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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Birth of a Christmas classic

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the debut of one America's most beloved Christmas songs.

The song is “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” introduced by Judy Garland in MGM’s 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis.  Garland simultaneously released a single, out this day,  Dec. 3, 1944, which soared to the top of the charts, cherished both home and abroad during the still dark days of World War II.   U.S. troops especially loved her and the song after she brought it to them on one of Bob Hope’s famous USO tours

Written by Hugh Martin, the song was sung by Garland’s character Esther to her 5-year-old sister Tootie (played by Margaret O’Brien) as a way to help cheer her up on Christmas Eve as their family prepared to move from their St. Louis home to New York City.  

In a true “Writer’s Moment” Martin, who died in 2011, told interviewer Terry Gross (of NPR’s “Fresh Air”) how his famous song almost didn’t come to be.   The song began with the melody," Martin said. "I found a little madrigal-like tune that I liked but couldn't make work, so I played with it for two or three days and then threw it in the wastebasket."   Luckily, his collaborator on the movie, Ralph Blaine, had heard the tune, too — and told Martin it was too good to throw away.  “So, we dug around in the wastebasket and found it," Blaine recalled. "Thank the Lord we found it."  Then Martin went back to work on writing lyrics.

But some of the original lyrics were rejected. They were: "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." Garland and her co-star Tom Drake, along with director Vincente Minnelli criticized the song as depressing, and asked Martin to change the lyrics.  Though he initially resisted, Martin finally made several upbeat changes.  The lines "It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past" became "Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”  And the New York reference was eliminated, and the first version was recorded.

Hugh Martin was 30 when he penned his famous song

I say "first version" because in 1957, Frank Sinatra wanted to re-record it and asked Martin to make one more revision and change a line "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." He told Martin, "The name of my album is ‘A Jolly Christmas.’ Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?" Martin went back to the writing board and came out with a new line: "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough."   It became the key to cementing the song as one of our most beloved during this “most wonderful time of the year.”  Definitely a writer’s moment worthy of sharing, so here’s a link to the version we’ve grown to love so well – as sung by the wonderful Karen Carpenter.  Enjoy.

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