Meet Me in St. Louis was on last night, and you’d best believe we’d never miss it. Of course, the most enduring musical moment from that film is Margaret O’Brien’s performance of “I Was Drunk Last Night, Dear Mother.”
Oh, and there’s also Judy Garland’s introduction of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a song whose original words were so dark Garland pleaded with the composer Hugh Martin to dial them down a bit. He resisted, but gave in at the insistence of the male lead, Tom Drake.
The result was a remarkably powerful performance, but the song didn’t really catch on until about a decade later, when Frank Sinatra chose to include it on a Christmas album. The problem, as Sinatra put it to Martin, was that the title of his album was “A Jolly Christmas with Frank Sinatra,” and the song was decidedly melancholy. Sinatra asked Martin to “jolly up” the lyrics.
Comparing the two versions, the change in the song’s meaning is marked. Garland is singing about putting up a brave front — muddling through somehow. “Next year,” she sings, “our troubles will be miles away.” Since the Smith family are planning a move to New York, you could read that line literally as well as figuratively. And when the movie was made, it wasn’t certain that the Second World War was in its final months. Would everything really be better next year? It’s a message of hoping against hope that things really will get better. And you’re not quite certain she’s really convinced of it. Especially when she ends with, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas now.” Be opportunistic, because you can never be sure what the future holds.
Sinatra’s version is much less reserved in its optimism — hey, we’re always gonna have these great times together, and every Christmas the bells will ring-a-ding-ding. Forget about muddling through until next year. Trim up the tree!
There’s no denying Sinatra’s commercial sense — the new version became a standard and has been recorded countless times. Rarely with the old words.
But there’s at least one recording that plays against type: Chrissie Hynde‘s rendition from 1987. Toward the end, even though she’s singing about hanging that damned shining star upon the highest bough, all I’m hearing in her voice is the amount of muddling through she’d had to do.
Yeah, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. But it’s never that simple, is it? Why else would we give pride of place in our homes to a dying tree that’s meant to symbolize the hope for eternal life? But no matter the stew of emotions below the surface, we soldier on and put on a happy face. And we manage to have ourselves a merry little Christmas now.
Wishing you an unabashedly happy Christmas, and a healthy, prosperous and joyful 2014.