Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Creepy Christmas Classics #1: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

Hey, it's Christmas Carol time again! Everywhere you go this month, you'll hear all the classic carols you've heard ten thousand times before, whether you want to or not. Oftentimes I wonder how some of these songs ever became classics. My theory is that the public hears them so much that they don't listen to the lyrics anymore, rendering them meaningless. If they did actually sit down and listen, half of these so-called "classics" would be stricken from the list.

One of my all time LEAST favorite Christmas carols is Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. This slow, dirge-like lamentation is the ultimate downer. The tune is languid and soporific and the lyrics are downright suicidal. It's a sure-fire guaranteed mood killer. I am honestly mystified at how it became a beloved holiday song. In fact whenever I hear it I usually turn it off if I can.

Every time I hear it I can't help but picture some lonely, down on his luck guy in a wife-beater shirt, sitting at the kitchen table in his dingy apartment lit by a single bare bulb. He's taking shots from a bottle of hooch and when it's empty he's going to pick up the revolver on the table, jam it under his chin and pull the trigger.

The song was written for the 1944 Judy Garland film Meet Me In St. Louis, which as you can probably tell from the title, isn't even a Christmas movie. It's the story of a family who has to leave St. Louis right before the 1904 World's Fair and move to New York City. In the film, Judy Garland sings the song to cheer up her little sister, basically telling her she'd better enjoy this Christmas, because next year's really gonna suck. Believe it or not, the lyrics were originally even MORE depressing than they are now.

Here's the original version:

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 will all be living in New York.
No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore,  
Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.
But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow,  
From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow.  
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Quite the peppy little ditty, eh? Hopefully you didn't rush to the kitchen to stick your head in the oven after reading those lyrics.

Garland supposedly thought the song was a bit too morose (you think?), and asked the songwriter to lighten it up a smidge. Folks, when chronically depressed pill-popper Judy Garland thinks your song is too dark, you know you've gone over the top.

So the lines, "It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past" were changed to "Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight."

That helped slightly, but it was still pretty funereal.

In 1957 Frank Sinatra wanted to sing the song for a Christmas Album he was recording, and asked his composer to punch it up a bit. As you don't disobey the Chairman of the Board if you want to continue owning kneecaps, he complied.

Frank's composer changed the line "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow," to "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough."

These lyric changes helped somewhat, but the central problem remains unchanged: the slow, dreary, melancholy melody. Marlene Dietrich sang peppier torch songs than this.

So there are now three different versions of the song, in various strengths of depression: Downer, Depressed, and Extra-Strength Suicidal. Many singers like to go back to the song's roots, so you'll hear at least two of the versions this holiday season, guaranteed. If you're unlucky enough to be exposed to this holiday dirge, I prescribe staring at a basket of kittens or playing with a litter of puppies for half an hour. You have been warned.

3 comments:

  1. If you've seen MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, you know the context of the song...it's performed by members of a family who are expecting to leave their home town, as the father is taking a new job in New York.

    ReplyDelete
  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=htHx-LRe9yQ
    I can't help but read this and then immediately send you this version of this song.

    ReplyDelete
  3. @tomservo: If you've seen MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, you know the context of the song...it's performed by members of a family who are expecting to leave their home town, as the father is taking a new job in New York.

    Which I explained in my post. I understand the original context of the song, but why did anyone think it would make a suitable Xmas carol?

    ReplyDelete

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