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The Magic Of Christmas Music

This column was written by Doug Gamble.
While Grinches continue their campaign to eliminate the word "Christmas" from the national vocabulary and drive the holiday and its symbols underground, they have yet to have any appreciable effect on Christmas music on the airwaves.

At least for now, Yule-song lyrics have not been changed to "I'm dreaming of a white holiday," "It's beginning to look a lot like winter solstice," or "I'll be home for the seasonal celebration." And not only does Christmas music continue to pour forth from radio stations; some around the country have embraced an "all Christmas music all the time" format lasting from the day after Thanksgiving until midnight on December 25.

Earlier this month, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers released results of a survey to identify the most-performed Christmas songs in the first five years of the 21st Century. Not only is the list comprised of the expected old chestnuts, but the number-one song is literally that, "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," officially titled "The Christmas Song."

Others making up the top ten are: "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Winter Wonderland," "White Christmas," "Let it Snow," "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," "Jingle Bell Rock," "I'll be Home for Christmas" and "Little Drummer Boy."

"The Christmas Song" was written in 1945 by a 19-year-old Mel Torme and collaborator Bob Wells during a sweltering summer day in Palm Springs. They decided a way to cool down was to write a Yuletide tune, which they dashed off in a mere 40 minutes.

Singing cowboy Gene Autry is associated with three big Christmas hits, including one he almost passed up. When writer Johnny Marks presented him with "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" in 1940, Autry called it the silliest song he ever heard. He had to be talked into recording it, doing it in one take and then washing his hands of it. He apparently changed his opinion of it soon thereafter, though, when it sold two million records in its first year.

In 1947, Autry recorded a song he had co-written, "Here Comes Santa Claus," inspired by the anticipatory shouts of children lining Hollywood Blvd. as he rode ahead of the Santa float in the Hollywood Christmas Parade. It no doubt drives the ACLU crazy that the song contains both the words "God" and "Lord," the only Christmas song, as opposed to a carol, to do so. Autry followed it with "Frosty the Snowman," penned by Jack Nelson and Steve Rollins in 1949.

When Bob Hope decided he wanted a Christmas song included in his 1951 movie The Lemon Drop Kid, he turned to the song-writing team of Jay Livingstone and Ray Evans, who balked at first, protesting that it was an almost impossible task because all the great Christmas songs had already been written. What they eventually came up with wasn't too shabby, the now-classic "Silver Bells."
Some Christmas songs made their debut during wartime, including a longing for home in 1943's "I'll Be Home for Christmas," by Kim Gannon, Walter Kent, and Buck Ram. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, was introduced in the1943 Judy Garland movie Meet Me in St. Louis and Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" was first sung by Bing Crosby in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn.

As originally written, the Garland song began grimly with, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last." She so hated those five words, the lyrics were changed to, "Let your heart be light." But taken as a whole, it is still one of the most poignant Christmas songs ever written, with an undercurrent of melancholy that captures the way many people feel about this time of year.

Despite its fifth-place standing on ASCAP's list of most-performed seasonal songs over the last five years, "White Christmas" is the chairman of the board of Christmas songs. It is the most-recorded song in history, with Crosby's version alone selling 31 million copies. It has been recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Doris Day to Elvis Presley and Kiss.

"White Christmas" held the record as the top-selling song of all time from its release in 1942 until it was eclipsed by Elton John's horrid song about Princess Diana following her 1997 death, "Candle in the Wind." Not even original, the song was a derivative of one he had written about Marilyn Monroe.

Five years after "White Christmas" was first recorded, Crosby went back in the studio to do it again, because the master version was worn out after millions of reproductions. It is the 1947 version we are mostly familiar with, with Crosby's voice sounding slightly deeper than when he first recorded it.

While some uncertainty surrounds the origins of "White Christmas," many music historians believe Irving Berlin wrote it during the 1937 Christmas period when staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was making a movie at the time, and was homesick for his family, New York, and its seasonal snow. After it was written, the song sat in a drawer for five years.

But if "White Christmas" has done much to fuel the enjoyment of Christmas celebrants around the world, what it did for our troops overseas during World War II is inestimable. Brought to troops in the form of 78-r.p.m. records contained in "recreation kits" supplied by the military, heard on Armed Forces Radio and played on jukeboxes at PX stores and USO halls, it served as a powerful reminder of why they were fighting.

The Buffalo Courier-Express editorialized, "When Irving Berlin set people dreaming of a White Christmas he provided a forcible reminder that we are fighting for the right to dream and memories to dream about."

As expressed by author Jody Rosen in his book, "White Christmas, the Story of an American Song", "'White Christmas' never mentioned the war, yet it was a potent wartime anthem, inciting patriotism in its most primal form: homesickness." He adds, "With its mystical vision of the home to which they longed to return, 'White Christmas' was, for many American soldiers, a 'why we fight' anthem that was true to life." It was more popular with troops than, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," and other fighting songs.

Little known is the fact it was actually the unprecedented demand for "White Christmas" by overseas troops in 1942 that started the song on its journey to the pinnacle of the music charts here at home. On November 21, it began an unprecedented ten-week reign atop the Hit Parade.

On overseas trips to perform at USO shows, Crosby was always asked to do his signature song, no matter the season. Rosen tells of a Crosby appearance before a paratroop unit in France where a gruff, square-jawed sergeant approached him before the show and asked if he was going to sing "White Christmas." When Crosby assured him he would, the sergeant said he would have to duck out. "I'll listen from behind the portable kitchen," he said. "It's no good for the men's morale to see their sergeant crying."

This Christmas season again sees Americans fighting overseas. I haven't come across any polls on the subject, but I have to believe that "White Christmas" and other seasonal songs mean as much to our troops now as they did to their counterparts on earlier battlefields.

The themes and words of many Christmas songs beautifully express the way of life we hold dear. Our country is blessed to have men and women who have always been willing to sacrifice to preserve it, including the sacrifice of being far away from home and hearth during what Andy Williams famously calls "The most wonderful time of the year."

Doug Gamble is a former writer for Bob Hope, as well as for former presidents Reagan and Bush 41. He is also the writer of the song, "It's Happening in Monterey," which made its radio debut on Dec. 4.
By Doug Gamble
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online