On Wednesday, October 24, at 5:15 p.m. in the May Gallery of Mullen Library, composer and Ordinary Professor of Music Andrew Earle Simpson will discuss the art of composing for silent film. Following a brief presentation, he will perform his new original piano soundtrack live to a showing of a recently released edition of the 1925 silent film Stage Struck, starring Gloria Swanson and directed by Allan Dwan.
Kanopy has partnered with the Goethe Institut to promote A Celebration of German Film as part of their Wunderbar Together event highlighting German-American friendship. During the entire month of October, CatholicU students and faculty have free access to a specially curated collection from Kanopy’s German film catalogue—the Goethe Film Collection! Check it out now at cua.kanopystreaming.com.
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Magical Protection: Ethiopian Prayer Scrolls and Egyptian Oracular Amuletic Decrees
Presented by Solange Ashby Bumbaugh ICOR Fellow Monday,
February 5, 5:30-6:30 May Gallery, Mullen Library The Catholic University of America
Sponsored by the Institute of Christian Oriental Research (ICOR) in conjunction with the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures Address inquiries to Dr. Aaron Butts (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.