December musings

Xmas tree on waterHey, it's the holidays! (Ok, you didn’t need me to tell you that.) A good time for seasonal ruminations.

As I listen to round-the-clock Christmas music, I’ve become obsessed with stories of holiday hits that may not have been written by those who got the credit—and the hefty royalties. I guess this reflects my interest in both songwriting and the business of intellectual property—but also a concern that folks get what they deserve, especially in this time of gift-giving. I’ve written before about the disputed origins of two standards, which are played endlessly during the holidays...

“Jingle Bell Rock” is the first and most popular rock & roll Christmas song, sung by Bobby Helms and released in 1957. The song is attributed to Joe Beal and Jim Boothe (public relations and advertising guys, respectively). But years later Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland, who played guitar on the recording, claimed he and Helms had to completely rewrite Beal’s and Boothe’s poorly-written original (“Jingle Bell Hop”)—adding new words, new verses, and a new middle section. The two of them considered it “a whole new song.” But Beal and Boothe got the full credit and songwriting riches (in eight figures, spread over time) for one of the most frequently played songs in recording history.

Bobby Helms received royalties over the years as the recording artist, based on sales of his record, but he never received the more lucrative royalties as the songwriter, based on sales of any version of the song AND on radio play of the song. Hank Garland received his work-for-hire fee for the session, and little more. Garland and Helms were never able to prove authorship of the song because they kept no notes of the session. (Garland, who had to stop playing guitar after a 1961 car accident left him partially crippled, could have used the income especially.) Click here to read my earlier post—and reader comments—about the controversy.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is the other holiday standard that has some dispute over authorship. Hugh Martin, who wrote lyrics to many songs based on Ralph Blane’s music, says he wrote this one by himself and didn’t realize he was giving away a fortune by letting Blane’s name appear on it. He also rewrote the lyrics several times for different recordings—as explained here—including the version that Judy Garland sang in Meet Me in St. Louis after she asked for a rewrite because the first version was too depressing. (But in the rewritten form several lines of the original survived, including the title. The words “merry little Christmas” were meant to be sarcastic in the first version!)

Fortunately, Martin was not bitter about the reduced royalties he received and chalked it up to his “naive and atrocious lack of business acumen.” Click here to read my earlier post and reader comments.

As with most controversies about intellectual property there is more than one side to be heard, and in these two cases the principal parties have since met their heavenly reward. (A different kind of royalty payment?) So we’ll never really know the truth—if there even is a truth here, because these matters are so interpretational. But the business lesson here is simple: ignore IP at your own peril!

Another recurring preoccupation of mine these days is how every December is nostalgia season! It’s no accident of course that the perfect image of holiday candles combined with the appropriate holiday tune in the background (like “Jingle Bell Rock”?) will carry us back to a simpler place and time. Perhaps it was many years ago when family members were alive and well and could gather in one place to celebrate the holidays.

Of course this manipulation of images and sounds at Christmas time is meticulously designed to sell us stuff. The business of business is business. But I don’t care anymore! (Resistance to commercialized nostalgia is SO yesterday, isn’t it?) I’ve finally decided to just surrender and enjoy the recollections, even if they're not always jolly.

We've all had special beings in our lives (maybe even some four-legged ones) who have moved on. But the remembrances we have of them—these waking dreams—are real. So let's be grateful for the reminiscences, and for the songs that evoke them.

A peaceful holiday—for all.

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  1. easy for a songwriter (hugh martin) to claim exclusive authorship after his partner has croaked.

    perri is starting to make a name for herself -- deservedly.

    1. You made a similar comment on my original post, and I have to agree. Also, Martin has altered his story somewhat over the years, perhaps because his memory of events changed—as so often happens. As I mentioned in the comment thread to my original post: "When interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR in the 1980s he said he worked on the original lyrics with co-writer Ralph Blane (though many of the lines were later rewritten). Perhaps Martin felt that because he rewrote many of the lyrics, Blane’s contribution was negligible. But Martin did make that claim in his autobiography AFTER Blane had passed away. And I believe Hank Garland made the claim that he and Bobby Helms wrote "Jingle Bell Rock"—after Beal and Boothe (the credited authors) had passed away." But there's lots more to be said on this and I could argue either side of both song disputes.

      Yes, Christina Perri is a talent and her version of HYAMLC ranks among the best, imho.

  2. perri's version does have some peculiarities. if they're together now and "through the years" they're all going to "be together," why do they "have to muddle through somehow" until then?

    1. I think I can explain that. Here are the original lyrics that Hugh Martin wrote for Meet Me in St. Louis that Judy Garland rejected. Though well-written, they’re a serious downer:

      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
      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 Lord allows
      From now on, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
      So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

      (This version also has a lyrical non sequitur. How is it that “at least we all will be together”? Unless he’s making an allusion to the afterlife! That line comes out of nowhere. But perhaps I’m being picky.)

      But in the second version (to appease Judy Garland or the musical director) Martin gave the lyric a lift—providing hope and happiness for the future: “Next year all our troubles will be far away…Faithful friends who are dear to us will be near to us once more/Someday soon we all be together if the Fates allow/Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Still sad but hopeful. And the “merry little Christmas” line retains its ironic bite! This is by far my favorite version, which Garland sings in the movie. (Interestingly “the Lord” becomes “the Fates.” Aha, here’s when the War on Christmas started!)

      Later Martin rewrote the lyrics yet AGAIN, for Frank Sinatra this time, and made it a happier song with everyone together in present time. “From now on our troubles will be miles away…Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more/Through the years we all will be together/If the fates allow.” Then he changed the next line to “Hang a shining star upon the highest bow” (which is brilliantly constructed for the new sentiment). The guy is obviously a master lyricist who rewrote the lyrics twice and BOTH versions are brilliant.

      Perri sings most of version #3 — the happier Sinatra version — but includes the “muddle through” line the first time around (even though, as you point out, it doesn’t make a lot of sense) and later substitutes it with the “hang a shining star upon the highest bow” to give it an uplifting finish. I like the inclusiveness of her approach but I miss the poignancy of the complete version #2.

      As a songwriter I eat this stuff up. Especially how the sadness of version #1 and the bittersweet hope of version #2 permeate the song even when someone sings the happy version #3! Perri sings it with a smile but it’s STILL a gut wrencher. You’d have to be tuned out to not hear the sadness in it. How can this be? Call me crazy, but I believe there’s a spirit that gets imbedded in the DNA of a song that defies subsequent alterations, lyrical rewrites, etc. This song is Exhibit A for that. Now if I can find a business lesson from this theory I’ll write more about it.

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