UKULELE MUSING 48, 14 DECEMBER 2019: “RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER,” and the Author and Songwriter Who Will Also “Go Down in History!”
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.
There is not a child today—or a Christmas display—that fails to include the ninth of Santa’s reindeer, “Rudolph!” Needless to say, our Yellow Book recognizes this with the (probably way too often played in malls and stores this season) song “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
The character “Rudolph” was created by Robert Lewis May (1905-1976), a copywriter for the now defunct 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 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.”
A stumbling block in that 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.
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 sketch won over management and “Rudolph” went “down in history!”
Free Christmas coloring books featuring Rudolph were made and 2.4 million were distributed, but the first publication of Mark’s book about “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 one and the Ward’s mail order catalog was the place to find them.
Anyway, for the two or three of my followers who may not be familiar with the “Rudolph” story, here is 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 in “anapestic tetrameter,” the same as Clement Clarke Moore’s 1837, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas:”
Link to May’s Original Manuscript: https://www.npr.org/2013/12/25/256579598/writing-rudolph-the-original-red-nosed-manuscript
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,” another song by a Jewish songwriter, Irving Berlin. Again, go figure!
Gene Autry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVewSzpa44g
We won’t say anything here about the way-too-many 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, will also “go down in history!”
So, just to leave us with an earworm, here are a few interpretations—from the simple to the . . .—of our little red-nosed Christmas tale:
Kindergarten Class: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c81df_u-XOk
Ella Fitzgerald/Bing Crosby: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0Ac6-zrhp4
John Denver: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJ3nsBag5pU
Ray Charles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-3INb4E26k
Jackson 5: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_p1YFKVNL4
Destiny’s Child: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HS097wGdVp4
The Supremes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0acyD5iEaPU
Punk Rock: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zUjf78p92WI
A La Hamilton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7sm49fHlyI
And, of course, Banjo Ukulele: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wl9JfRGMdcI
To avoid your own red nose, stay away from too much eggnog this Christmas and STAY TUNED!
On another note, a disclaimer:
It seems that there are a lot of political ads popping up on YouTube these days and some may nudge their way into my musings. Needless to say, I DO NOT approve or endorse any of these. My intent has always been to share with friends some facts and have some fun musing on songs and ukuleles. Alas, we are going to have to live with all this folderol for the next year or so. SAD.