It isn’t often that I muse about a song that comes from a story written the same year I was born. Yet, there is one that has become locked into our Christmas folklore, to say nothing of our eardrums!
There is not a child today—or a Christmas display this day and age—that fails to include the newbie ninth of Santa’s reindeer, “Rudolph.” Needless to say, his eponymous song is played way too often in malls and stores this season. Nonetheless, the story and song does deserve a bit of recognition in our seasonal musicological sleigh ride.
In the beginning, the character “Rudolph” was created by one Robert Lewis May (1905-1976), a copywriter for the now defunct, Chicago-based Montgomery Ward department store, in a booklet published in 1939.
May created “Rudolph” for the retail and catalog giant that had been buying and giving away thousands of Christmas coloring books every year. It was decided that by creating their own book they would save money, hence May’s assignment.
The story goes that May, himself Jewish, was staring out his Chicago office window pondering how best to craft a new, marketable Christmas story. Meanwhile, a thick fog from Lake Michigan blocked his view. Inspiration! “Suddenly I had it!” he recalled. “A nose! A reindeer with a bright red nose that would shine through fog like a spotlight!” May considered naming this ninth reindeer “Rollo” or “Reginald” or several other names before deciding upon the name “Rudolph.”
Alas, there was a stumbling block in that prudish day and age. May’s big bosses were concerned that most folks associated a “red nose” with chronic alcoholism and drunkards. So, his idea was rejected. Bah, humbug!
Determined that he was on to something good, however, he asked an illustrator buddy to draw a “cute reindeer” for him, one with a happily bright, red nose. The decidedly PC sketch won over management and “Rudolph” began his trek “down in history!”
Christmas coloring books featuring “Rudolph” were rushed to press and nearly two and a half million copies were distributed. But, the first publication acknowledging May as the creator of “Rudolph” waited until 1947.
By that time, “Rudolph” had become so popular with children around the country that the retailer made a fortune by advertising and selling a host of Rudolph toys and trinkets. Every kid wanted something and the Ward’s mail order catalog was the place to find them.
Anyway, for the two or three of my gentle readers who may not be familiar with the “Rudolph” story, let me quote a dry, academic summary: Our tale is a poetic chronicle of a young reindeer who has an unusually luminous red nose. Mocked and excluded by his peers because of this distracting trait, “Rudolph” is called upon to prove himself one Christmas Eve when inclement weather at the North Pole results in poor visibility thus jeopardizing the yearly mission of Santa Claus. Potential tragedy! But, recognizing a glowing red nose as an instrument rather than an impediment, Santa commandeers Rudolph to lead his sleigh for the annual deliveries. “Rudolph” agrees and is finally lauded by his fellow reindeer for his heroism and accomplishment. Positive triumph!
The story reads better as poetry and, for you English Lit Majors, here is a link to a copy of the original illustrated manuscript—written they say in “anapestic tetrameter,” the same as Clement Clarke Moore’s 1837, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The manuscript is a bit too long to include in this simple musing, but for you of a scholarly bent who would like to pursue it more fully, you can check out the following link (alas, not a YouTube) for an NPR presentation on this–delightful!
Now, to our song!
In 1949, a couple of years after May’s book was published, our story takes an interesting turn. The song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was written by May’s brother-in-law, who happened to be the New York songwriter Johnny Marks (1909-1985). Although he too was Jewish, he specialized in Christmas songs and, along with “Rudolph . . .,” wrote songs like “Rockin’ Round the Christmas Tree,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Alas, most of his non-holiday songs were pretty forgettable. Not so jolly!
In another interesting turn, our song was recorded in 1949 by—of all people—the “Singing Cowboy” himself, Gene Autry! It hit number one on the charts that Christmas.
Autry’s recording sold 1.75 million copies its first Christmas season, eventually selling a total of 12.5 million. Cover versions included, sales exceed 150 million copies, second only to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” a song by another Jewish songwriter, Irving Berlin. Again, go figure!
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a look and listen!
We won’t say anything here about the too many (in my humble opinion) movies and TV specials featuring “Rudolph” and the fact that Montgomery Ward and Gene Autry made a LOT of money from all this. Sadly, not so much went to May and Marks. They, however, well deserve to “go down in history!”
So, just to leave us with an earworm, here are a few interpretations—from the simple to the . . . Click or tap on the triangles in the next images for a bit of Christmas fun!
And, of course, a banjo-ukulee version!
To avoid your own red nose, stay away from too much eggnog, whiskey, or beer this Christmas and STAY TUNED!
Oh yes, stay as thematicaly masked as you need to be!