MUSICAL DECADES - 1940s - Christmas Music
Nothing reminds me of Christmastime like Christmas music. Although the following songs were recorded before I was born, they played every Christmas during my childhood. Just hearing them now takes me back to those times—my family 'round the magical Christmas tree in anticipation of opening presents on Christmas morning and the delicious turkey dinner with all the trimmings that followed.
Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby, Jr. (May 3, 1903 – October 14, 1977) was an American singer and actor. His early career coincided with technical recording innovations such as the microphone. This allowed him to develop a laid-back, intimate singing style, rather than having to project his voice to the back row of the theatre. That style influenced many of the popular male singers who followed him.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Bing’s 1942 version of “White Christmas” (written by Irving Berlin, who was Jewish) is the best-selling single in history. In a departure from traditional carols, the lyrics are secular yet fundamentally nostalgic, which was presumably a source of comfort to a nation in the midst of a horrible war. In fact, the single made its way onto the Armed Forces Radio playlist, which made it a sentimental favourite of GIs stationed abroad and cemented its place in the public consciousness.
Judy Garland (born Frances Ethel Gumm; June 10, 1922 – June 22, 1969) was an American singer, actress, and vaudevillian. She was renowned for her contralto vocals and attained international stardom that continued throughout a career spanning more than 40 years as an actress in musical and dramatic roles, as a recording artist, and on concert stages.
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", a song written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, was introduced by Judy in the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis. The song appears in a scene in which a family is distraught by the father's plans to move to New York City for a job promotion, leaving behind their beloved home in St. Louis, Missouri, just before the long-anticipated 1904 World's Fair begins. On Christmas Eve, Judy's character, Esther, sings the song to cheer up her despondent five-year-old sister, Tootie, played by Margaret O'Brien.
"I'll Be Home for Christmas" is a song recorded in 1943 by Bing Crosby, who scored a top ten hit with it. Originally written to honour soldiers overseas who longed to be home at Christmastime, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" has since gone on to become a Christmas standard.
The song is sung from the point of view of a soldier stationed overseas during World War II, writing a letter to his family. In the message, he tells the family he will be coming home and to prepare the holiday for him, and requests snow, mistletoe, and presents on the tree. The song ends on a melancholy note, with the soldier saying, "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams".
Kim Gannon claimed on at least one occasion that he was not thinking of the soldiers when he wrote the lyrics but of all people who are unable to be home for Christmas. When he pitched the song to people in the music business, they turned it down because the final line was too sad for all those separated from their loved ones in the military. When playing golf with Bing Crosby, however, Gannon sang the song for Bing, who decided to record it.
Orvon Grover "Gene" Autry (September 29, 1907 – October 2, 1998) was an American performer who gained fame as a singing cowboy on the radio, in movies, and on television for more than three decades beginning in the early 1930s. (If you missed it, see my post on Singing Cowboys here.)
From 1934 to 1953, Gene appeared in 93 films and 91 episodes of “The Gene Autry Show” television series.
Gene wrote "Here Comes Santa Claus" after being the Grand Marshal of the 1946 Santa Claus Lane Parade (Now the Hollywood Christmas Parade). He heard all of the spectators watching the parade saying "Here comes Santa Claus!" virtually handing him the title for his song. He recorded it in 1947 and it became an instant classic.
Arthur Fiedler (December 17, 1894 – July 10, 1979) was a long-time conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, a symphony orchestra that specializes in popular and light classical music. With a combination of musicianship and showmanship, he made the Boston Pops one of the best-known orchestras in the United States. Fiedler was sometimes criticized for over-popularizing music, particularly when adapting popular songs or edited portions of the classical repertoire, but he kept performances informal and sometimes self-mocking to attract a bigger audience.
"Sleigh Ride" is a popular light orchestral Christmas music standard composed by Leroy Anderson. The composer had the original idea for the piece during a heat wave in July 1946 and finished the work in February 1948. It was originally an instrumental piece; the lyrics, about someone asking another to join them for a ride in a sleigh, were written by Mitchell Parish in 1950.
The orchestral version was first recorded in 1949 by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra, became a hit record, and a signature song for the orchestra.
Johnny Marks (1909–1985) was a radio producer who wrote several popular Christmas songs. In 1939 Johnny's brother-in-law, Robert L. May, created the character Rudolph as an assignment for the department store, Montgomery Ward, and Marks decided to adapt the story of Rudolph into a song.
The song had an added introduction, paraphrasing the poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (public domain by the time the song was written), stating the names of the eight reindeer:
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer
Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?
Gene Autry's recording hit number 1 in the U.S. charts during Christmas 1949. The song was suggested as a "B" side for a record he was making. Gene rejected the song but his wife convinced him to use it. The success of this Christmas song gave support to his subsequent popular Easter song, "Here Comes Peter Cottontail." The official date of its number 1 status was for the week ending January 7, 1950, making it the first number 1 song of the 1950s.