Wednesday, December 15, 2021

A Christmas Repost

It has been a busier than normal day - 'tis the season to be busy, after all - so I'm going to invoke some privilege and repost something I do regularly around this time of year.  

Regulars here know that I'm somewhat of a blues fan.  I've introduced the outrageously talented Joanne Shaw Taylor (coming to my corner of the world in the near future), 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.

I prefer to play this as a fingerstyle guitar piece, playing arpeggios of the various chords on the song.  A guitar played that way 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.  

The problem is that after my finger injury back in September, fingerstyle playing is no longer an option.  At least I haven't figured out a way to achieve that, yet.  The finger is full-sized, and mostly (90%?) functional (some things still hurt too much).  I have somewhere around half to 3/4 of a fingernail on that finger, I just can't quite find a way to use that finger to play the strings.  Other players will understand that when transcribing fingerstyle songs, the notation PIMA is used for thumb, index, middle and ring fingers; nobody just uses PMA.

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. Two spectacular arrangements - peerless. Dougie MacLean's rendition of Auld Lang Syne is a seasonal favorite that we usually associate with the New Year (Hogmanay in Scotland). It reminds me of days past - in Scotland.

    There is also this, from 2013

  2. Robert Earl Keene - Merry Christmas from the Family
    just my sense of humor for a happy holiday
    BTW: Merry Christmas to y'all

  3. Keep working it. I lost the bottom of my left index finger to a Kabar a long time ago- it will, eventually, numb up enough to play.

  4. "Oh Holy Night" is a family favorite. We here at the Beans' Household go for straight singing, non-jazzing, non-futzing too much with the actual score and words and please, for the love of God, do not do horrible sliding from note to note like most modern singers seem to think is appropriate.

    Yes, doing some fun stuff with a piece is a-okay ifn it enhances the work. Like Sting's version of "Gabriel's Message." Beautiful, and takes a haunting song and makes it even more haunting. Or some of Enya's renditions.

    What not to do with carols or songs of the season are, sadly, what Neil Diamond did to many (making them sound like they're being sung by drunken lounge lizard) or Babs Streisand (see above not about sliding from note to note in a bad way.) Yikes. Just, well, makes Baby Jesus weep, it does (or it should do, and this is a guy who slept through a drum solo so he could sleep hard.)

    Fond passion for the Bach/Schubert arrangement of "Ave Maria."

    "Coventry Carol" is another one. Especially since it does touch on Holy Innocent's Day (Dec 28th) and, well, Catherine, my older sister, never met her, tears and such. Good song, minor key, song of loss, song of hope.

    And... Elvis. His voice does Christmas songs well. "Blue Christmas" is one of my favorite. And his version of "I'll be home for Christmas," well, his voice just brings out the emotions on that one. And "White Christmas." And he even makes the cheesy ones sound passable, if not good.

    I especially like the old Christmas Carols like you sung in church on Christmas Day. Done by good choirs.

  5. My favorite Chrismas song:

  6. The melancholy and somber tone fits my experience of Christmas more closely. never been a joyful time

  7. I once attended a high-church Episcopal Christmas eve service; the congregation knelt while the choir sang "Silent Night" unaccompanied. As the last note hung in the air the organ blasted out a triumphal fanfare and everyone rose to sing "Joy to the World" at the top of our lungs. Wow. That's my favorite traditional carol along with "In Dulci Jubilo" aka "Good Christian Men Rejoice" and the German "O Du Fröhliche". For a more secular style I like "Santa Baby" and "Feliz Navidad".

  8. Beans is apparently my spirit animal. I agree 100% with 'Oh Holy Night.' And Elvis being on constant rotation in my household, 'Blue Christmas' gets heard about once a week during the holidays.
    My wife started learning English as a teen by watching Elvis movies and listening to his music. The fact that I taught her the other 75% of her English and gave her a slight Boston accent along with the Brazilian trill did not improve her singing, sadly.

  9. "Gaudete" from The Medieval Babes - female Gregorian Chant and very haunting. "Carol of The Bells" from David Foster - a very powerful piece of music!
    For something that was totally unexpected - and a real tear jerker - try listening to "Someone Is Missing At Christmas" from Anne Cochran. The first time I heard it, the tears wouldn't stop.
    For something pretty upbeat and fun, try Loreena McKennitt's rendition of "Good King Wenceslas"!
    Merry Christmas everyone!!!