Wednesday, December 30, 2015

TMFW 121 - Have Yourself a Bummer Little Christmas


The holidays are holidays-ing me, and we have a foster baby here this week, so today's TMFW is a bit of a "check the box" to keep my promise of weekly entries alive at 121.  It's a "did you ever notice" story of the original "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

That song is now a holiday radio staple; Frank Sinatra's is probably the most famous version but it  has been covered over 500 times and ASCAP counts it as the fifth most-performed holiday song ever.  But if you are familiar with the original - sung by Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis - it's interesting that it has become so ubiquitous.  Because the original is a true bummer. 

This short entry from The Atlantic tells the story nicely: the song was written in 1943, in the middle of World War II.  And it was written for a part of the movie where the characters are feeling despair over a planned move from St. Louis to New York City (imagine that as a plot device these days!).  So Judy Garland does her best to make the song a happy one.  But she is necessarily hesitant: she offers that "someday soon, we all will be together, if the fates allow," but follows up realistically "until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow."  And there are little touches of uncertainty throughout: "next year" their troubles will be gone, faithful friends who "were" dear to them, "will be" near to them, etc.  The whole song comes across as a sad person's best attempt at optimism and hope in the face of less-than-optimistic circumstances. 

When Frank Sinatra took on the song in 1957, he went back to the original songwriter Hugh Martin and asked him to change the words to make it happier.  And Martin did that throughout.  Most noticeably, "someday soon we all will be together...until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow" became "through the years, we all will be together...hang a shining star upon the highest bough."  And all of the future uncertainly was wiped clean in favor of happy times for everyone: "next year" became "from now on," faithful friends dear to the singer went from "were" to "are," and their presence went from the less certain "will be near" to the recurring "gather near."  They are all small touches, but they change the song fundamentally.

I love that transition because it seems like such a perfect encapsulation of our desire to make Christmas this unattainably beautiful and perfect season, when in fact it is often simultaneously a time of stress and peace and sorrow and joy and familial bonding and battle.  Judy Garland's version recognizes the latter, while Frank Sinatra's waves it all away in favor of the simpler story.  It's no surprise that his lyrics are the ones that most people sing.  

So there's your TMFW for today: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was originally a bummer of a song, but Frank Sinatra gave it a dose of Prozac and thereby made it famous.


BONUS FACT:  I am a sucker for those "famous person sings [song]" videos that meticulously assemble soundbytes into a "cover" of a song.  (Jimmy Fallon's people do it beautifully with Brian Williams, for example.)  From just this week, here's New England Patriots coach and famous curmudgeon Bill Belichick covering "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," just as you might expect he would.

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