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Jazz Versions of Popular Christmas Carols

Composed by

Various Artists


jazz big band

notes by Katherine Baber

While there are all sorts of traditions and venues for carol singing in the United States, an evening of swinging arrangements is perhaps the most distinctly American version of this Christmas ritual. Many of the songs we still sing each December come from the swing era of the late 1930s and 1940s, when big bands were America's popular music. Even older songs of the season received the jazz treatment in concerts and records by bands led by Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller. Not only were these American carols marked by the swing style, they were also shaped by the circumstances and sentiments of the Great Depression and World War II.

As with many of the songs on tonight's concert, “White Christmas” is emblematic of how the Christmas carol was Americanized. The content of the lyrics, its performance history, and the musical style, including its ready transformation into swing jazz, all speak to its particularly American context. In the winter of 1940, Irving Berlin had just returned to New York City from a stint in Hollywood. Predictably, his mind wandered back to better weather and a scene that should be familiar to most of us:

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There's never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it's December the twenty-fourth
And I am longing to be up North…

When Bing Crosby debuted the song two years later in the Paramount Pictures film Holiday Inn, “White Christmas” (now missing this opening verse) quickly became the most popular song in the United States. It would remain the most recorded and best-selling song ever until the career of Elvis Presley. Presley, of course, also recorded “White Christmas” in 1957, but Irving Berlin hated his version so much that he attempted to have a ban put on the recording. Elvis’s tendency to add an extra vowel or two to everything he sang couldn’t be more different than Crosby’s straightforward delivery. There are hundreds of recordings and arrangements to choose from now, but from its first moments, “White Christmas” captured all that the Christmas carol had become for Americans, and even some of the things it had been since its origins.

Berlin’s casual phrasing and tendency toward monosyllables was perfectly suited to the carol, as opposed to say the sophisticated vocabulary of Cole Porter. The text also focuses on pastoral imagery in its longing for a snowy and presumably rural Christmas. Early carols were influenced by folk traditions, including pre-Christian symbols, and so many of them feature references to seasonal landscapes and midwinter plants in particular: mistletoe, ivy, the ubiquitous Christmas tree, and holly. And on the Christian side, the story of the birth of Christ happens in a pastoral space with a manger full of hay, shepherds, and so on.

Emotionally, the song alternates between wistfulness or nostalgia and a sense of joy, peace, and unity. These sentiments offered comfort for the American public during World War II, but they had also been part of carols for centuries. In the Middle Ages, the carol could be about any topic, but most were celebratory and often designed for processions or dancing. The courtly carol and its “folk” counterpart could also be amorous, and many featured metaphorical allusions to male or female virtues built around English midwinter greenery. The holly was a “male” plant, the ivy “female,” and mistletoe represented accord between the two. Hence the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. Sacred carols could be used in church services, but most of these songs were household or “popular” religious music, largely fostered by the Franciscans. For example, popular versions often took the form of a lullaby for the Christ child, and so many classic carols, like "O Holy Night," feature a triple or compound rhythm that lends itself to gentle rocking.

While European immigrants (except for the Puritans) brought carols with them to the Americas, they were not popularized until the 1830s. This was the era of the temperance movement that, in addition to its central goal of tempering or outright eliminating the consumption of alcohol, sought to redefine Christmas as a family-centered holiday, rather than the occasion for drunken revelry that it had become. Some of America’s central holiday traditions come from this period as well, including the Christmas tree. No New Englander was chopping down a pine tree and dragging it indoors until some savvy businessmen in the mid-nineteenth century appropriated the German tradition and started displaying them for sale in urban centers. This is also the historical moment that saw the transformation of St. Nicholas from the patron saint of (among other things) charitable fraternities, children, sailors, and unmarried girls into the jolly, rotund giver of gifts.

Although many of the carols we know come from this revival of the tradition in the Victorian era, the American experience of Christmas (and carols) now has more to do with the twentieth century, and in particular the two world wars. The theme of peace — heavenly and earthly — that pervaded the early carol became its most important feature in the first half of the twentieth century. In times of hardship (like the Great Depression) and in times of war, the carol offered comfort to Americans and Europeans alike.

In fact, one of the most famous episodes of the First World War revolves around a Christmas carol. In 1914, there was a Christmas Truce, or as it came to be known, “The Silent Night.” While America had not entered the war, Americans felt compelled to comment on the possibility of a Christmas ceasefire. On one hand, the Senate introduced a resolution urging England, France, and Germany to hold a twenty-day truce at Christmas. On the other hand, a hawkish American weekly, The New Republic, dismissed the idea, claiming that “a few carols, a little incense and some tinsel will heal no wounds.” Commanders on both sides of the war agreed with The New Republic. But around sunset on December 24, 1914, English, French, and German troops in the muddy trenches on both sides of the Western Front stopped shooting at each other.

Most of the witnesses agree on a few details: the Germans put up their traditional Christmas trees, and men on both sides exchanged gifts of tobacco, chocolate, or alcohol from the Christmas packages they had received. The other recurring detail, in both contemporary accounts and fictionalized versions, was the singing of Christmas carols, among them “Silent Night” and “O Tannenbaum” ("O Christmas Tree"), both of which were well-known in German and English. Although the spontaneous truce ended the next day and was not repeated during the rest of the war, the legend of the “Silent Night” lingered on in popular culture. For Americans, in 1965, a vocal quartet called The Royal Guardsmen retold the story of the Christmas Truce as a cease fire between the famous comic book character Snoopy and his nemesis, the Red Baron.

The New Deal Era and World War II produced other shifts in the celebration of Christmas and its songs which are still with us. One of these was the further commercialization of the season. President Roosevelt was well aware that Christmas was good for the economy, which is why in 1939, he moved the official date of Thanksgiving from November 30 to November 23, extending the holiday shopping season to four weeks. Incidentally, this move was lightly mocked in Holiday Inn, the film that introduced “White Christmas.” Some of the Christmas carols produced during these years refer more often to gift giving as a custom, and one of them — “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” — was itself a commercial gimmick, published by the Montgomery Ward Department Store.

On the other hand, Christmas became a kind of civil religion. The season and its songs still feature a generalized “good will toward men,” which was important as the holiday took on new significance as a part of the American “Judeo-Christian tradition.” This composite, ecumenical idea was manufactured as a way of dealing with religious services for the armed forces during the Second World War, but it carried over into the postwar era. Will Herberg’s influential book, Catholic-Protestant-Jew, published in 1955, enshrined an idea that already saturated American culture. In fact, many of the producers of that culture were examples of the kind of assimilation on which the notion of a “Judeo-Christian nation” depended, particularly Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood songwriters like Irving Berlin. And Berlin wasn’t the only Jewish-American songwriter who embraced Christmas as a subject: Johnny Marks, the composer of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” was another, as were Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, the lyricist and composer of “Let it Snow." The list could go on, and it makes sense in a period when various rabbis were advocating for the celebration of Christmas, albeit in a secular fashion, and in which Hanukkah became the other midwinter “holiday of light.” The tendency to treat Hanukkah as the “Jewish Christmas,” especially in terms of gift-giving, still lingers.

If many of us also think of the Christmas season as a time for reuniting with family members, then we are also experiencing the legacy of Christmas during the swing era. Because the war began for America shortly before Christmas in 1941, every Christmas season thereafter marked another year at war. And what defined the war for many Americans, both soldiers away and those at home, was displacement. The same was true as the soldiers who came home, seeking education and employment wherever the new opportunities were, all over the country. Families migrated from cities to suburbs, the American workforce became highly mobile, and by the 1950s, many new families lived and worked far from where they were born and raised.

Little wonder, then, that so many Christmas songs from the 1940s and later center on being “home for Christmas.” This relatively new way of perceiving Christmas and the songs of the season was best captured in the 1954 film White Christmas, which Irving Berlin readily agreed to as a vehicle for Bing Crosby and the already wildly popular song. The film is built around nostalgia — for the "good war," for what Tom Brokaw would later call "the greatest generation," and for an idealized New England winter landscape. Although the film revolves around the celebration of Christmas, there are no religious overtones, only a relentless focus on the exchange of gifts, tangible and intangible; on the holiday as an opportunity for the expression of communal good will; and to be with family. Regardless of context, whether during the war or after, “White Christmas” managed to offer comfort and create a sense of community, even if only through the shared desire for a decent snowfall. It helps that the song’s melody and harmony balance hopeful gestures (like the rising line at the beginning and bright or “happy” major chords) with the bittersweet. It is appealing but gently so; never saccharine, gleeful, or jangly.

The same balance is struck in the lyrics and music of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," originally written as a vehicle for Judy Garland in the 1944 film musical Meet Me in St. Louis. Although the song sits firmly in a major key, the melody is wistful and the harmony flirts with the melancholy of its relative minor. The lyrics are full of similar trade-offs. The listener is encouraged to “let your heart be light” since “from now on our troubles will be out of sight” and we have returned to the “happy golden days of yore.” But this phrasing does acknowledge that things have not always been so bright, and even the forward outlook has a caveat: “through the years we all will be together if the fates allow.” One can see why the song was especially popular among U.S. soldiers until the end of the war. And perhaps on the strength of this emotional connection, it continued to be recorded throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and Ella Fitzgerald.

In addition to the deep connections to Americans’ experience of wartime and the return to civilian life, the recording histories of these two songs also show how durable the popularity of jazz-based arrangements has been. Many of the songs on tonight’s program have been a part of this trend. For example, besides “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “White Christmas,” the 1960 album Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas featured “Jingle Bells,” “Sleigh Ride,” “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting…”), “Let it Snow,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” We have perpetually updated traditional music with contemporary musical trends, whether R&B, country, or pop (see the wildly popular Christmas albums of Mariah Carey, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, or Michael Bublé), but the swinging carol has stuck with us. Like Rudolph or the lavishly decorated store windows at Macy’s, it is an American Christmas tradition.

Coming 04/08/23

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