The Archivist’s Nook: Digital Rebirth – Labor Collections at Catholic University

Boxes, microfilm reels, and guide books for the Powderly, Hayes, and Mitchell Papers, 2018. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The papers of Terence V. Powderly, John W. Hayes, and John Mitchell, three Gilded Age and Progressive Era labor leaders of national importance are now available online in digital format thanks to a partnership between The Catholic University of America (CUA) and ProQuest’s History Vault subscription service. Securing collections of notable Catholic labor leaders like Mitchell, Powderly, and Hayes was facilitated at CUA in the 1940s by labor priests, John A. Ryan, Francis J. Haas, and George G. Higgins, all of whose papers reside in the university’s archives. There were some advances in accessibility via microfilming in the 1970s and more recently with the creation of detailed finding aids and digital collections via the Washington Research Library Consortium (WRLC) of Powderly and Mitchell photographs since 2001. However, the current ProQuest digitization project, based on scanning the microfilm, culminates over seventy years of archival outreach.

Knights of Labor Pamphlet, 1889. T.V. Powderly Papers via the ProQuest History Vault.

Powderly, subject of a previous blog post, was the son of Irish immigrants, born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, in 1849. He joined the International Union of Machinists and Blacksmiths in 1871 and the Scranton, Pennsylvania, Local Assembly of the Knights of Labor in 1876, where he rose to national leadership as Grand (later General) Master Workman, 1879-1893. He was also a progressive mayor of Scranton, 1878-1884. From 1897-1901, he was Commissioner General of Immigration, and thereafter held several other federal immigration or labor posts. After his death in 1924 Powderly’s papers were retained by various family members until his niece, Mary, donated them in 1941 to CUA through the influence of Msgr. Haas. They richly detail the organization of labor, immigration policy, and political patronage in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. The correspondence and reports are treasure troves of primary source material while the photographs and lantern slides display a wealth of cultural imagery and geographical landmarks.  The microfilming project of 1974 (94 reels) was funded by the Microfilming Corporation of America and edited by John A. Turcheneske, Jr.

Parade in Honor of John Mitchell, Scranton, Pennsylvania, 1903. Mitchell Papers via the ProQuest History Vault.

John William Hayes was born in 1854 in Philadelphia to Irish immigrants. Working as a brakeman he lost his right arm in a railroad accident in 1878 and thereafter learned telegraphy. He joined the Knights in 1874, was elected to their General Executive Board in 1884, and became General Secretary Treasurer in 1888. He worked closely with Powderly until 1893 when Hayes joined with the socialists and populist agrarians to oust Powderly from leadership. Hayes remained in control of the fading Knights, who were losing out to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), first as General Secretary-Treasurer until 1902, then as General Master Workman until the closure of the Knights headquarters in Washington in 1916. The Hayes Papers (49 boxes; 24.5 linear feet) were donated to CUA by his family in 1943, the year after Hayes died, and are almost equally divided between official Knights of Labor correspondence and his personal affairs. They were microfilmed (15 reels) together with the Powderly Papers in 1974.

Mitchell, also subject of a previous blog post, was the legendary leader of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), born 1870 in Braidwood, Illinois. Orphaned at an early age, he worked as a coal miner. He was first a member of the Knights of Labor and then, successively, legislative agent, organizer, vice president and president of the fledgling UMWA.  His leadership in Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902 resulted in significant gains for coal miners and greater recognition for the UMWA. Mitchell was also vice president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and member of various national, state, and local civic organizations. He died in 1919 and is buried in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  In 1942, Msgr. Haas contacted the Mitchell children and arranged for their father’s papers to be donated to the university. They include correspondence and meeting minutes regarding such watershed issues as standardized wages, safe working conditions, and collective bargaining. The Mitchell Papers, sans most clippings and many photographs, was microfilmed (55 reels) and a printed guide prepared by editor, John A Turcheneske, Jr., in 1975.

The promotional brochure for the ProQuest History Vault, 2018

ProQuest is well known in educational circles for curating an archive of billions of vetted, indexed documents connected via a variety of research communities. The ProQuest History Vault debuted in 2011 and is constantly adding new documentation of widely studied topics in American history. A particular strength is social movements, especially racial justice, women’s rights, and organized labor. The collections, with enhanced search features, can be purchased as a perpetual archive or as a subscription, providing research access for students and faculty to materials held at geographically dispersed archives. The Powderly, Hayes, and Mitchell papers are part of the module, ‘Labor Unions in the U.S., 1862-1974: Knights of Labor, AFL, CIO, and AFL-CIO,’ which include collections from the University of Maryland and the Wisconsin Historical Society. Because the History Vault digitization project scanned the 1970s microfilm, portions of the Powderly and Mitchell papers are not represented. Files deemed duplicative or unprocessed, but also printed materials and photographs that did not show up well on microfilm, were omitted. The non-microfilmed portions are so noted on the Powderly and Mitchell finding aids and remain open to traditional archival research, as is also the case with all the original materials. Additionally, and as mentioned above, many Mitchell and Powderly photographs are freely available online via WRLC.

For more information on ProQuest History Vault, visit the ProQuest History Vault webpage.

The Archivist’s Nook: Theological College – First 100 Years

Two Postcards of Theological College. (L) The original Gothic plan for the College, ca. 1920s. (R) The completed College, ca. 1970s

Heading south from the Catholic University campus, right across Michigan Avenue and facing the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, sits Theological College (TC). TC serves as the official seminary of the Catholic University of America, and has stood as a fixture of the Brookland neighborhood for the past century.

Founded in 1917 as an annex of St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, from its foundation, the seminary has been associated with the Society of Saint Sulpice, also known as the Sulpicians. Known until 1940 as the Sulpician Seminary, the motivation behind it was to serve as a seminary at the heart of the nation’s capital and as partnership between the Sulpicians and the Catholic University of America. This official partnership, however, would take several decades to solidify, as it was not until 1937 that an agreement was made between the two institutions to associate. This partnership has been reviewed and renewed ever since, throughout the changes in theological programs and American and Church culture.

Sulpician Seminary, ca. 1920s.

Renamed Theological College in 1940, the building that houses the seminary is a landmark bordering the south of the CUA campus. With groundbreaking occurring in 1917, the Sulpician seminarians resided on the Catholic University campus until the site was completed in 1919. Seminarians and theologians moved in on September 20, 1919.

Originally envisioned as a collegiate Gothic structure with larger wings for student housing, funding was unavailable to complete the original vision. By the early 1960s, a boom in seminarians led to overcrowding at the College. To address these issues, construction on a new wing and the tower began in 1963 until 1965. This construction added a larger library, kitchen and refectory, gym, and an enclosed courtyard. These features thrilled the student population, as well as the Sisters of the Divine Providence of Kentucky. The Sisters, having a small convent close by, provided domestic care for the College from 1918-1986.

Construction on the TC tower, ca. 1964

As TC enters its second century, alumni and current students are reflecting on its storied history and connection with the Catholic University community. Among its storied alumni are CUA Sociology professor Msgr. Paul Furfey, Archbishop Phil Hannan of New Orleans, CUA Philosophy professor Msgr. John Wippel, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington. While the TC community has provided a rich experience to campus life – participating in classes and even papal visits – the personal and social connections are ones that many alumni share. For example, among the many favorite memories from TC alumni are the tales of their legendary intramural basketball and football teams. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the seminarians dominated the court against the CUA fraternities. As the March 15, 1968 Tower reports: “The fraternity league team was different this year, but the result was the same as last year, as the Theological College again won the intramural basketball tournament.” From theological classrooms to basketball courts, TC students and the building they call home has been an integral part of the CUA story the past 100 years.

Theological College vs. Alpha Delta Gamma, 1968.

More information can be found in Michael Russo’s Ecce Quam Bonum: A History of Theological College. Mr. Russo is a current student at Theological College.

Shane MacDonald named 2017 Belanger awardee

Shane MacDonald, Archives Technician, has been selected as the recipient of the Edward J. Belanger Jr. Staff Award for Excellence in Service for 2017.

One colleague nominated Shane saying:

He is a primary asset in the Archives serving the library, the university campus, and the broader research community. He is a dynamo of energy as he amiably performs multi task service ranging from answering reference questions, arranging researcher visits, managing museum objects, directing student workers, organizing archival collections, and writing thoughtfully funny blog posts. He often begins work early and stays late as he is a dedicated,dependable, and intelligent library professional more than deserving of this award.

Ed Belanger worked for the university for over 40 years before retiring in 2002 as the Libraries’ business manager. His service and dedication to his fellow staff was extraordinary, and he is one of the most positive, up-beat, and good natured people you will ever meet. After his retirement, his children made a donation to the Libraries for the creation of an award in his honor. Each year the Libraries select a staff member of the year who not only contributes outstanding service to the library but also shares Ed’s good nature. Past honorees serve as the award committee, selecting from among nominations submitted by library staff.

The Archivist’s Nook: Richard John Neuhaus – A Catholic Lutheran in the Public Square

Fr. Neuhaus, then a Lutheran pastor, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ca. 1960s (Courtesy: National Catholic Register) Neuhaus Papers, box 88, The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Today’s post is guest authored by Undergraduate student in Social Work, Emmanuel A. Montesa, who expresses his thanks to the professional Archives staff.

On October 19, 1999, the Reverend Richard John Neuhaus gave a lecture entitled “My American Affair” here at The Catholic University of America, only a few months after he had converted to Catholicism. As a former Lutheran pastor, he was heavily involved in the liberal causes in American politics of the 1960s such as the Civil Rights and the Anti-War movements. He even considered himself to be a radical, seeing the War in Vietnam as “God’s instrument for bringing the American empire to its knees.”¹ On December 4, 1967, Neuhaus led a service at St. John the Evangelist Lutheran in Brooklyn where over 300 people turned in their draft cards in protest, drawing the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Neuhaus was arrested twice in his life, the first for participating in a sit-in at the New York City Board of Education headquarters demanding for the desegregation of city public schools and the second for disorderly conduct during the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In addition, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for New York’s 14th Congressional district.

Neuhaus meeting with President Ronald Reagan at the White House, Feb. 26, 1986. Neuhaus Papers, box 88, The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

However, by the time he was invited to speak at the national university of the Catholic Church in the United States, Neuhaus was one of the leading neo-conservatives in America, along with George Weigel and Michael Novak. Neuhaus strongly believed that politics can and should only exist within the context of Christian morality, calling for Christians to find their place in what he called “the naked public square,” a reference to the absence of values emanating from faith-based communities in public life. His 1984 book of that title, which addressed the complex relationship between faith and politics, arguably paved the way for Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election to the American presidency. In addition, Neuhaus served as a catalyst in the solidification of the political alliance of Catholics and evangelical Protestants. He served as an unofficial advisor to President George W. Bush on social matters which included abortion and same-sex marriage. As the editor-in-chief of First Things from its founding in 1990 until his death in 2009, Neuhaus voiced his discontent with the social liberalism that had taken hold of America. In 2005, Time Magazine named Neuhaus as one of 25 most influential evangelicals in America despite being a Roman Catholic.

Neuhaus’ renunciation of the Lutheran profession and conversion to Roman Catholicism is, in a sense, related to his political shift from the liberal left to the conservative right. His 1999 lecture at the Catholic University offers great insight into his reasoning for his conversion, both political and theological. He saw that the theory of the twofold kingdom of God, on which Lutheran political ethic is based on, “leads to Christian passivity and quietism in the face of social and political in justice.”² This theory holds that God rules the temporal earth with his left hand and the divine world with his right, and in the same way, theology should not muddy itself with human politics. However, Neuhaus believed that the Church should necessarily engage with the world, but the Church must first have a “vigorous ecclesiology” that can stand what St. Paul calls “the principalities and powers of the present age.”³ He  concluded that the only the Roman Catholic Church possessed such a vigorous ecclesiology.

Neuhaus being ordained a Catholic priest, 1991. Neuhaus Papers, box 88, The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Furthermore, in another lecture given at Catholic University in March 2000 titled “A Consistent Ethic of Strife,” which would later be published in CUA’s Journal of Law, Philosophy, and Culture, Neuhaus spoke about what he called the Catholic Moment. He first defined the term as a Lutheran in his 1987 book The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World, where he posited that the “premier responsibility for the Christian mission rest with the Catholic Church.”⁴ Now speaking on the Catholic Moment as a Catholic priest, he asserted that the Church should not fall into the passivity that his old profession had fallen into, but should continually play an active role in the world to establish the Kingdom of God. He declared that the Catholic Moment had not passed even 13 years after he first coined the term, because every single day since the first Pentecost until the end of time is the Catholic Moment.  In this framework, he distinguishes that there is a difference between an American Catholic and a Catholic American. The former is a corruption of the religion, but the latter is what we should strive for as Americans. There is a distinctively Catholic way of being an American.

Please see the newly completed finding aid (our 200th) for the voluminous Neuhaus Papers, a recent and welcome addition to the Catholic University Archives, joining the significant papers of other notable public priests such as Bishop Francis J. Haas, Msgr. John A. Ryan, and Msgr. George G. Higgins.

¹Daniel McCarthy. “Richard John Neuhaus by Randy Boyagoda,” The New York Times, March 26, 2015, accessed December 6, 2017,
²Richard John Neuhaus, “My American Affair” (speech, Washington, D.C., October 19, 1999), The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
Richard John Neuhaus, “A Consistent Ethics of Strife” (speech, Washington, D.C., March 2000), The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Institutionalizing Digital Scholarship at CUA

As the CUA Libraries continues expanding the digital scholarship opportunities for the CUA community, it may serve us to see what others have done. No better example can be found of the trials and tribulations of creating and supporting digital scholarship than the founding of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

Dr. Dan Cohen, the former director of the RRCHNM, gave the plenary address to the CNI-ARL Digital Scholarship Planning meeting at Brown University, November 8-10, 2017. Dan is the Vice Provost for Information Collaboration, Dean of Libraries, and Professor of History at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. He talked about the issue of institutionalizing digital scholarship. Establishing a digital scholarship center is challenging as he regaled the audience with tales from the establishment of the RRCHNM that was established at George Mason University Roy Rosenzweig in 1994 (cue the raccoons with fleas at 15:25 in the video below).

Cohen outlined three major themes that digital scholars and librarians will need to develop to be successful in insitutionalizing digital scholarship, what he calls “the three critical elements of institutionalization:


Working on individual projects is fine as librarians, and consulting with faculty and students in getting set up basic digital humanities projects goes with the territory. However, every librarian will tell you that such endeavors are time consuming and in the end, individually unsustainable. What is needed is a routinization of workflows, policies, and procedures with dedicated individuals expanding their knowledge of the larger process.


As Dr. Cohen mentions, new activities cannot remain on the fringe. “You have to make it normal that people on your campus do digital scholarship,” says Cohen. They need to be incorporated into your instiution’s workflow; in short, to be normalized into the everyday tasks of your organization. Outreach and developing allies who understand what you are doing and want to be part of digital scholarship. The long term goal is to have members of your institution think of the library when they think of digital scholarship practices.  In the end, this becomes a marketing exercise.


Great ideas come from individuals (for the most part). These founders create new products and services. However, founders move on (or die) and many DS labs, centers, and organizations flounder and fall once the founder is gone. The digital scholarship paradigm within the academic instiution must not only survive but flourish when staff turnover takes place.  Every person involved in DS should make it a priority of how their projects and workflow will succeed them when they leave.

Lessons learned: Be careful not to spread yourself too thin. The nature of your institution will determine what you are able (and should offer) in the way of promoting the mission of the university through consultations, creating exhibits, experiential learning, information literacy classes, coding services, etc. Focusing on matching with faculty scholarly interests will be vital for success.

The full presentation is on YouTube and a summary of the talk is available on his blog.


The Archivist’s Nook: A Venus Fixer Goes to War

A devastating scene during the Italian Campaign of WWII.

“It’s been a strange way to do my wartime service but somebody had to do it and, since…I wondered inside who will take care of the monuments and the objects of art, I’m afraid I rather asked for it and so it was not improperly myself who was chosen.” – Staff Sargeant Bernard M. Peebles to Colonel Ernest T. DeWald, 1945

The Museum, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) Subcommittee, more popularly known as either the Monuments Men or Venus Fixers, was a program that focused on protecting and restoring cultural and historic sites and materials during the Second World War. Consisting of scholars of art, manuscripts, and architecture, the members of the MFAA often operated in active warzones across North Africa and Europe with limited resources. Not only did they work to assess the damages rendered to cultural sites and archives, but they worked to guarantee the survival of missing or pillaged art or manuscripts. Long-time Catholic University Professor of Greek and Latin (1948-1971) Bernard M. Peebles was one such Venus Fixer, serving in Italy from 1943-1945.

German Field-Marshall Albert Kesselring allegedly referred to the Italian campaign as “waging war in a museum.” With limited resources and combat raging across a culturally-rich and highly urban peninsula, the Allies relied on informational flyers and posts and local aid to secure sites.

Peebles was born in Norfolk, Virginia on January 1, 1906. He received his Bachelors in Greek and Latin in 1926 from the University of Virginia, and his Masters and Doctorate at Harvard University in 1928 and 1940 respectively. During this time he was also a fellow at the American Academy in Rome from 1932-1934. While in Rome, he met and befriended a fellow scholar by the name of Wolfgang Hagemann. The two would later be on opposing sides of the war effort, with Hagemann engaged in art and translation work with Rommel’s armies in North Africa and Italy.

In the years prior to the war, Peebles’ teaching career blossomed as he taught at Harvard (1937-1939), Fordham University (1939-1941), and at St. John’s College in Annapolis (1941-1942). With the US entering WWII, Peebles enlisted in 1942, being assigned as a chief clerk for the MFAA . As one of the earliest members of the Program, he began his service in Sicily in the fall of 1943, where he was regarded as a “discoverer of manuscripts.”¹ As a report dated 20 January 1944 from Palermo, Sicily relates:

Visiting a hardware shop in Via Cassari, [Peebles] saw there some old MS. Documents loose on the counter and apparently about to be used as wrapping paper. Upon showing interest in the documents he was allowed to examine them and, afterwards, a larger number which apparently had been removed from the same bound volume and comprised some sheets of parchment, one with heading in gold. Upon offering to buy the smaller batch of documents, he was told that he have them as a gift… A second visit to the neighborhood to determine the precise location of the shop found it closed but revealed that several shops in the Via Argenteria were using similar old MSS. (along with other documents of more recent date) to wrap fish and other edibles.²

Right photo: Peebles (L) with Hagemann (R), together on a hike in Verona in 1933. Left photo: Peebles during his MFAA tour in Italy.

Among the documents recovered were those belonging to the Palermo state archives, including early eighteenth-century manuscripts from Philip V of Spain! Peebles continued to serve with the MFAA in Italy throughout the remainder of the war. In 1945, a request came in for him to transfer to Austria to assist the Monument Men there. Writing to Colonel DeWald, Director of the Italian MFAA, he expressed a desire to finish the job in Italy – a mission he referred to as “[his] baby” – and then return to his wife, child, and academic career in the United States. He was awarded this opportunity, along with the Bronze Star and British Empire medal.

Peebles returned to the US in 1945, and began teaching at Catholic University in 1948. He served with the Greek and Latin Department – including an eight-year stint as Chair (1962-1970) – until his retirement in 1971. A scholar with wide-ranging interests in Latin manuscripts, he is most well-known for his work on the Church Fathers and Patristic studies. Sadly, he died during a robbery attempt in 1976.

In addition to recording his long academic career, the papers of Bernard Peebles catalogs his experience of the Second World War, with Allied reports, maps, and propaganda material.  It may be viewed here:

A small sampling of the WWII documentation and objects contained in the Bernard M. Peebles Papers, including his Bronze Star.

¹laria Dagnini Brey The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Monuments Officers Who Saved Italy’s Art During World War II (New York: Picador, 2010), 71-72.

The American Christmas Songbook: “White Christmas” (1940)

Irving Berlin

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 a Sunday 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 cast of White Christmas performs the title song. Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

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…

“May your days be merry and bright,

and may all your Christmases be white!”


The American Christmas Songbook: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1943)

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

Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin in 1941

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!)

The American Christmas Songbook: “Santa Baby” (1953)

In “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas,” Meredith Wilson lists a variety of Christmas presents suitable for good little girls and boys:

     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).

1954 Cadillac Promotional Brochure featuring the Eldorado Convertible. I’ll take the light blue, please!

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.

²Billboard, January 9, 1954, p. 13.
³Proceeds from the sales of A Very Special Christmas benefit the Special Olympics.

The Sounds of Hanukkah: Flory Jagoda

Flory Jagoda. Image courtesy of the Milken Archive of Jewish Music.

This post is by library technician Rachel Evangeline Barham.

Did you know that one of Hanukkah’s most influential tastemakers lives in the DC area? The multifaceted musician Flory Jagoda, now in her 90s, calls Virginia home. She is known widely as the “keeper of the flame” of the music of Bosnian Sephardic Jews.¹ Here she is sharing one of her most famous songs, the counting song “Ocho Kandelikas” (Eight Candles). (Warning: it’s catchy!) I use the word “sharing” because – you’ll agree when you see her – it is clear that Flory Jagoda is not just performing the music she composed. Sharing her music is her way of transforming unthinkable personal and collective tragedy into a living monument to the special family who raised her and who were robbed of their own lives.

Flory Jagoda was born into the Altarac Singing Family of Vlasenica, Bosnia: her mother and seven aunts and uncles – directed by Flory’s Nona (grandmother) – sang and played instruments at all kinds of public gatherings.² Flory lived with her Nona until she was eleven years old, speaking Ladino (or Judaeo-Spanish), the language that Sephardic Jews took with them all over the world after Ferdinand and Isabella’s 1492 Edict of Expulsion. Both the Ladino language and its songs preserve parts of medieval Spanish but have picked up local flavor wherever people settled: a new spelling of a word here, a new instrument there. Flory’s Nona was an eager teacher of a very willing pupil, passing on all the songs she knew to her granddaughter.

Jagoda in the 1940s.

It was when she had to leave her Nona and move to the city – against her will – that Flory’s stepfather gave the unhappy girl the accordion that would later save her life. Flory became adept at several instruments and adjusted to city life in Zagreb, but her world fell apart in 1941 when the Nazis’ racial policies hit her family hard. They managed to get to the Dalmatian island of Korchula, where they were interned for two and a half years before fleeing to Italy amid the chaos that accompanied the end of World War II in Europe. She found a job as an interpreter for the US Army in Italy, where she fell in love with and married a Jewish American soldier, Harry Jagoda. It was when they returned from their honeymoon that she learned to her horror that out of the 41 members of her beloved Altarac family, only her mother, one uncle, and one cousin had survived. Along with every other Jew left in Vlasenica, the family members were rounded up and brutally slaughtered on May 6, 1942. “Babies, Nona, Nonu, las tiyas (aunts), lus primus ermjanus (cousins) … all of them.”³

The Flory Jagoda Songbook: Memories of Sarajevo (Tara Publications, 1993).

In 1946, Harry and his new wife settled in Virginia and started a family. For years, Flory, noting that silencing the past is a way of coping for many survivors, suppressed memories of her former life. But at some point, she wanted her children – and the world – to share the music, memories, and traditions that had made her childhood so special. She began recording music in the 1980s, releasing three albums and an accompanying songbook including both traditional songs and original compositions such as the joyful “Hanuka, Hanuka,” performed here by the Trio Sefardi, with whom Flory appeared in a 2013 interview with WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi. Always a teacher, she has used her many public appearances to teach this music to anyone who will listen. Many of Flory’s songs are holiday-themed. “Because every holiday song … that I have composed continues the memory of my family in Vlasenica; I am still sharing the holidays with them.”⁴ Through her music, the legacy of an extraordinary musical family will live on from generation to generation. 

Hear Pink Martini’s cover of “Ocho Kandelikas,” or this one by Flory’s great-grandchildren.

¹ and many other sources.

²Much of Flory Jagoda’s life is well documented, but a particularly detailed first-person account of her family and personal history is found in the Introduction to The Flory Jagoda Songbook (Tara Publications, 1993). Many of the facts in that account are noted in this post.

³The Flory Jagoda Songbook, p.14.

The Flory Jagoda Songbook, p.16.