The American Christmas Songbook: “Christmas Time Is Here” (1965)

A caricature of Vince Guaraldi by Charles Schulz, signed “for Vince with friendship -Sparky.”

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.

Lee Mendelson, Charles Schulz, and Bill Melendez at the 1966 Emmy Awards.

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!


¹https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/deck-the-halls-with-vince-guaraldi

²Burgheim, Richard, “Security Is a Good Show,” Time, December 19, 1965, p. 95.

³Laurent, Lawrence, “Loser in ‘Peanuts’ Finally a Winner,” The Washington Post, December 11, 1965.

https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/8070689/billboard-200-chart-moves-charlie-brown-christmas-soundtrack

⁵https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-12-107/new-entries-to-the-national-recording-registry-2/2012-05-23/

The American Christmas Songbook: “This Christmas” (1970)

Hathaway with Roberta Flack in 1972

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

Nadine McKinnor

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
This Christmas
And as I look around
Your eyes outshine the town they do
This Christmas

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


¹http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/donny-hathaway-19710610

²https://medium.com/@unclecrizzle/this-christmas-and-getting-to-know-donny-e7e0b4a838a1

³Hoekstra, David. “Donny Hathaway’s ‘This Christmas'” Chicago Sun-Times, 13 December 2009.

The American Christmas Songbook: “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1949)

The sketch of the cover for May’s original book with illustrations by Denver L. Gillan.

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”).

Rudolph with Hermey the elf in the 1964 television special.

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.”

²https://www.npr.org/2013/12/25/256579598/writing-rudolph-the-original-red-nosed-manuscript

³http://www.nytimes.com/1985/09/04/arts/johnny-marks-dies-composed-hit-song-rudolph-in-1949.html

The American Christmas Songbook: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (1944)

Frank Loesser and his wife, Lynn Garland, 1956. Image courtesy of AP/Anthony Camerano.

As I’ve been chatting about this blog series with friends, more than one person has asked me: “You aren’t going to do ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside,’ are you??

Therefore, let me make this disclaimer on the outset: I am not going to discuss this song in the context of 2017. It was not written in 2017, and if it were, it would be a failure. Frank Loesser wrote it in 1944 to sing with his wife for friends attending a party. Did date rape not exist then? Of course it did. Unfortunately, sometimes lyrics just don’t hold up, and that’s exactly what has happened here. Our tolerance for such humor has changed, but the song remains. I cannot speak on Loesser’s behalf, but if he were around today to defend his work, I believe he would explain that the song represents a game of mutual flirtation–neither want the night to end, but one is worried about her reputation (again, it’s 1944, and respectable women don’t “stay over”). While we could start dissecting the verse to prove whether or not that is the case, I’m not going to do that. It’s already been done, again and again.

I have long admired the music of Frank Loesser. The handful of musicals that he wrote are diverse, both musically and thematically. I best got to know him (and his music) while directing a community theater production of How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, a 1961 show about a scheming window washer who climbs the corporate ladder by fraud and fiddle. My favorite number, which I kept no secret from my cast and crew, was “It’s Been a Long Day.” In the scene,¹ the protagonist, J. Pierpont Finch, meets his new co-workers, secretaries Smitty and Rosemary Pilkington, at the elevator at close of business. The three attempt small talk, but the nervous attraction between Finch and Rosemary get in the way. With the discrete persuasion of Smitty, the two make plans for dinner at Stouffer’s – “service for two [for] $3.58.” The call and response format along with the clumsy flirtation are reminiscent of a song Loesser had written seventeen years earlier.

Ricardo Montalbán and Betty Garrett get fresh in Neptun’s Daughter (1949). Images courtesy of MGM.

In the winter of 1944, Loesser hosted a housewarming party with his wife, former nightclub singer Lynn Garland, in their Navarro Hotel home in New York City. To indicate to their guests that the party was coming to an end, the Loessers sang a duet he composed just for the occasion, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” In the song, which Loesser indicates in the original score is sung by “Mouse” and “Wolf,”² Lynn’s attempts to bid farewell to her husband are met with resistance. While she expresses concern about what her family will think, he encourages her to avoid the bitter temperatures and cozy up with him. The guests loved it, asking the couple for an encore. Following their party, they received requests from other hosts to perform the number at their own gatherings. The song was a hit, but only among showbiz elites.

In 1948, MGM bought the rights to the song. The studio wanted to include it in their upcoming film, Neptune’s Daughter. In the movie, the number is performed twice through:  the first time features romantic leads Esther Williams (singing the Mouse role) and Ricardo Montalbán (singing the Wolf role); the second time around, the gender roles are reversed, with supporting cast mates Betty Garrett as the Wolf and Red Skelton as the Mouse. One may wonder if the decision to have the comedic relief repeat the exchange with the tables turned was an effort to diminish any uneasiness the first scene may have caused. Honestly, I doubt it, but the laughs it gets are certainly appreciated. The scene earned Loesser an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1950.

Before Neptune’s Daughter premiered, Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark had already recorded “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for Columbia records. By the end of year, other versions were offered by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan (Decca), Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer (Capitol), and Laura Leslie and Don Cornell (with Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra; RCA Victor). Mercury released a simple piano/vocal recording of Loesser and Garland singing their own song, just as they did at the parties they hosted and attended. Even the country music world had fun with the tune when RCA Victor released a slightly altered rendition, “with apologies to Frank Loesser,” by Homer and Jethro with the legendary June Carter. As I’ve pointed out with a few other tunes I’ve covered so far in this series, the song has nothing to do with Christmas, and was not written with the holiday in mind at all. Jo Stafford and Dean Martin both included “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” on their “wintertime” albums, Ski Trails (Columbia, 1956) and A Winter Romance (Capitol, 1959), respectively. The first explicitly Christmas album to feature the duet was Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme’s That Holiday Feeling (Columbia, 1964). Ever since then, it’s been a treasured (though recently controversial) part of the American Christmas songbook.


¹This clip is taken from the 1967 film adaption of the musical by United Artists, which starred Robert Morse (the original Finch), Michele Lee, and Kay Renolds.

²Thomas Laurence Riis, Frank Loesser (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), pp. 71–73.

The American Christmas Songbook: “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (1934)

The balloon of Eddie Cantor–the first to be based on a live person–in the 1934 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Image courtesy of NY.Curbed.com.

In 1934, radio star Eddie Cantor needed a new Christmas song to sing on a live broadcast during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He approached Leo Feist, a music publisher, who happened to have a song he had not yet published by composer John Frederick “Fred” Coots and lyricist James Lamont “Haven” Gillespie titled “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” At first, Cantor was unsure if “childish” appeal of the song would make it a hit, but his wife encouraged him to give it a chance. He was glad she did! Within 24 hours of the broadcast, 100,000 copies of sheet music had been purchased, and another 300,000 had sold by Christmas.¹ A studio recording by banjoist Harry Reese and his Orchestra (with vocals by Tom Stacks; Decca) had also sold over 300,000 copies overnight. Needless to say, it has remained an annual hit ever since. In 1970, Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc. created a stop motion animated special based on the song for ABC, featuring Fred Astaire as the narrator S.D. Kluger and Mickey Rooney as Kris Kringle.

While I could shower you with a list of celebrated recordings, I’d instead like to treat you to a guest blog by my colleague and dear friend, Rachel Evangeline Barham. She shares one of the most unusual interpretations of this jovial holiday hit and a glimpse of the man behind it:


Stumbling Upon the Musical Genius of Joseph Spence

As a professional singer, I have a pretty low tolerance for the “holiday” music that wallpapers America nonstop for the last month of every year (or, to my dismay, more than the last month). I’ve done my share of starting Christmas music rehearsals before Columbus Day, so musical holiday cheer is not a strong motivator for me. Maybe that’s why my first encounter with Bahamian guitar genius Joseph Spence was such an epiphany.

Joseph Spence playing for friends on his front porch. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

My spouse and I were sitting on the couch listening to a local radio show called Traditions with Mary Cliff: “folk music and things you can see from there.” Suddenly, the sounds coming from the radio were unlike anything we’d ever heard. I stared at him wide-eyed, and he scrambled for the volume knob. We listened in pure delight to Joseph Spence’s genre-defying interpretation of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”

We set out to find out everything we could about him. It turned out that we were pretty late to the party. Joseph Spence lived from 1910 to 1984, and among those who cite his influence are Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, and the Grateful Dead. His songs were first recorded and brought to a wider audience in 1959 with the release of the Smithsonian Folkways album Music of the Bahamas Volume One: Bahamian Folk Guitar (below). This album features field recordings taken by Samuel Charters, whose personal interest in the varieties of music made by North Americans of African descent were seminal in bringing to light the influence of the blues on jazz.² His enthusiasm for such music led him to amass field recordings of now legendary folk musicians whose contributions may otherwise have been lost forever, including those done on Joseph Spence’s front porch.

One of the things that makes Joseph Spence’s recordings so delightful is his vocalizations. The actual lyrics of the songs occasionally make appearances, but they are overshadowed by the instantly recognizable scat style that employs his unique idiolect, influenced by the rhythmic lilt of Bahamian creole.³ As easy as it is to get lost in the pure joy of Spence’s vocal style, his guitar technique and facility with improvisation are truly remarkable. The first time Samuel Charters heard Spence, he thought there were two guitarists playing together,⁴ and many accomplished guitarists have found Spence’s plucking technique easy to admire but difficult to imitate. Spence’s fancy finger work on his sometimes out-of-tune guitar, the percussive effects of his vocal sounds, and his rhythmic beating on the body of the instrument make a complete one-man band. Now that’s holiday cheer.

Further listening:

Out on the Rolling Sea

Jump in the Line

The Crow


Rachel Evangeline Barham

¹Eddie Cantor is well known to DC-area listeners as the singer of “I Love to Spend Each Sunday With You (One Hour With You),” the sign-off song for WAMU’s long-running old time radio show “The Big Broadcast.”

²https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/6363760/santa-claus-is-coming-to-town-ascap-list-most-performed-christmas-songs

³Rohter, Larry (March 18, 2015). “Samuel Charters, Foundational Scholar of the Blues, Dies at 85“. New York Times. [retrieved 12/7/2017]

⁴Bahamian English Resources: a clearinghouse for information on Bahamian English, www.cobses.info/BahamianEnglish/index.html [retrieved 12/7/2017]

⁵Thompson, Dave (2002). Reggae & Caribbean Music. Backbeat Books. 274–275.

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: “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas” (1951)

No, that isn’t a typo. The actual title of the song as it was given by composer Meredith Wilson in 1951–despite the first line of verse–is “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas.” Don’t believe me? Here it is in the 1951 Catalog of Copyright Entries from the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress:

And for most early commercial recordings, that is the name that appears on the label. The original recording was released by RCA Victor in September 1951 sung by Perry Como and the Fontane Sisters and backed by the Mitchell Ayers Orchestra. However, the second interpretation, released by Decca a month later, is more well-known today. With vocals by Bing Crosby and Jud Conlon’s Rhythmaires and an accompaniment by John Scott Trotter’s orchestra, the classic track starts with a quote from “Jingle Bells” (N.B.: If you want your Christmas song to be a hit, quote “Jingle Bells.”). Even The Chipmunks got the name of the song correct on their Christmas album, Christmas with the Chipmunks (Liberty, 1962; see right), as did Johnny Mathis on his 1986 album Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis (Columbia). Mathis’s cover, made famous by its inclusion in the 1992 holiday box office hit Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (20th Century Fox), competes with Crosby’s 1951 version as the most popular recording of the song.

The Grand Hotel in Yarmouth, NS, overlooking Frost Park. The original hotel was demolished in 1966. Card postmarked 1905, courtesy of YarmouthHistory.ca.

Okay, so we’ve cleared up the question about the name of the song. What remains unclear is what location Wilson may be describing in his lyrics. Residents in Yarmouth, a small coastal village in Nova Scotia, believe that “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas” is about their town. According to local legend, a famous composer spent an extended vacation there in the late 1940s and rented a room in the Grand Hotel in the center of town. Across the street from the hotel is Frost Park, and both were adorned with large Christmas trees each December. Wilson lyricized: “There’s a tree in the Grand Hotel / One in the park as well / The sturdy kind that doesn’t mind the snow.” Furthermore, a five and dime (thrift shop) was located just down Main Street, which was lined with large candy canes. “Take a look in the five-and-ten / Glistening once again / With candy canes and silver lanes aglow.” Unfortunately, there is no record of an M. Wilson checking-in at the Grand around that time (though he could have used an alias). However, he was known to visit the area on occasion.¹ Another possible inspiration is the Park Inn Hotel (now operating as the Historic Park Inn) in Wilson’s hometown of Mason City, Iowa. This famous landmark, constructed in 1910, is the last remaining hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the world, and sits adjacent to the city’s Central Park.

Valerie Lee and Laurence Naismith in the original production of Here’s Love. Photo courtesy of Sony Music Archives.

Wilson went on to write three Broadway musicals. His first and most successful was The Music Man (1957). The second, The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960), also met high acclaim. The third, however, was not as successful. An adaptation of the 1947 classic holiday film Miracle on 34th Street, Wilson’s Here’s Love opened on October 3, 1963 in the Schubert Theatre and closed the following July. For the show, Wilson reused “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas,” which he had written twelve years earlier, combining it with a new song “Pinecones and Holly Berries.” Perhaps this mash-up will give you a fresh look at this treasured number from the American Christmas songbook.


¹http://thechronicleherald.ca/novascotia/34852-christmas-looks-lot-yarmouth-classic-tune and http://atlantic.ctvnews.ca/maritime-town-may-have-inspired-well-known-christmas-carol-1.1605892

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

The American Christmas Songbook: “Sleigh Ride” (1948)

A Brush for the Lead, an 1867 lithograph by Thomas Worth for Currier and Ives, 19th-century American print company mentioned in Parish’s lyrics. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The sound of mid-20th-century Americana was perhaps best captured by composer Leroy Anderson, the son of two Swedish immigrants. Among his most notable “light-orchestra” works are The Syncopated Clock (1945), The Typewriter (1950), and Bugler’s Holiday (1954). However, his most famous composition is the energetic and playful Sleigh Ride, which he first began to sketch in the summer of 1946 at his wife’s family’s cottage in Woodbury, Connecticut. Yet again, a wintertime song was born out of the desire to escape unpleasantly high temperatures. Anderson would not finish the work until February 1948. Sleigh Ride was premiered by the Boston Pops Orchestra on May 4, 1948 with Arthur Fiedler conducting. Since then, it has been known as the BPO’s signature piece. They recorded it for RCA Victor the following year, and just like the holiday-neutral “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!”, it immediately became a Christmastime standard. Anderson’s wife Eleanor recalled hearing it playing in department stores in New York City in December of 1949. She explained: “Leroy didn’t set out to write a Christmas piece when he wrote Sleigh Ride. His intentions were to convey the entire winter season through the imagery of a sleigh ride, much in the way that Mozart did with his piece of the same name.”¹ Chances are, if you’re one who seeks out commercial Christmas music, you’ve heard Anderson’s more deliberately holiday work, A Christmas Festival, a medley of traditional carols that he composed in October 1952.

Phil Spector’s iconic Christmas album was released the same day President Kennedy was assassinated – November 22, 1963.

The lyrics for Sleigh Ride weren’t written until 1950, and they were not by Anderson. Mitchell Parish, who added lyrics to several instrumental classics by Anderson and other composers, used the existing title and melody to pen a musical invitation, where the singer is welcoming the listener to come along on a ride through a wintry paradise. Parish sums up the scene he paints in the line “It will nearly be like a picture-print by Currier and Ives” (see a sample print above). Again, Parish’s original lyrics make no specific mention of Christmas, though some artists, such as The Carpenters and Air Supply have substituted “Christmas party” in the line “There’s a birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray.”

The first recording with Parish’s lyrics was released in 1950 as a single by the Andrews Sisters. In 1963, another female vocal trio, The Ronettes, recorded a Motown style version for A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records (see left; later released as A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector) that replaces Anderson’s imitated horse whinny on trumpet with an authentic one and includes no fewer than five key changes! Speaking of excessive modulations, Andy Williams’ version from Merry Christmas (Columbia, 1965) includes snappy back-up vocals and brass fills a la Burt Bacharach.  That same year, the instrumental rock group The Ventures included a cover on their Christmas Album (Capitol Records, 1965).

Album art featuring Anderson from a 2001 CD from the British label Jasmine.

There are some other fun re-imaginings of Sleigh Ride available online. Here is a jazzy piano arrangement by John Eidsvoog in 7/8 meter (think 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3)! Ella Fitzgerald’s snazzy rendition from her album Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (Verve, 1960) sets the perfect mood for a yuletide cocktail party. For me, nothing beats Leroy’s original orchestration–and the masses seem to agree! From 2009-2012 and then again in 2015, ASCAP² reported that Sleigh Ride was the most popular piece of Christmas music, with the 1950 Decca recording with Anderson conducting “His Pops Concert Orchestra” being the most frequently played in 2010. That’s scientific data validating that this enchanting piece has earned its spot in the American Christmas songbook.


¹Quote from the Leroy Anderson Foundation website. Mrs. Anderson was most likely referring to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Die Schlittenfahrt” (No.3 in C, Trio from Three German Dances, K. 605), but she could have also been thinking of Die musikalische Schlittenfahrt, formally Divertimento in F Major, by Wolfgang’s father, Leopold.

²The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers–the agency that monitors public performance of copyrighted music. Leroy Anderson Foundation.

The American Christmas Songbook: “Some Children See Him” (1951)

The cover of the 1951 Burt family Christmas Card, which included the carol “Some Children See Him.” Courtesy of AlfredBurtCarols.com.

If you’re a songwriter, and you want to give a one-of-a-kind Christmas gift, what do you give? A brand new Christmas carol, of course! And between 1942 and 1954, that’s exactly what composer Alfred Burt did. Carrying on a tradition started in 1922 by his father, the Rev’d Bates Gilbert Burt, Alfred composed a new Christmas carol to be included in the Burt family Christmas card. These festive songs remained undiscovered outside of the friends and family who received the annual card. All that changed in 1952 when Burt asked the Blue Reys, the vocal ensemble of Alvino Rey’s orchestra (which Burt, a jazz trumpeter, had joined in 1949), to sing through that year’s carol, “Come, Dear Children.” The group was so impressed that they performed it and a few other of Burt’s carols at the King Sisters’ Christmas party that year. With exposure to the Hollywood music scene, word of Burt’s carols began to spread. James Conkling, president of Columbia Records, arranged to have the carols recorded by a professional choir at the North Hollywood Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Burt, whose health was rapidly deteriorating due to lung cancer, composed four new carols to fill the 10″ LP, one of which, “The Star Carol,” was included in the 1954 Burt family Christmas card. The resulting album, The Christmas Mood (Columbia) was released in time for the 1954 holiday season. Unfortunately, Burt passed on February 7 of that year and was not able to see the project to completion.¹

Shawnee Press published Burt’s original arrangements for SATB choir in two sets.

While Alfred Burt’s carols may not top most people’s lists of holiday favorites, a few have been covered several times over the years. One is the tender and chant-like “Some Children See Him,” written in an unusual 5/4 meter with an almost modal, folk-like melody. With verses crafted by Burt family friend and church organist Wihla Hutson, the heartwarming song reminds us that children from all races “[w]ill see the baby Jesus’ face / Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace, / And filled with holy light.” Powerful words, especially considering the song was composed in 1951–less than a decade after the end of World War II, at the height of the Korean War, and at dawn of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Xenophobia and racial tensions in America were strong, and Hutson’s verse stressed that we should learn from the innocence of children that love and tolerance is more powerful than hate and fear.

Following the release of The Christmas Mood, “Some Children See Him” was covered by Andy Williams on his album Merry Christmas (1965, Columbia). Three years later, Perry Como recorded it for The Perry Como Christmas Album (1968, RCA Victor), but it was ultimately cut from the album and not released until 1999, when RCA compiled a collections of Como’s greatest holiday hits. More recently, James Taylor included an intimate and heartwarming rendition on his first Christmas album in 2004 (Hallmark limited edition), which Columbia then re-released with a slightly altered track listing two years later (pictured right). Ten years later, Kenny Rogers recorded the track as a duet with Alison Krauss for his album Once Again It’s Christmas, modifying the tune to fit a more conventional triple meter.

Abbie Burt Betinis, composer and great niece of Alfred Burt. Image from AbbieBetinis.com.

Though Alfred passed away in 1954, the Burt family tradition lives on! In 2001, Alfred Burt’s great niece, Abbie Burt Benitis, renewed her uncle’s legacy of sending Christmas greetings complete with new carols. Now a professor of composition at Concordia University in Saint Paul, MN, Benitis has set music to texts written by her Uncle Alfred, her Great-Grandfather Bates, and Wihla Hutson. Her mother, Emily Burt, has helped each year in the creation and mailing of the cards. Last December, Benitis sat down with John Birge of Classical Minnesota Public Radio to talk about the Burt family tradition and share her new carol for Christmas 2016, “Sing Him to Sleep.” How remarkable that this talented family continues to add new music to the American Christmas songbook!


¹More information about the Burt family tradition of annual carol writing can be found at AlfredBurtCarols.com.