Musical Outreach by Michael Garber

Giving music to others to lift their spirits and make them feel better!—that’s music outreach.

White Christmas Print E-mail
This is the most famous secular song about Christmas—and also the most famous, most-recorded Tin Pan Alley song of all time. It was written by the songwriting master, Irving Berlin, at the peak of his powers. Introduced by Bing Crosby (and Martha Mears, dubbing for actress Marjorie Reynolds) in the 1942 movie musical, Holiday Inn, the song became a favorite with US soldiers far from home during the years of World War II—as well as with their families back home. It was a song of peace in a time of war.

This is the most famous secular song about Christmas—and also the most famous, most-recorded Tin Pan Alley song of all time. It was written by the songwriting master, Irving Berlin, at the peak of his powers. Introduced by Bing Crosby (and Martha Mears, dubbing for actress Marjorie Reynolds) in the 1942 movie musical, Holiday Inn, the song became a favorite with US soldiers far from home during the years of World War II—as well as with their families back home. It was a song of peace in a time of war.

Born to Russian Jewish parents, son of a cantor, Irving Berlin immigrated to the USA with his family and, until he went out on his own following his father’s death, lived in the ghetto of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Irish neighbors would invite him over for their Christmas celebrations. Widowed young, Berlin eventually fell in love again and married an Irish Catholic heiress, Ellin Mackay. (They sent their children to a Protestant church—just so not to unduly influence them!) On Christmas Eve, 1928, their second child, a son, died before he was four weeks old.

For Christmas, 1937, Berlin was in Beverly Hills, California—away from his family for the holidays for only the second time. He got a pleasant surprise: a short film of his family wishing him a merry Christmas. It was probably then that he first drafted out “White Christmas,” for he told his friend Mile Kreuger—the famous historian of musicals—that he wrote the song in Beverly Hills. By February, 1939, Berlin was including the idea of a “White Christmas” number in various drafts for unproduced musicals. In January, 1940, his musical secretary Helmy Kresa wrote down the melody. On December , 1940, he copyrighted it as an unpublished song.

They filmed Holiday Inn from November 1941 through February 1942. Bing Crosby heard “White Christmas” for the first time and said: “Irving, you won’t have to worry about that one.” Crosby introduced the song publicly on his radio show, on Christmas Day, 1941. He recorded it commercially, with the Ken Darby Singers, in May, 1942; and the movie was released in August. The song became a huge hit, with Crosby’s record followed by those by Charlie Spivak, Gordon Jenkins, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, and others, including Elvis Presley and Andy Williams. Although Fred Astaire co-starred in Holiday Inn, “White Christmas” is certainly the most famous song from one of his films with which he was never associated!

After the success of “White Christmas,” the secular Christmas ballad became a prominent genre: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (1943); “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1944); “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” (1946); and “Blue Christmas” (1948)—all these and many more followed in its wake.

In the 1946 movie, Blue Skies, again co-starring Astaire and Crosby, the latter is pictured singing a shortened version of the song for soldiers in the South Pacific, as they seem to think longingly of home. Then the song inspired a new movie, White Christmas, in 1954. Co-starring Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, it also was a tremendous success. Both these films had all-Irving Berlin scores.

Through this song, Bing Crosby acquired an association with Christmas that ended up dominating his career in his old age, manifested in many recordings and in his holiday television specials.

It is very difficult to find out information about Martha Mears—which is a shame, considering that her voice helped introduce what is, internationally, the most famous song in the Tin Pan Alley tradition. The actress seen on screen, Marjorie Reynolds, had a few further years of Hollywood fame and, in the 1950s, was in television’s Life of Riley series.

The music and lyrics for this song are still in copyright and cannot legally be featured on the internet. Jody Rosen has written a whole book called White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, and he includes the words for the chorus at the front of the book. The complete lyric is in Reading Lyrics, edited by Gottlieb and Kimball. I own the sheet music in Irving Berlin Holiday Songs folio.

 

Other Songs

Jody Rosen quotes musicologist Michael Beckerman, from a December 20, 1998 New York Times piece, in saying that the harmony of the fifteenth and sixteenth measures of the refrain of “White Christmas” (where the lyric talks about sleighbells) are identical to the harmony in a part of “Jingle Bells.”

From the second to the sixth note of the refrain, there is a chromatic melodic phrase that Berlin used again in the first phrase of his 1948 hit song, “It Only Happens When I Dance with You,” which Fred Astaire did get to introduce in the movie Easter Parade.

Irving Berlin had a hit with the song “Easter Parade” in 1933 (from his Broadway revue, As Thousands Cheer). That song is part of what inspired him to do an entire musical built around holiday songs—and, thus, “White Christmas” entered our lives!
 

 

Relevant Categories See All Tags



Powered by Joomla Tags

 
< Prev