Regulars here know that I'm somewhat of a blues fan. I've introduced the outrageously talented Joanne Shaw Taylor, the late country blues master (and songwriting partner to Eric Clapton) JJ Cale, and even mentioned my own meager study of the art.
So it might not come as a surprise that my favorite Christmas song is the bluesy, melancholy, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas". The song dates from 1944, is credited to Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine for Judy Garland's 1944 movie, Meet Me in St. Louis, but it's generally acknowledged to be Martin's writing. The somber tone is understandable; Christmas of 1944 was three years into World War II, and many people had undergone the hardship of long separations from or the loss of family members. The war was wearing on the national psyche; the death toll was the highest seen since the Civil War. They were dark days.
It's interesting, then, that Martin has said he wasn’t consciously writing about wartime separations.
In a 1989 NPR program, the authors spoke of having written the first drafts of the song and Judy Garland objected to the lyrics, saying they were too sad. According to Hugh Martin's book:
Some of the original lyrics ... were rejected before filming began. 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."Martin revised the lyrics, getting approvals from Judy and the rest of the production staff. Eventually, Judy Garland made this recording:
You'll note that at the end of the song, the line isn't "hang a shining star upon the highest bough", it's the more subdued "until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow". Much more fitting to a sadder song written during WWII. That change (which seems to be the last) was prompted by Frank Sinatra in 1957. According to Entertainment Weekly,
Among the never-recorded couplets — which he [Martin] now describes as ''hysterically lugubrious'' — were lines like: ''Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last.... Faithful friends who were dear to us/Will be near to us no more.''That request led to the line we hear most often, although Martin says he thinks the original line is more "down-to-earth". "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has become one of the most popular songs year after year. EW says it's second only to the Nat King Cole-popularized "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)". It has been covered by a gamut of artists from Sinatra to Connie Stephens, to James Taylor (who sings something closer to the '40s, Judy Garland version) to '80s metal band Twisted Sister", and many, many more.
Then, in 1957, Frank Sinatra — who'd already cut a lovely version with the movie's bittersweet lyrics in 1947 — came to Martin with a request for yet another pick-me-up. ''He called to ask if I would rewrite the 'muddle through somehow' line,'' says the songwriter. ''He said, 'The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?'''