Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Pandemic Holiday Songs: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

Judy Garland: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

I’ve reached my holiday song limit, having been listening for days to various traditional and nontraditional seasonal music, but this holiday music theme runs for a bit longer, and so here I am. 

There are a bunch of articles that I’ve seen recently arguing that “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is the perfect song for this year’s less-festive-than-usual holiday season. But that’s really only true if you focus on the original version of the song, originally sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 film, Meet Me in St. Louis, and not what is probably the most famous cover, by Frank Sinatra, who had the lyrics changed in 1957 to make the song more optimistic (although he did sing the original lyrics in a 1948 recording). 

In the movie, Garland’s character sings the song to her younger sister. The clip is above. 

Coming out during World War II, the song’s message hit home with soldiers and those on the home front who were missing soldiers, with lyrics about how everything will be better “next year.” The Sinatra version, following Ol’ Blue Eyes’ directive to “jolly it up,” declares that all the troubles are gone “from now on.” Where the original version pined for the time when “Someday soon we all will be together/If the fates allow,” and acknowledged that “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” in Sinatra’s version, we’ve already been together through the years, and rather than muddling through, we are supposed to hang a shining star on the highest bough. 

There are other changes, and you can read more about them here, but the key thing is that Garland’s version recognizes that things are not great, but there’s hope for the future, while Sinatra’s celebrates how good the current situation is. And that’s why the original is a great pandemic song, while the later version might be better for 2021. By the way, the original original lyrics to the song were even bleaker—for example, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past,” which was rejected by Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, and replaced with the less creepy version that appeared in the movie. 

Not surprisingly, the jollied up version has been covered more often than the darker original, although Ella Fitzgerald remained true to the Garland version in her swinging1960 cover, as did Swedish sistes First Aid Kit in their folky recent cover. (I’m sure there are others that hew to the original, but the generally pretty accurate cover website SecondHandSongs lists nearly 1600 versions, and writing for this blog is just a hobby). For what it is worth, Garland sang a hybrid version to her children on a 1963 TV special, so she must not have been too offended by the change.