The American Christmas Songbook: “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” (1945)

Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. Courtesy of Getty Images.

On Friday, we learned how composer Mel Tormé and lyricist Bob Wells wrote “The Christmas Song” in an attempt to get their mind off the blistering heat Los Angeles was experiencing in July of 1945. Apparently, they weren’t the only songwriting team in town inspired by the triple-digit figures on the thermometer to dream about winters up north. Over in an office on Hollywood and Vine, the not-yet-famous Broadway composer Jule Styne and lyricist Sammy Cahn decided that rather than spending the hot summer day at the beach, they would craft a tune about winter weather. The result was “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” It’s hard to imagine that a song dedicated to frozen precipitation was composed in 100+° temperatures in Southern California.

The first edition of sheet music for “Let it Snow” with a photo of Vaughn Monroe.

The song sets the scene of a fellow who is reluctant to head out into a snowstorm after spending a romantic evening with his sweetheart. He suggests that, since there’s no immediate need for him to leave, the two stay by the warm fire, pop some popcorn (that he had evidently brought with him and withheld until that point), and turn the lights down low. It seems she obliges, as the final verse mentions the fire slowly dying and how they’re still “goodbye-ing.” This vignette sounds awfully familiar to, but much less morally questionable than, the exchange between two lovers in Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Loesser wrote his tune a year earlier (in 1944), but it was not recorded until he sold the song to MGM in 1948 to be used in their upcoming film, Neptune’s Daughter (more on that in a forthcoming post). It’s possible that Cahn and Styne may have heard the song at one of Loesser’s Christmas parties before writing “Let it Snow,” but it’s rather unlikely.

“Let it Snow” was quickly handed off to vocalist and big band leader Vaughn Monroe to record for RCA Victor. It was released in time for Christmas 1945 and reached #1 on the Billboard Best Sellers chart by late January. It’s a lovely recording, complete with full, brassy big band spectacle, but it’s not the most familiar version to ears over seventy years later. Woody Herman released his own arrangement with his orchestra for Columbia Records that reached #7 while Monroe’s was at #1, but it is also unknown to most modern listeners. More popular recordings include Frank Sinatra and the B. Swanson Quartet’s (single, Columbia, 1950), Jo Stafford and the Starlighters’ (on Happy Holiday, 1955, Columbia), and Ella Fitzgerald’s (on Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, 1960, Verve). However, the cover that has best stood the test of time, with its recognizably cheerful piccolo duet in the first few bars, is Dean Martin’s recording featuring an orchestra led by Gus Levene from the 1959 album A Winter Romance (Capitol). The album includes other Christmas standards, as well as Styne and Cahn’s warm-weathered counterpart to “Let it Snow,” “The Things We Did Last Summer.” Much like A Winter Romance, “Let it Snow” was not created with intentions of it becoming a Christmas hit. In fact, nothing explicitly holiday-related is mentioned in the lyrics. Nonetheless, the song has become an essential number in the classic American Christmas songbook.

The American Christmas Songbook: “The Christmas Song” (1945)

Another November has come and passed, and though the church has not yet even begun observing the season of Advent, chances are that you’ve already been listening to (of your own volition or not) Christmas music. In fact, Sirius XM satellite radio subscribers could begin tuning into its two most popular Christmas stations, Holiday Traditions and Holly, on November 1. That’s a bit too early for me personally, but I recall seeing several friends post on Facebook about how happy they were to be hearing yuletide favorites once again. And frankly, who can blame them? This year, more than ever, the lyrics to Jerry Herman’s “We Need a Little Christmas,” (from Mame, 1966) come to mind:

For we need a little music,
Need a little laughter,
Need a little singing,
Ringing through the rafters,
And we need a little snappy
“Happy ever after”
We need a little Christmas now!

And thus, I’ve decided to share posts over the next 16 business days leading up to Christmas in which I’ll shed some light on the conception of some of our most beloved Christmas melodies. As I am admittedly one who can grow tired quickly from hearing the same tunes recycled, re-imagined, and replayed over and over again, I thought that you, like me, might find a new appreciation for them by learning the stories of their origins.


Mel Tormé with the King Cole Trio. Courtesy of Getty Images.

We’ll start with a classic that most people know by the opening line rather than the title, The Christmas Song. According to the composer, Mel Tormé, he and his lyricist partner, Bob Wells, wrote the song in about 45 minutes on a particularly hot July afternoon in 1945. Tormé recalls, in his 1988 autobiography It Wasn’t All Velvet, that he entered Wells’ house in the San Fernando Valley and found a writing pad on the piano with four lines of verse:

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos

By the time Wells greeted his guest, Tormé had already began setting the verse to song. What started as a mental escape from the crushing Los Angeles heat quickly became a lush ballad that was destined for fame. The songwriting duo were so pleased with their spontaneous work that they immediately drove over to Hollywood and performed it for their manager, Carlos Gastel. Among Gastel’s other notable clients were Peggy Lee, Stan Kenton, and the legendary Nat King Cole.¹

Cole fell in love the melody immediately, but it wasn’t recorded until a year later, on June 14, 1946, at WMCA Studios in New York City for then-four-year-old Capitol Records. This recording, however, was immediately shelved and only released in 1989–by accident–when Rhino Records included it in a compilation album.² It features only the King Cole Trio with Oscar Moore on guitar and Johnny Miller on bass. Cole insisted, at the displeasure of Capitol Records, that the Trio re-record it two months later, this time adding four strings, a harp, and drums. The organization of the music is essentially the same, with the opening chords played by the strings instead of the piano and Moore’s quote from “Jingle Bells” played with major seventh chords at the end. Perhaps still unsatisfied–probably because he had previously sung the grammatically incorrect “reindeers” in the earlier recordings–the King Cole Trio (now with Buddy Cole taking Nat’s place on the piano, John Collins on guitar, and Charlie Harris on bass) recorded the song again in 1953 at Capitol’s studios in Hollywood, this time with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. This version quickly replaced the August 1946 recording for use on radio and compilation albums, but it is still not the recording most often heard today.

The definitive recording was captured nearly eight years later on March 30, 1961, at Captiol’s studios in New York City for inclusion on the album The Nat King Cole Story, a collection of his hits re-recorded in stereo. This version features a full orchestra conducted by Ralph Carmichael with orchestrations by Charles Grean and Pete Rugolo. The improved recording technology produced a significantly better cut, with much warmer vocals from Cole and a better balance with the orchestra. The same dramatic opening from the strings and the signature closing “Jingle Bells” quote on the guitar from the very first cut remain. This would be Cole’s last studio recording of the song that he made a hit–he passed away in 1965 at the age of 45 from lung cancer.

Since then, the song has been covered dozens (if not hundreds) of times. Mel Tormé recorded many renditions himself, and for an appearance on The Judy Garland Show in 1963, he added an introductory verse with new lyrics and concluded by singing, with Garland, the second half of “Here We Come A-wassailing.” My favorite version, which should come as no surprise to my friends, is from The Carpenters’ 1978 album, Christmas Portrait (A&M). Please enjoy this video of Karen lip-syncing it for their 1977 ABC television special, The Carpenters at Christmas.

Come back Monday when we’ll learn about another song that was inspired by LA’s summer heat wave of 1945!


¹Tormé, Mel. It Wasn’t All Velvet: An Autobiography. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Viking, 1988.

²Various artists. Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits, 1935-1954. , 1989. Sound recording. The liner notes indicate that this is the August 1946 recording with strings, but the track used was in fact the June 1946 recording with only vocals, guitar, and bass.

News & Events: August 28, 2017

Check out our Instagram Wall in the Mullen Library Instruction Room!

Welcome, Class of 2021!

New Login/Authentication Method – Please remember that in May, the authentication method for accessing library resources, including My Library Account, was changed. CUA faculty, staff, and students no longer use their last name and 7-digit ID number to login to My Library Account, place CLS/ILL requests, or access online resources off campus. Instead, users are prompted to login using their Cardinal Credentials (network/email username and password). If you need to reset your password, please visit https://computing.cua.edu/password/index.cfm. Students from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family and Visiting Scholars  will need to request Cardinal Credentials from Technology Services. If you have verified that your Cardinal Credentials are up to date, but are still not able to log in, please contact Access Services in Mullen Library at 202-319-5060.

Music Collections now in Mullen Library – The Music Library branch in Ward Hall closed in May, and over the summer, the collections were relocated to Mullen Library. You can find most of the collection now in 1 North of the stacks, while music DVDs and some musical theatre scores are available at the Circulation Desk. If you need any assistance finding items in the music collections or help with music research, please contact the liaison librarian for Music, Thad Garrett, at garrettt@cua.edu.

Liaison Librarians – Each field of study at CUA has a Liaison Librarian available to provide research assistance and library instruction. To find your liaison, please see the complete list by subject at libraries.cua.edu/about/subjlibs.cfm. To schedule an appointment with your liaison, please visit cua.libcal.edu.

WRLC and Beyond – When CUA doesn’t have the book or article you’re interested in, there are two services available to help you get what you need:

  • Consortium Loan Service (CLS) – CUA is a member of the Washington Research Library Consortium, a partnership between nine universities in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Our online catalog will show results from all nine WRLC libraries. When CUA doesn’t have the item you need, but another university in the consortium does, you can request that the book be delivered to CUA for you to check out at Mullen Library. To learn how to place a request through the Consortium Loan Service (CLS), check out this short video.
  • Inter-Library Lending (ILL) – If none of the WRLC institutions have the book you need, we can search beyond the consortium to find a library that is willing to lend us their copy through Inter-Library Lending (ILL). The easiest way to submit an ILL request is to first locate the book’s record on WorldCat. To learn how to submit an ILL request, watch this short video.

News & Events: May 15, 2017

Summer Hours – Beginning today, Mullen Library’s hours of operation will be as follows:

Mon-Thu: 9:00 am – 9:00 pm
Friday: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
Saturday: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
Sunday: 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm

For a complete listing of our hours, including holidays and special closings, please visit http://libraries.cua.edu/about/hours.cfm.

Relocation of Music Collection – During the summer, the collections and services of the Music Library located in Ward Hall will be consolidated into Mullen Library as those of the other branch libraries have been during the past year.

If you need help locating specific scores or books during the relocation of the collections please contact Access Services staff in Mullen Library at lib-circulation@cua.edu. Faculty needing to place items on course reserve should write lib-reserves@cua.edu. Students and faculty are encouraged to arrange for research consultations through the Meet With A Librarian service, http://cua.libcal.com, or by contacting Thad Garrett directly, garrettt@cua.edu.

Change to Login Method – Effective today, CUA faculty, staff, and students will no longer use their last name and 7-digit ID number to login to My Library Account, place CLS/ILL requests, or access online resources off campus. Instead, users will be prompted to login using their Cardinal Credentials (network/email username and password). If you need to reset your password, please visit https://computing.cua.edu/password/index.cfm. Students from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family and Visiting Scholars  will need to request Cardinal Credentials from Technology Services.

News & Events: May 1, 2017

NEW JOURNALS THROUGH JSTOR – The University Libraries is excited to announce the addition of JSTOR’s Arts & Sciences XIV,  Arts & Sciences XV, and Jewish Studies Archive to our online holdings. Together, these three collections will provide the CUA community access to approximately 350 new journal titles.

  • JSTOR Arts & Sciences XIV – Journals in the collection span 17 countries, 23 disciplines, and date back to 1839. They are drawn primarily from the fields of archaeology, language & literature, communications studies, Asian studies, political science, and education. Click here for a list of titles.
  • JSTOR Arts & Sciences XV – Extensive coverage in the humanities, social sciences and sciences, including literature, film, art, music, religion, classical studies, history, education, economics, political science, and sociology. A list of titles is available here.
  • Jewish Studies Archive – Features journals that cover a unique range of historical and regional aspects of Jewish Studies. Comprising more than 50 titles, this collection includes published content dating back to 1889, as well as titles in English, German, French, Dutch, Italian, and Hebrew.

To determine if the University Libraries provides access to a particular journal, in print or online, use Journal Title Search. To search for articles by title, author, or keyword, use SearchBox for Articles on our homepage, libraries.cua.edu.

FINALS WEEK – For finals week, we are pleased to provide:

  • 24-Hour Access – Mullen Library will be open around the clock Monday through Friday. Saturday, Mullen will be open 9 am to 5 pm.
  • Coffee, Tea, and Snacks – Visit the May Gallery in Mullen Library for refreshments.

ATTENTION GRADUATES – If you will be graduating this semester, please make sure your library account is in good standing before May 12. You may do this by logging into My Library Account to check for any outstanding library loans or unpaid fines. Unpaid fines or overdue items will result in a hold on your account and prevent graduation. If you have any questions regarding your library account, please contact Access Services at 202-319-5060 or lib-circulation@cua.edu.

News & Events: April 10, 2017

Collegiate Church of San Gimignano, New Testament cycle: the Last Supper, Lippo Memmi

HOLY WEEK SCHEDULE – Mullen Library will observe the following hours during Holy Week and Easter:

Wednesday, Apr 12: 8am – 5pm
Thu – Sat, Apr 13-15: 9am – 5pm
Sunday, Apr 16:  CLOSED
Monday, Apr 17:  11am – 11:30pm (limited services after 11:30pm)

FOUNDERS DAY GIVING CHALLENGE – Make a gift today of any amount to the University Libraries, and you will be counted in our Founders Day Giving Challenge! Throughout the day, $130,000 worth of gifts will be unlocked as we reach donor goals. To direct your gift to the University Libraries, select “Mullen Library” under “Specific areas of support.” Help us make a difference for current students in honor of the 130th anniversary of The Catholic University of America!

MEET WITH A LIBRARIAN – CUA students and faculty can now schedule a consultation with a librarian through Meet with a Librarian. Our librarians are available to meet with you about finding useful information resources, using a citation style, developing a research strategy, and much more. Please allow at least 24 hours between requesting a meeting and your suggested meeting times.

 

News & Events: April 3, 2017

FOOD FOR FINES + DIAPERS FOR DOLLARS – Monday, March 27 through Monday, April 10, for each nonperishable food item donated at Mullen Library, get $1 off outstanding fines. For each unopened package of diapers, get $2 off per diaper!* Donations will benefit the Capital Area Food Bank.

*CUA overdue fines only; lost item replacement fees and other WRLC fines not eligible.

CENTER FOR ACADEMIC SUCCESS AND WRITING CENTER – Need some extra help in one of your courses? Want to take your writing to the next level? Check out the the Center for Academic Success and the Writing Center on the second floor of Mullen Library. To learn more, or to schedule an appointment online please visit the Center for Academic Success’s website at http://success.cua.edu/ or the Writing Center’s website at http://english.cua.edu/wc/.

HOLIDAY CLOSINGS – Mullen Library will observe the following hours during Holy Week and Easter:

Wednesday, Apr 12: 8am – 5pm
Thu – Sat, Apr 13-15: 9am – 5pm
Sunday, Apr 16:  CLOSED
Monday, Apr 17:  11am – 11:30pm (limited services after 11:30pm)

News & Events: March 27, 2017

FOOD FOR FINES + DIAPERS FOR DOLLARS – Monday, March 27 through Monday, April 10, for each nonperishable food item donated at Mullen Library, get $1 off outstanding fines. For each unopened package of diapers, get $2 off per diaper!* Donations will benefit the Capital Area Food Bank.

*CUA overdue fines only; lost item replacement fees and other WRLC fines not eligible.

THE CATHOLIC ARCHIVES IN THE DIGITAL AGE  – The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives will be hosting a free conference, “The Catholic Archives in the Digital Age: The Fate of Religious Order Archives,” in the Pryzbyla Center on March 29th, 2017 from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm. The event will feature a range of scholars and archivists of the American Catholic experience and archival stewards of religious order records. For the full schedule and to register, visit the website: http://iprcua.com/2017/03/29/the-fate-of-religious-order-archives/.   The conference is generously funded by the Our Sunday Visitor Institute, and sponsored by the American Catholic History Research Center/University Libraries, the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, and the Department of Library and Information Science.

MEET WITH A LIBRARIAN – CUA students and faculty can now schedule a consultation with a librarian through Meet with a Librarian. Our librarians are available to meet with you about finding useful information resources, using a citation style, developing a research strategy, and much more. Please allow at least 24 hours between requesting a meeting and your suggested meeting times.