Magical Protection: Ethiopian Prayer Scrolls and Egyptian Oracular Amuletic Decrees
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For the past three weeks, I have had a wonderful time researching the origins and histories of America’s most beloved Christmas songs. I’ve learned a great deal, and I hope you have, too! When I decided to take on this project, I knew from the beginning that I was certainly not going to be able to cover all the songs that I thought deserved a post. I also decided I didn’t want to try to rank them in any particular order. However, I was sure that my last post was going to go to a song most deserving to be the grand finale: Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”
We know Berlin composed “White Christmas” in early 1940, but we don’t know where, or whether he had a specific purpose in mind. The two most popular speculations are that he wrote it while staying at either the La Quinta Resort near Palm Springs, California, or at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona.¹ In either case, it is most likely that he was inspired by the heat of the American Southwest to write a song about a snowy Yuletide–just as Bob Wells and Mel Torme were to compose “The Christmas Song” and Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn were to write “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” This is suggested by the introductory verse, which, unlike many such prologues from that era, was not added later, but was part of the original lyric:
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 am longing to be up North.
Berlin may have also already had Holiday Inn in mind. He pitched the idea of a musical film about a hotel that only opened for major public holidays to Mark Sandrich, the director with whom he had produced three musicals for RKO starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Sandrich, now at Paramount, got the studio on board, and Berlin signed a contract in May. Astaire was cast alongside Bing Crosby, with Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale as the love interests. Filming took place between November 1941 and January 1942. (Interesting note: As a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Fourth of July sequence was greatly expanded to honor the military. America’s entry into the war and rapid deployment of troops may have also motivated Berlin to shelve the introductory verse, as it diminished the emotional impact that the song had on homesick soldiers and their families.²)
On Christmas Day, the first performance of “White Christmas” was heard by millions of listeners tuning into Bing Crosby’s NBC Radio show The Kraft Music Hall. In 2011, the badly worn recording of that broadcast was shared with CBS to be featured in aSunday Morning segment marking the 70th anniversary of the song’s debut. Crosby formally recorded it for Decca with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers on May 29, 1942. It was released July 30, five days before Holiday Inn premiered in New York. Both the film and the single of “White Christmas” were commercial successes–the film was the highest-grossing musical motion picture to date and ranked in the top ten films of the year, while the song topped the Billboard charts for eleven weeks starting in October of 1942 and won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1943. It was so popular that by 1947, the master recording at Decca had become too worn to use. Crosby was brought back to the studio to re-record it. (The original arrangements were used, with the exception of added flutes and celesta at the beginning. The 1947 recording is now safely preserved by the Library of Congress.)
In 1949, wheels began turning at Paramount to produce another film to capitalize on the success of Holiday Inn, and more specifically, its most popular musical number, “White Christmas.” Originally, Crosby and Astaire were going to be reunited in the lead roles. However, Astaire backed out of the project after he was disappointed with the script. To replace him, Donald O’Connor was brought on board, but he, too, had to back out due to health issues. Finally, Danny Kaye was cast to play Crosby’s sidekick, and Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen completed the quartet. Berlin wrote new songs and Michael Curtiz was chosen to direct. Paramount released White Christmas on October 14, 1954. It became the highest grossing film of the year, bringing in $12 million.
The legacy of “White Christmas” is astounding. Both Holiday Inn and White Christmas were adapted into Broadway musicals. The first recording remained the top-selling single until it was finally surpassed in 1997 by Elton John’s remake of “Candle in the Wind” for the late Princess Diana. Earlier this month, Billboard reported that “White Christmas” is the second most covered Christmas song of all time with 128,276 known versions in existence (the first place spot goes to Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr’s 1818 carol, “Silent Night”).³ It was included in the “NPR 100” for being one of the most important American musical works of the 20th century. Crosby’s 1942 single holds the #2 spot following Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” on the Recording Industry Association of America’s “Songs of the Century,” and in 2002, it was one of the first fifty to be added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.
Throughout this series, I have willed myself to not describe any of the songs with a certain term that makes me cringe due to its overuse. However, in this case, I think it most appropriate. “White Christmas” is truly iconic, and that is why I find it to be the perfect selection to conclude the “American Christmas Songbook.” From all of us here at the University Libraries of The Catholic University of America…
If you’ve never seen Meet Me in St. Louis (MGM, 1944), stop everything you are doing and go watch it right now. It’s a classic Hollywood musical that features Judy Garland in her prime. Adapted from a series of vignettes written by Sally Benson for The New Yorker in 1941-42 (which she later published as a novel), it tells the story of the Smith family of St. Louis, Missouri, in the year leading up to the opening of the 1904 World’s Fair. The Tinseltown songwriting team of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote three original numbers for the film, including “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” and the most famous “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
In the scene that sets up “Have Yourself…,” Garland’s character, Esther, arrives home from the Christmas Ball, where her beau, John (played by Tom Drake), has just proposed marriage. She finds her little sister, Tootie (played by Margaret O’Brien), who is worried about the family’s upcoming move to New York. She fears Santa Claus won’t be able to find their new address in the Big Apple. Esther sings to comfort Tootie as she fights back her own tears. Their world is going to significantly change, and both girls are frightened at the uncertainty that lies ahead.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas Let your heart be light Next year all our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas Make the Yuletide gay Next year all our troubles will be miles away
The lyrics are touching, but they are not the original ones that were offered by Martin and Blane. The first set had been rejected by Garland and the director, Vincente Minnelli (Garland’s future husband), for being too pessimistic.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas It may be your last Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas Pop that champagne cork Next year we may all be living in New York
A chilling sentiment, right? It’s even more devastating when you consider that Meet Me in St. Louis was released during World War II. Had the original lyrics been kept, the number would have sent moviegoers into hysterics. Garland was worried she’d be perceived as a monster for singing something so dark to the young O’Brien. At first, Hugh Martin was resistant to make any changes. Tom Drake convinced him that the lugubrious lines would be disastrous for him, Garland, and the film.¹ Thankfully, he obliged, and revised the text to what we know today. Also, by removing the plot-specific reference to New York, he ensured the song would have a life outside the film (nor would it offend proud New Yorkers!). Decca released a recording of Garland singing the song with Georgie Stoll’s orchestra accompanying her that peaked at #27 on the Billboard charts.
In 1957, Frank Sinatra asked Martin to revise the lyrics again for a version he wanted to include on his album A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra (Capitol; right). The line he found too gloomy was “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Martin’s response was “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Covers of the song that have been released since then have used both lyrics. Personally, I prefer the original as it keeps with the melancholy but optimistic theme. As long as I’m sharing my personal preferences, one of my favorite versions of the song is actually from an instrumental medley on The Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait (A&M, 1978), in which “Jingle Bells” is so cleverly quoted above the chords that transition the end of the first couplet back to the dominant (remember what I said about quoting “Jingle Bells”? Always a good idea!). Another treasure is Betty Bennett’s recording from her album Nobody Else But Me (Atlantic, 1955), in which she sings the rarely recorded verse:
When the steeple bells sound their “A” They don’t play it in tune. But the welkin will ring one day, And that day will be soon.²
If the story of the original lyrics is new to you, be warned that you may never hear the song quite the same way again. It’s always been a sad song, and I think that is what makes it so beautiful. Christmas brings a lot of emotions–not just joyous ones. Songs that capture that wide array of feelings we experience during the holidays are what make the American Christmas songbook so very special.
²This verse appears in a 1944 edition of the sheet music, though it did not appear in the film. As far as I can tell, Bennett is the first to include it in a commercial recording. That same melody appears in later recordings with different lyrics as an introduction: “Christmas future is far away / Christmas past is past / Christmas present is here today / Bringing joy that will last.” Welkin–in case that word is unfamiliar to you–is a synonym of firmament or heavens (So is the apocalypse being suggested here?? Yeesh!)
A pair of Hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots Is the wish of Barney and Ben Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk Is the hope of Janice and Jen
But what does one get for the more mature good girls on the gift list? To answer that question, Victor Publishing approached lyricist Joan Javits in the summer of 1953. They wanted her to write a Christmas song for Eartha Kitt, a lounge singer, dancer, and actress deemed “the most exciting woman in the world” by Orson Welles. The song was to play up on Kitt’s femme fatale image. Javits shared the request with her new songwriting partner, composer Philip Springer. The first element to be established was the title, “Santa Baby.” From there, Springer started to develop a melody. He recalls asking Javits to come up with the first line of the song, and she quickly gave him “…slip a sable under the tree.” The wheels began to turn, but Springer needed two more words to finish his musical idea. So, she added: “…for me.” With that sentiment established, the rest of the tune fell into place. In about three weeks, the song was completed.¹
The next hurdle was getting it published. Javits and Springer were both members of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), but needed it published by rival BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) to be recorded. To get around the conflict of interest, they credited Philip’s brother Tony as a songwriter (in reality, he had no hand in the creation of the song). The music was then ready to be handed off to Kitt to record. With the Henri René orchestra backing her, the songstress laid down the track in New York City in July, and the single was released by RCA Victor in October. It was a major hit, with over 545,000 copies selling by the end of the year.²
The following year, RCA Victor had Kitt return to the studio to record a sequel, “This Year’s Santa Baby.” Using the same melody and nearly the same orchestral arrangements as the original, Javits provided new lyrics in which the gold-digger complains about how the previous years’ gifts are in disrepair, asking for even more opulent presents. While the verses are witty, the recording was a commercial flop. In 1963, she re-recorded the original song with a slightly quicker tempo for Kapp Records. For the next twenty-five years, it didn’t get much attention–except for an extra special rendition by Mae West on her album Wild Christmas (Dagonet, 1966).
Then in 1987, the song saw a resurgence in popularity when it was covered by Madonna to be included on the charity album A Very Special Christmas (A&M).³ The Material Girl’s version was based on the 1963 recording by Kitt, though Madonna’s vocals are more reminiscent of Vivian Blaine’s Adelaide from Guys and Dolls than Eartha Kitt’s signature sound. Since then, it’s been recorded dozens of times. Of course, Kitt is a hard act to follow. It is interesting to note that the legendary chanteuse passed away on Christmas Day in 2008. However, the song she made famous lives on in the American Christmas songbook.
Some of the Christmas songs we’ve highlighted so far have been written in a very short amount of time, when a gust of inspiration fills the sails in a songwriting teams’ heads. Mel Torme and Bob Wells finished “The Christmas Song” in less than an hour, and Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn had “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” completed in one afternoon. Some songs, however, take decades to come to fruition, and that just so happens to be the case with Frank Pooler and Richard Carpenter’s “Merry Christmas, Darling.”
The story begins in Wisconsin in 1944, when the 18-year-old Frank Pooler composed a yuletide love song for his high school sweetheart. The two were spending the holiday apart, so Pooler’s lyrics reflected his longing to be with her during the most magical time of the year. Unfortunately, like most teenage relationships, the two grew apart. However, Pooler held on to the song. He had it published and recorded, but it was never distributed.
In 1959, Pooler moved to Long Beach, California, where he lead the University Choir at California State University. Two of his students, Richard and Karen Carpenter–siblings from the nearby LA suburb of Downey–were members of a rock band that was starting to get a lot of attention. In 1966, Richard lamented to Pooler that he was growing weary of performing the same repertoire at Christmas parties. Pooler recalled the song he had written twenty-two years earlier, and handed it over to Richard with the suggestion that he give the lyrics a better musical setting than the one he had written himself. Richard did just that, and his trio added “Merry Christmas, Darling” to their set list.
By the fall of 1970, The Carpenters had become a household name. A year after signing with A&M Records, they scored two major hit singles with “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun.” After completing their second album, Close to You, they returned to the studio to record “Merry Christmas, Darling.” Richard worked his arranging magic, and a gorgeous saxophone solo was improvised by Bob Messenger. When the recording was completed, Richard called Pooler to the studio to let him hear the tune. In a 2005 interview with the La Crosse Tribune, Pooler recalled that at first, he had no idea what he was hearing was the song he had written nearly a quarter of a century earlier.¹ The single was released on November 20 and went straight to #1 on Billboard‘s Christmas charts. It would return to that spot again in 1971 and 1973. In 1978, at Karen’s request, the vocals were re-recorded for the release of Christmas Portrait, their first Christmas album. (A second Christmas album, An Old-Fashioned Christmas, was released in 1984, a year after Karen’s death, and included several unused tracks from the 1978 recording sessions.)
So whatever happened to the girl for whom Pooler wrote the song back in Wisconsin in 1944? In 2002, he found her, just a short distance away in Palm Springs! He arranged to meet, where he informed her that she had been his muse. She responded, “Now I have a treasure.”² And so do we. “Merry Christmas, Darling” may have taken over twenty-five years to get from paper to vinyl, but it will forever remain a classic in the American Christmas songbook.
Picture it: San Francisco, late 1964. A young television producer, Lee Mendelson, has just finished filming a documentary on the popular comic strip Peanuts and its creator, Charles Schulz. Mendelson, a fan of jazz, needs a soundtrack for his documentary. He has already been turned down by the legendary Dave Brubek, as well as Brubek’s suggestion, vibraphonist Cal Tjader. He takes a cab ride, and as the taxi crosses the Golden Gate Bridge, a fresh new tune comes across the radio. It’s Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” and Mendelson knows immediately that he’s found the sound he needs. He schedules lunch with the pianist, who is eager to join the project. Two weeks later, Guaraldi calls Mendelson to play him a draft of what would become the theme of the strip, “Linus and Lucy.”¹
Unfortunately, Mendelson couldn’t get a network to pick up the documentary. What he got instead was an offer from the McCann Erickson advertising agency in New York. Following the success of General Electric’s special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, McCann Erickson’s client, the Coca-Cola Company, wanted an animated Christmas special of their own, and they had their eyes on Schulz’s beloved Peanuts. Mendelson got Schulz on board, as well as director and animator Bill Melendez, and in less than a week had a basic storyboard completed. From the start, a central part to the special would be a soundtrack of jazz and traditional holiday music provided by Guaraldi. Coca-Cola loved the pitch, and A Charlie Brown Christmas went into production. The creative team had less than six months to finish the project.
For the score, Guaraldi provided jazz arrangements of “O Tannenbaum,” “What Child is This,” and Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song.” He reused “Linus and Lucy,” which he had written for the unaired documentary, and provided other new tunes including the brisk waltz “Skating,” the energetically anticipatory “Christmas Is Coming,” and the melancholy yet enchanting “Christmas Time Is Here.” The recordings were made in the fall of 1965, just weeks before the special was due to air. A children’s choir from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California, was used to record “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Mendelson and Melendez also wanted to add vocals to Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” for the children to sing, but had trouble finding a lyricist. Mendelson took the job upon himself, and on the back of an envelope, he wrote a poem to fit Guaraldi’s simple melody:
Christmas time is here Happiness and cheer Fun for all that children call Their favorite time of the year
When the special was finished, just ten days before it was due to air, the creative team was worried they had failed. The juxtaposition of simple animations, contemporary jazz, and the recitation of Luke 2: 8-14 in the climactic scene by Charlie Brown’s best friend Linus made Mendelson nervous the network would reject it. Indeed, CBS executives were skeptical. However, the special had already been advertised, and the broadcast proceeded as planned. A Charlie Brown Christmas premiered on Thursday, December 9, 1965. Fantasy Records released the soundtrack that same month.
To the creators’ and network’s surprise, the reviews were unanimously positive. Richard Burgheim of Time praised A Charlie Brown Christmas for being “a special that is really special” with a “refreshingly low-key tone.”² Lawrence Laurent of The Washington Post lauded Guaraldi “who composed and conducted a delightful score.”³ The following May, the special won the Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program. Just this past Friday, Billboard reported that the soundtrack to the special is back in the Top 40 for the third holiday season in a row at #32. They go on to note that it is the “seventh-biggest-selling Christmas album of the Nielsen era (1991-present), with 3.7 million copies sold.”⁴ In 2012, the Library of Congress added the album to the National Recording Registry to be “preserved as [a] cultural, artistic and/or historical treasure for generations to come.”⁵
A holiday song to be treasured by generations? That’s what the American Christmas songbook is all about, Charlie Brown!
As the second week of this blog series draws to a close, I can’t help but look back over the composers and songwriters that I’ve highlighted thus far and make some observations. Tell me, do you see what I see? How about a lack of diversity? They’ve all been white, and with one exception, they’ve all been men. (To be even more specific, they’ve mostly been Jewish, but that’s a topic worthy of a blog series unto itself!) That’s what makes today’s entry in the American Christmas Songbook a true gem!
Chicago native Donny Hathaway made his grand entrance onto the soul/R&B music scene with his 1970 debut album, Everything Is Everything (ATCO). After studying music at Howard University here in DC (alongside the legendary Roberta Flack–with whom he would record a highly celebrated duet album in 1972–and his future co-producer, Ric Powell), Hathaway withdrew just before finishing his degree. He had been offered a job by Curtis Mayfield at his record company back in Chicago. After spending two years as a songwriter, studio musician, and producer, he signed with ATCO, a division of Atlantic Records. Vince Aletti of Rolling Stone applauded Hathaway as “…one of the most important black performers to emerge in recent years,” noting that Everything Is Everything “…was a confirmation of Hathaway’s strength and a remarkable, finely-balanced first album.”¹
That same year, Hathaway decided he wanted to release a Christmas song, but not just any song. He wanted his offering to be distinctly black–by and for African Americans. A friend connected him to Nadine McKinnor, a songwriter who happened to already have lyrics and the beginnings of a melody in mind.² Her verse describes the joy of celebrating the season with the one you love:
Presents and cards are here
My world is filled with cheer and you
And as I look around
Your eyes outshine the town they do
Hathaway worked his magic in the studios, and in December of 1970, a single was dropped: “This Christmas.” Unfortunately, it barely got noticed. ATCO was a small label, and releasing it so close to the holiday probably caused it to get lost in the shuffle. Ten years later, it was covered by both The Temptations (Give Love at Christmas, Gordy) and Gladys Knight & The Pips (That Special Time of Year, Columbia), though neither track got much attention. In 1991, ATCO decided to re-release it’s 1968 holiday compilation album, Soul Christmas, on CD. On it, they added “This Christmas,” and a new generation discovered Hathaway and McKinnor’s song. It was quickly covered by a handful of artists, including Stephanie Mills (Christmas, UMG, 1991) Usher (A LaFace Family Christmas, LaFace, 1993), and Gloria Estefan (Christmas Through Your Eyes, Epic, 1993). Jamie Foxx performed the song at the end of the In Living Color Christmas episode in 1992.
Since then, “This Christmas” has been covered over 100 times! If only Hathaway had lived to see his song become such a standard–he passed away at age 33 in 1979. Phil Upchurch, guitarist and friend of the late Hathaway, said of the work: “‘This Christmas’ is absolutely the premiere holiday song written by an African American.”³
When Clement Clarke Moore penned his famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823, he named eight reindeer that pull Santa Claus’s sleigh:
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came, And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name: “Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!” “On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixem!”¹
Fast forward to 1939, when the Chicago-based department store Montgomery Ward commissioned copywriter Robert Lewis May to author a children’s book for that year’s holiday promotion. Inspired by Moore’s poem, he created the story of a ninth reindeer, whose glowing red nose guides Santa through an unusually harsh blizzard. He considered several names beginning with “R” to play on the alliteration of a “red-nosed reindeer,” including “Reginald” and “Rollo,” but he ultimately decided upon “Rudolph.” The promotional booklet was a huge success, with over 2 million copies selling across the country.²
Following the second World War, Montgomery Ward CEO Sewell Avery gave May the rights to his story. It isn’t exactly clear why this unconventional move was made, but the struggling ad man, a widower with two children, seized on the opportunity. He handed the story over to his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, a radio producer and songwriter. Rather than use May’s existing verses (which were set in anapestic tetrameter, just like Moore’s 1823 poem), Marks crafted new lyrics that condensed the story of Rudolph’s rise from underdog to hero down to 16 lines plus a short introduction that references “A Visit from St. Nicholas”:
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen, But do you recall The most famous reindeer of all?
The song was pitched to country singer Gene Autry, who first showed no interest. Autry’s wife encouraged him to change his mind (wives always know best, don’t they?).³ Columbia released the recording on September 1, 1949, and by Christmas, it was a smash hit with 1.75 million copies selling by the end of the season. As a result of the success, Marks started up his own publishing company, St. Nicholas Music. He would go on to write several more classic Christmas tunes, including “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (1958, made popular by Brenda Lee) and “Run Rudolph Run” (1958, recorded by Chuck Berry; also known as “Run, Run Rudolph”).
Eventually, Rudolph made his leap to the small screen. In 1963, Videocraft International, Ltd. (later Rankin/Bass Productions) was contracted by General Electric (GE) to produce animated specials for the General Electric Fantasy Hour on NBC. The first special was the conventionally animated Return to Oz, based on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which aired in February of 1964. For the second special, Videocraft adapted May’s story and hired Marks to write additional songs. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer aired on December 6, 1964. The hour-long stop-motion animation special significantly expanded May’s original story introduced viewers to new characters, including a snowman narrator, Sam, voiced by Burl Ives. Ives sings the title song as well as the newly composed “Silver and Gold” and “Holly Jolly Christmas.” The special was a huge success and has aired every year since (it moved from NBC to CBS in 1972), making it the longest continually running Christmas special of all time. Marks had no idea how right he was when he wrote the ultimate couplet of his entry in the American Christmas songbook:
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, You’ll go down in history!
¹”Dunder” and “Blixem” were the original Dutch names used by Moore, which translated to English are “Thunder” and “Lightening.” In an 1844 version, he changed them to the “Donder” and “Blitzen.” When Marks wrote the lyrics to the song in 1949, he used the correct German spelling of “Donner.”