UKULELE MUSING 2020–12 December 2020, No. 52: A Melancholy “White Christmas”

Alas, I am of an age and circumstances that thoughts of seasonal snowfalls revolve more about the punctuality and skill of our “plow guy” than the transformative beauty—and holiday spirit—of the winter landscape.     

But, gentle readers, I digress  .  .  . So, back to the theme of my musing!  

During the early and middle years of the last century, music of the holiday season was in the form of traditional Christmas carols or what could best be called secular “jolly Santa or St. Nick” tunes. 

But, during the early World War II days, with so many families with members in the military, a sense of longing for “home for the holidays” took hold. 

Last week’s musing (N0. 51) touched on one of these songs, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”   But that was only the B-side of the recording that became the granddaddy of all holiday songs—“White Christmas.”

White Christmas” is an Irving Berlin song with lyrics reminiscing about the memories of an old-fashioned, traditional Christmas setting. 

The first recording was by Bing Crosby and released early in the war years—1942.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it was, and still is, the world’s best-selling song with estimated sales of over 50 million records worldwide!   Tap or click on the next image or link to hear Crosby’s original, unvarnished version of the song.

It was only when Armed Forces Radio began to play the song that American troops, in their first winter overseas, found its images of Christmas on the home front so appealing.   

White Christmas” spoke to the longing, nostalgia, and homesickness of the troops for home and for the sweethearts and wives and mothers and fathers they’d left behind. And, I’m sure, ukuleles!

 It was the enthusiasm and dreams of these GIs who were actually deployed at sea or on snowless islands that propelled the song and made it a hit.

Accounts vary as to when and where Berlin wrote the song.   In fact, a lot of folks at the time believed that he was back in the Army  .  .  .

.  .  .  and himself deployed on some tropical battlefront longing to be back home in the relative comfort and safety of New York’s Tin Pan Alley. 

In fact, most song historians tell us that he wrote it (actually polished up an old tune from his vast file) in 1940, in warm La Quinta, California, while staying in one of those posh, palm treed hotels fancied by the Hollywood elite. The seldom sung intro to the song reflects this–alas, nowhere on YouTube!

At least it shows up in the sheet music. And with ukulele chords!

The story goes that, after staying up all night composing, he sensed that he had a good thing going and told his secretary, “I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote!” Who can argue with that?   

It has often been noted that the mix of Christmas melancholy—”just like the ones I used to know”—with comforting images of home—”where the treetops glisten”—resonated especially strongly with listeners during World War II. 

The song established that there could be commercially successful secular Christmas songs—in this case, written by a Jewish-American songwriter who, not so incidentally, was the composer of “Easter Parade” and “God Bless America.”  

It turns out, the song has a sad back story too.  Berlin’s three-week-old son had died on Christmas day in 1928, so every year on December 25, he and his wife visited their baby’s grave.   However, Berlin thought of Christmas as more of an American holiday than a religious celebration and is known for having a family Christmas tree and gift giving in his home. And, we have the gift of his song.       

In 1942, our song was featured in the film called “Holiday Inn” and cemented its popularity here in the US.

The movie brought together Crosby and Fred Astaire along with Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale.  The song “White Christmas” won the Academy Award for best original song that year. Click or tap on the next image or link to see the film version of our song. 

Our song was was reprised in the 1954 film, also starring Crosby, unsurprisingly titled “White Christmas.”

Now, if you don’t have an earworm already, click or tap on the next image or link to see the costumed and choreographed (a bit over the top?) 1950s version.

Although Crosby dismissed his role in the song’s success, bantering later that “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully,” he was associated with it for the rest of his career.  Just go to any shopping mall this season and I’m sure you’ll hear his crooning once or twice or, probably, more!

Although you won’t find “White Christmas” in either our Blue or Yellow books, or in either of “Jumpin’ Jim’s” holiday songbooks, there are dozens of tutorials on YouTube. I’ll go with a couple of ukulele versions of our song that are too good to pass up. Click or tap on the next two images or links to hear something that, probably, only we strummers will appreciate!

Also, we have a few ukuleles that reflect the mood of a white Christmas even though we would need to dig out our fingerless gloves,and have a sip or two of “Black Jack,” to get into the strum of things!

So, as we head toward the Winter Solstice, be on the lookout for the inevitable white stuff, seal the contract with your plow guy, stay warm, stay safe, stay (sadly) distanced, stay masked . . .

I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas Face Mask | Bobotemp

. . . and STAY TUNED!

Oh, yes. Forget politics for a bit and think snow!

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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