You wouldn’t normally think of the work of the great American songwriter Irving Berlin as campfire fare, but in this installment, Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” takes the spotlight—in an arrangement that’ll have you wondering why you’ve never played it around a campfire. Written in 1923, “What’ll I Do” is one of many Berlin hits, with others including “White Christmas,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).”
“What’ll I Do” is said to have been inspired by Berlin’s personal life: After meeting Ellin Mackay, the daughter of successful financier Clarence Mackay, at a dinner party, the two fell in love. But the elder Mackay was disapproving of Berlin, and had his daughter sent on tour to Europe in order to separate them. The song was then written during their time apart. Against her father’s wishes, they did eventually elope in 1926, and remained together until her death in 1988.
Over the course of the 20th century, “What’ll I Do” has been covered by countless artists—to name just a few, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Chet Baker, Linda Ronstadt, and Willie Nelson. It’s also been featured in film and television, including the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby, Golden Girls (sung by Bea Arthur), and Mad Men.
Featuring mostly open chords in first position, “What’ll I Do” follows a sort of I–iv–V pattern during the verse, alternating between C, Fm, and G. To make things a bit more interesting, a Gaug chord introduces the form, then later is used as a transition between the first and second verse. Though you might be unfamiliar with the chord, it is easy to play, as it’s simply a G chord with a D# (the augmented fifth) added on the fourth string.
Meanwhile, for the barre chords featured in the song (F and Fm), singer-songwriter Maurice Tani offers two fingering options—you can either play them with the traditional barre, or wrap your thumb around to play the root on the low E string, as shown in the notation. Once you get a hang of these chord shapes, “What’ll I Do” is sure to make a colorful addition to your campfire repertoire.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.