Hey, 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.