Muddling through the holidays

In the spirit of the season, I often reminisce about great holiday songs that have interesting backstories, especially if they provide a business lesson or two.

Every time I pick up the guitar to play “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”—arguably the most popular Christmas classic of all time—I’m reminded of two things: the song has a “copyright question” and there are entirely different versions of it.

The ownership issue is small potatoes compared to many such controversies, notably who wrote “Jingle Bell Rock,” which I’ve previously written about here and here. (Singer Bobby Helm and guitarist Hank Garland may have lost $100 million in royalties on that one. And there was a possible murder attempt on Garland’s life to shut him up about it. But we digress.)

In the case of HYAMLC, Hugh Martin, who wrote many songs with Ralph Blane, claims he wrote this tune by himself and was unaware at the time that he was giving away half the songwriting income by letting Blane’s name appear on it. (I wrote more about this here.) Fortunately, later in life he was not bitter about it, blaming only himself for being ignorant of copyright issues. But it’s a perennial lesson to pay attention to who’s claiming ownership of intellectual property.

More interesting to me is that Martin originally wrote the melody with different words—which explains why altered versions of the lyrics appear from time to time. When it was offered to Judy Garland for the movie Meet Me in St. Louis in 1943, she rejected the song at first because the words were too lugubrious.

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.

Obviously a downer. Told to give the lyrics a happier spin, Hugh Martin resisted at first. But eventually he relented and wrote the lyrics that Judy Garland sang in the movie, making it a—if not the—classic Christmas song.

Yet the title and hook line, though meant to be sarcastic in the original version (“merry little Christmas”) survived. As did the line, “we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” though Martin later changed that to “hang a shining star up on the highest bough” at Frank Sinatra's urging.

The lessons here? It pays to be flexible. Martin’s first version of his song with the depressing lyrics would have gone nowhere, but he “took the correction” and turned the song into an evergreen classic. Also, optimism triumphs over pessimism most days of the week—especially in the entertainment business.

But a taste of irony also works. The song has added depth thanks to the conflicting feelings of the author and the resulting ambiguities in the final version. Judy Garland's masterful performance of it is hopeful but certainly not jolly. In the movie she recognizes that her family is going to have a tough year ahead.

But their job—and our job—is to find peace in the muddling.

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  1. Yeah, there are so many ways to measure "the most popular" holiday song. Downloads, record sales, radio play, number of covers, etc. Both of the songs you mention could claim to be #1. I think I read that "Jingle Bell Rock" has received the most radio play, but who listens to radio anymore? But there's something so unique about HYAMLC—so heartbreaking despite the more optimistic (revised) lyrics—it will always be my favorite.

  2. Yes, but...

    1. There’s sadness in the moment because the family is soon to be dislocated by the war, at least in the Judy Garland version. (In later versions, the lyrics are all about a happy present with no thought to the future.) So Garland's character is yearning for the time in the future when they all will be together again, hopefully. And her little sister (brilliantly played by young Margaret O'Brien) has tears in her eyes as she listens. Very emotional scene.

    2. But there's another layer here. Call me crazy but I think there's a DNA in a song as it’s originally created that defies rewriting and subsequent renditions and versions. The original lyrics—quoted above in the post—suggest they might not EVER see each other again. And if so, only if the Lord (later changed to "the fates") allows. That sentiment, I’m suggesting, is energetically embedded into the melody, conjuring up all the displacement and trauma of WWII—though many listeners won’t consciously make that connection. Later Martin changed the words for Garland so there IS some hope. But I’m saying the melody STILL tracks the heavy emotion of separation and ultimate loss. Most who lived through WWII have traumatic memories of it and the song carries that load. Garland herself is swept up in that, singing a deeper message perhaps than she intends. But the cruel irony of it is left intact with the lines “merry little Christmas.”

    The result is one of the finest songs ever written.

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