Monday, December 21, 2020

My Annual Christmas Song Post - Expanded

Regulars here know that I'm somewhat of a blues fan.  I've introduced the outrageously talented Joanne Shaw Taylor, and the late country blues master (and songwriting partner to Eric Clapton) JJ Cale.  More appropriate to Christmas, every year around this time I comment on my favorite bluesy Christmas song, “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 Hugh 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.

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 more somber song written during WWII. The change to “...highest bough” (which seems to be the last) was prompted by Frank Sinatra in 1957. According to Entertainment Weekly in 2007:
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?' ”
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 song 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.

I'm not so one-dimensional that this is the only song I can live with for the month, though.  When I play them myself, I tend to start by playing “O Holy Night” although I can't hope to get within a light year of the ability or the vocal range of Kerrie Roberts under any circumstances.

Still, a fingerstyle guitar can approach the sound of the piano in the mix here.  I can't really link to a video that sounds like what I attempt to play because I sit with a piano song book and work from that sheet music. 

And there are more.  If asked to pick my one most favorite Christmas song, as if I could, I'd probably pick one of these two.   There are lots that are fun to listen to once or twice a year, even the cliche' “Jingle Bell Rock” is fun a few times. There are fewer that I could listen to over and over throughout this month.

What are yours?


  1. "Oh Holy Night" sung correctly is just awesomely powerful. Sung correctly, the part where "Fall on your knees, oh, hear the Angels' voices" should make your knees quiver and push you to the ground.

    Schubert's "Ave Maria." Sounds so otherworldly, so beautiful, so elevating (and used during my wedding.)

    "Jesu - Joy of Man's Desiring" by JS Bach, done well on just about anything but mostly on either a 4 manual pipe organ or Spanish guitar. Don't need no steenking singers to impart the beauty and majesty of God's gift to Man.

    "O Tannenbaum," either in the original German or translated to English, with a single voice and light accompaniment, is just another haunting song. (Surprisingly, one of the best is from 'South Park's "Christmastime in Hell." ' as poor Adolph sings it before Satan breaks out CiH.)

    And on that note, "Merry F%#^ing Christmas" from the same above album kind of says it all, and the more I spend time with leftists and liberals, the more time I spend humming and singing that particular ditty...

    Elvish challenges everyone for best modern Christmas songs with "Blue Christmas." His voice, his meter, just pushes the emotions.

  2. Greg Lake doing "I Believe in Father Christmas", the Waitresses with "Christmas Rapping", and Vince Guaraldi with "Linus and Lucy".

  3. O Holy Night by Floor Jansen is just stunning.
    Enyas version of Silent Nigh in Gaelic shows the power of a real singer
    No-one better on Keyboards than Rick Wakeman. Here's his take on 'In the bleak mid-winter'.
    Lastly, just for laughs, the Dropkick Murphys take on Christmas. (Beware - adult content)

  4. "O Holy Night" for sure. Sung by a woman with a great voice and a huge choir and orchestra. The best live version I've heard was Micheal W. Smith at the Dallas Symphony. He had L'angelus backing him up. Here's a more sedate version Live with the Orchestra it was stunning and powerful. I was in the cheap seats behind the orchestra Tears flowing - Bubbling - in front of God and everyone.

    Carol of the Bells as well. Mormon Tabernacle choir.

    And lastly The kinks - Father Chrismas -

  5. Handel's Messiah - in German, the way it was supposed to be.