Further thoughts on muddling through

I was surprised to see that my first post in this space was seven years ago; even more surprised to see that it has been nearly two years since I seemed to have anything to say. If it’s true that you don’t score on 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take, I guess that means there are still a few goals in this stick.

That first post was about the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and the evolution (verging on bowdlerization) of its lyrics. And here we are, near the end our Our Covid Year, and at risk of wearing out a well-used phrase over the past nine months or so, I hope this finds you safe and well. In our little corner, we seem to be safe, and can at least claim something that passes for well.

If there are two better words to describe the year than “muddling through,” I’ve yet to think of them.

It has been a year of constant adaptation, of plans made tentatively and abandoned with regret, of milestones and holidays allowed to pass without proper recognition. It has been a year of emotional fragility—and of the need to keep the mind occupied as much as possible, because any pauses for reflection led inexorably to sadness . . . and anger and loss. And another realization that there’s still some muddling through to be done.

It reached a point a few Sundays ago where I noticed that Meet Me in St. Louis was on TV, and I just didn’t have it in me to watch. Because of that damned song.

And then it snuck up on me. I was watching Stephen Colbert’s show, and Jon Batiste performed it. With the Judy Garland lyrics and not the Sinatra ones. As he has demonstrated many times this year, Jon Batiste gets it. This is not the time for “from now on”; we‘re in a place of clinging to hopes for next year.

Yeah you right.

This ain‘t the time for from now on. All we can do is pin our hopes on next year. Forget about through the years we all will be together; we’re still waiting for someday soon to arrive, and besides, we’re never guaranteed more than we all may be together.

So, assuming you celebrate the holiday, have yourself a merry little Christmas now. Hope to see some of you again someday soon.

If you’ll indulge me in a discordant postscript, there’s a holiday song that really has really grated on my nerves this year. It’s “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays.”

Because of this part:

I met a man who lives in Tennessee
He was heading for Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie
From Pennsylvania, folks are travellin’ to Dixie’s sunny shore
From Atlantic to Pacific, gee the traffic is terrific

The sad thing — the sick thing — is that you know people are actually stubbornly travelling great distances to be with people they don’t see more than a couple times a year. I think it’s folly, but what are you gonna do?

Anyway, whenever I’ve heard this song this year, I’ve been singing over it: “From Atlantic to Pacific, gee, the COVID is terrific.”

Have Yourself a Merry …

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.