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!”


¹https://www.loc.gov/programs/static/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/WHITE%20CHRISTMAS.pdf
²http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/12/24/how-white-christmasrosefromblahtoblockbuster.html
³https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/holiday/8061679/mariah-carey-most-recorded-holiday-songs

The American Christmas Songbook: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (1943)

President Roosevelt signing the declaration of war against Germany, Dec. 11, 1941.

Today marks the 76th anniversary of the United States’ official declaration of war against Germany and Italy, thereby putting the US at war with all three Axis powers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had resisted bringing the US into battle as long as he could, but his hand was forced as a result of the surprise Japanese attack on the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Territory, on December 7, 1941–“a date which will live in infamy.” Two weeks following the attack, the Selective Training and Service Act was amended to require all men between the ages of 18 and 64 to register for military service. By the end of the year, the number of enlisted soldiers nearly quadrupled, from approximately 450,000 to over 1.8 million. By the end of the war in 1945, that number had grown to over 12 million.¹

Thinking of all those brave service personnel separated from their loved ones for the holidays, songwriters James Kimball “Kim” Gannon and Walter Kent penned a ballad in the summer of 1943 titled “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” In the song, which reads nearly like a letter from a deployed soldier, the singer promises to be home in time for Christmas:

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree

The first edition of sheet music, which credits Buck Ram in addition to Kim Gannon and Walter Kent.

When Bing Crosby recorded the song for Decca in 1943 with the John Trotter Orchestra, the label was hesitant to release it due to concerns over the ultimate couplet, in which the singer confesses: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas / if only in my dreams.” This sobering lyric was a stark reminder to the millions of separated families that they may not be reunited for Christmas, or indeed, ever again. Nonetheless, the song proved to be a huge success, especially among the troops. It became the most widely requested song at U.S.O. Christmas shows, and in a poll conducted at the conclusion of the war in 1945, troops selected Bing Crosby as the person who did the most to boost morale.² In December 1965, Crosby’s recording comforted those serving even farther from home when it was piped, by request, to astronauts Frank Borman and James Lovell aboard the Gemini 7 spacecraft.³ “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” immediately charted and remained there for eleven weeks, peaking at #3. Despite its success, the song was banned on BBC radio in fear that it would lower morale.⁴

A bit of controversy arose following the success of Crosby’s recording. Songwriter Sam “Buck” Ram, along with his publishing company Mills Music, filed a lawsuit claiming that the song was stolen by Gannon and Kent after Ram had shared it with them in December of 1942. Ram copyrighted a song by the same title that year, though musically and lyrically, the two songs were completely different. Still, the court sided with Ram, awarding him a share of the royalties and a songwriting credit.⁵

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” has been recorded by countless artists since Bing Crosby. Perry Como offered his own take in 1946 (single, RCA Victor), and Frank Sinatra recorded his in 1957 (A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra, Capitol). My favorite recording, yet again, is The Carpenters‘ (Christmas Portrait, A&M, 1978). More recently, She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) included a nostalgic rockabilly-style cover on their 2011 album, A Very She & Him Christmas (Merge, 2011). A friend recently introduced me to a soulful version by the up and coming Leslie Odom, Jr., from his album released last year, Simply Christmas (S-Curve, 2016). Wherever you find yourself this holiday, there is a version of this entry from the American Christmas songbook to make you feel at home…if only in your dreams.


¹https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/research-starters-us-military-numbers

²https://www.uso.org/stories/1905-uso-tour-veteran-bing-crosby-was-a-hit-overseas

³https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200000010/

http://mentalfloss.com/article/50178/11-reasons-bbc-has-banned-hit-songs

⁵Collins, Ace. Stories behind the best-loved songs of Christmas. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2001.

The American Christmas Songbook: “Silver Bells” (1950)

In the summer of 1950, Paramount Pictures approached Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, a songwriting duo with a knack for writing hit numbers for films and theme songs for television series (Bonanza and Mr. Ed). Paramount was working on the film The Lemon Drop Kid, which is set in New York City in the days leading up to Christmas. Thus, the studio felt the picture needed a Christmas song, and they wanted it to be sung by the leads Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell. Initially, Livingston and Evans were less than enthusiastic. In a 2005 interview recorded for NPR, Evans recalled: “…[w]e figured–stupidly, thank God–that the world had too many Christmas Songs already.”¹ They were also nervous that another flop would result in Paramount terminating their contract, which was up for renewal.

Their inspiration came from a little bell that sat on one of the gentlemen’s desks. It reminded them of the bells rung by men dressed as Santas on street corners collecting donations for the Salvation Army.² Their original title for the song was “Tinkle Bells,” as their tiny bell made a tinkling sound when rung. When Livingston shared the draft with his wife, she encouraged them to consider replacing “tinkle” to avoid awkwardness with the word’s euphemistic usage. Heeding Mrs. Livingston’s wise advice, they changed the title, reworked some of the lyrics, and delivered “Silver Bells” to the studio. The number was simply staged by director Sidney Lanfield, with the cast standing in a choir-like formation and singing it straight through.

Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. Image courtesy of Penn Libraries (University of Pennsylvania).

Filming on The Lemon Drop Kid wrapped up in August of 1950. In October of that year, ahead of the film’s premier, Decca released “Silver Bells” as a single with vocals by Bing Crosby and Carol Richards, backed by an orchestra conducted by John Scott Trotter. By December, it had become a smash hit, causing Bob Hope and fellow producers to worry that the bland scene in the forthcoming film would be a disappointment to audiences. Hope arranged for his friend, comedy writer Frank Tashlin, to come up with a more elaborate staging of the number, and the cast and crew returned to the lot to re-shoot.³ The result is a scene that, though peppered with some regrettable racist humor, made “Silver Bells” an instant holiday classic.

It is easy to see why “Silver Bells” is so appealing. The tune is catchy and easy to sing, with lyrics full of sentimental descriptions of Christmastime in an urban setting. The genius of Livingston and Evans’ composition is that the verse and chorus, when sung together, create a nice counterpoint. They also created a counter-melody to give the chorus some variety when it is repeated. Thus, “Silver Bells” can be arranged many different ways. In addition to the Bing Crosby recording, some other notable tracks have been offered by Doris Day (single, Decca, 1950), Johnny Mathias (Merry Christmas, Jon Mat Records, 1958), and the recently deceased Jim Nabors (Christmas, Columbia, 1972). For something a little different, enjoy this heavy metal cover by Twisted Sister (from Twisted Christmas, Razor & Tie Recordings, 2006). No matter how hard you like to ring them, “Silver Bells” chimes in as a favorite entry for many in the great American Christmas songbook.


¹https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5068947

²Evans refers to the bell on the desk in his 2005 NPR interview, while Livingston referred to the Salvation Army’s Santas in a 1988 interview with American Songwriter Magazine (July-August 1988).

³http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/453448%7C453708/The-Lemon-Drop-Kid.html