2008-09-29|url=|author=Gary Giddins|title=Faces in the Crowd: Musicians, Writers, Actors & Filmmakers|publisher=Da Capo Press|date=1996| pages=18]


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.

Sophie Tucker introduced the song to vaudeville, and the Victor Military Band saw success with an early recording.cite book |accessdate=2008-09-29|url=|author=David A. Jasen|title=A Century of American Popular Music: 2000 Best-loved and Remembered Songs (1899–1999)|publisher=Taylor & Francis|date=2002| pages=191] In 1938 "That International Rag" appeared as a number in the Twentieth Century Fox film "Alexander's Ragtime Band".cite book |accessdate=2008-09-29|url=|author=Jane Lenz Elder|title=Alice Faye: A Life Beyond the Silver Screen|publisher=Univ. Press of Mississippi|date=2002| pages=254–255] It was also used in the 1948 MGM film "Easter Parade".cite book |accessdate=2008-09-29|url=|author=Hugh Fordin|title=M-G-M's Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit|publisher=Da Capo Press|date=1996| pages=254–255]


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