Posted by: Jim E | March 30, 2011

Merry Little Christmas…A Trolley…And Goodbye To Hugh Martin…

I know, you may say…”Hey, it’s March 30th and you are writing about Christmas?”…and my reply is…well, I love Christmas all year round…but that isn’t the reason…Hugh Martin, who wrote “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” died March 11, 2011 at the age of 96…one of the last of the song writers who could talk about that time…you know when “The Great American Songbook” was written…most of those writers are gone…and now Hugh Martin is with them…you may say, what’s the big deal…but I tell you these were special people who put together songs that met people where they were at the time…Oh, it happens today probably…but not in the same way…

And though we have troops overseas and there are good things happening for them here at home…but during WWII when the whole country was following and suffering “with” the troops overseas everyday…and songs where being written for them and for those left behind…I won’t take the time now and describe that further…except name a couple of songs…”I’ll Be Seeing You”…”As Time Goes By”…”I’ll Walk Alone”…”It’s Been a Long, Long Time”…and many others…all speaking to those who had gone to war…

One of the films that Hugh Martin wrote songs for was “Meet Me In St. Louis” (here’s the trailer for the film) a wonderful Judy Garland film…I hope you have seen this film…if not you should…a great musical of the period…great color…great actors…the title song “Meet Me in St. Louis” was written in 1904 for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis…and the film, though released in 1944 and a smash hit by the way, was about the Smith family of Kensington Avenue, St. Louis in 1904…so the title song was an old song, though a great one, but they needed some new ones…that is where Martin came in along with his friend Ralph Bane…both new songwriters but well known for their musical talents…they wrote three new songs to go along with period songs of the film…”The Boy Next Door”…”The Trolley Song”…and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”…now let’s take them one at a time…

First, “The Boy Next Door”…the next few words I don’t know what I am talking about…but here goes…”a ballad whose device of suspended dominant-ninth chords” beguiled Sinatra…”The musicologist Alec Wilder claimed that the verse contains more repeated notes than any other song – 24 repeated notes, in fact. And there is a very dear and sweet reason for them. They support the lyrical information as to the contiguious street addresses of the girl and ‘The Boy Next Door'”…For I live at fifty-one-thirty-five Kensington Avenue/And he lives at fifty-one-thirty-three”…It’s on of the loveliest moments in the entire American songbook, and it’s all one note…enjoy…

The second song was “The Trolley Song”…it was suppose to be about that particular mode of transportation…not crazy about writing one about a trolley…they wrote a song to sing on a streetcar, not about one…and were told to go back and rewrite it…about a trolley…so reading about streetcars…they came across a caption under a picture: “Clang, clang, clang, went the trolley”…so that’s what they wrote…”Clang, clang, clang, went the trolley/Ding, ding, ding went the bell”…a terrific song…”this one has a natural drive across its 86 bars that takes your breath away, right to the finale’s ingeniously rhymed extension”…“As he started to leave/I took hold of his sleeve/With my hand/And as if it were planned/he stayed on with me/And/It was just grand/Just to stand/With his hand/Holding mine/To the end of the line!”…enjoy…

The third song was a real winner…the plot of the film was the Smith’s family moving to New York right after Christmas…so this was to be their last Christmas in their old St. Louis home…and the future was unknown…a scene was written where Esther (Judy Garland) comes home from a Christmas Eve dance and finds her youngest sister Tootie (Margaret o’Brien) still awake and sitting at the bedroom window hoping to see Santa Claus…Martin and Blane were to write a song that captured all the uncertainty hanging over the family…so “they went away and came back with a very melancholy minor-key melody and downright bleak lyric:”…Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas/It may be your last/Next year we may all be living in the past…

Judy Garland ran through the lyrics and then said, “Don’t you think these are awfully dark?”…she was, after all suppose to sing them to a 7 year old girl…”They’ll think I’m a monster if I sing that to little Margaret O’Brien. They’ll think I’m a sadist.”…this was 1944, remember, Judy had been singing to the troops, and believed strongly that, when you’re sad, you want hope…Hugh Martin dug in his heels and refused to change a word…Tom Drake (the boy next door) Judy’s love interest in the movie…finally convince Martin that he would be a fool not to change the words…he had a potential winner here…so they went away and came back with this: Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas/Let your heart be light/From now on our troubles will be out of sight/have yourself a Merry Little Christmas/make the yuletide gay/From now on our troubles will be miles away…That was more like it…so Esther (Judy Garland) with the help of a music box…sings it to Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) in the bedroom windowand the rest is…well…in the movie…enjoy…

Meet Me In St. Louis was a blockbuster…the biggest hit at MGM since Gone With The Wind…and Judy Garland’s performance of the song was very popular…the film is set in 1904 but the audience it was addressing was 1944…whether you were shipping out overseas or waiting for someone who’d been gone a long time, the idea of a question mark over next Christmas wasn’t some remote concept applicable to the people in the movie…yet a decade after the film “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” showed no signs of becoming a standard…that is until Frank Sinatra decided to sing it in his new Christmas LP…there was just one problem…he wasn’t happy with on particular line: “Someday soon we all will be together/If the fates alow/Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow”…

“Muddling through” didn’t seem quite right to Frank…so he called up Hugh Martin…”The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas“, he said…”Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?”…Martin didn’t say no to Sinatra…and instead of “muddling through”…he substituted: Hang a shining star upon the highest bough/And Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas now…this version became “the song”…the “jolly version” made it a standard…and hundreds of singers have used the Sinatra lyric…all the way up to now…but you know…Judy Garland’s version of the song seems the best to me…maybe it’s the movie, the color, the costumes, the era, the feelings of WWII…I don’t know…but I know I like the song…and knowing some of the background makes it even better…dontcha think???

And so to Hugh Martin thanks for your work…born August 11, 1914 at the beginning of WWI and died just a few short days ago March 11, 2011 at 96…and thanks for the songs of this film…they will live on as part of the Great American Songbook…and all of us will love that one special song each and every Christmas season…Thanks again…Rest In Peace…


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