There's Something About "Merry"
December 21, 2006 6:56 AM   Subscribe

"Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last." "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has had several rewrites since Hugh Martin wrote the original lyrics for 1944's Meet Me in St. Louis. Judy Garland thought the song was "awfully dark" and Martin rewrote the lyrics for her performance in the movie. The penultimate line was "Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow." Frank Sinatra called Martin in 1957 and said, "The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?' Sinatra's version, with its peppier lyrics, became a holiday standard. [more inside]
posted by kirkaracha (32 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Sinatra had previously recorded the song for his 1948 Christmas Songs by Sinatra album.

After getting religion, Martin rewrote the lyrics again, as "Have Yourself a Blessed Little Christmas." (The original lyrics' "if the Lord allows" were changed to "if the fates allow" to avoid religious language.)
posted by kirkaracha at 6:56 AM on December 21, 2006

On behalf of all those who, like me, are over 50: restore the song to the original!!!!
posted by Postroad at 6:58 AM on December 21, 2006

I've always vastly preferred the more melancholy Garland version. I had no idea an even darker version existed. Thanks, kirkaracha.
posted by jrossi4r at 7:04 AM on December 21, 2006

Odd. I have The Sinatra Christmas Album with a 1963 recording of "Have Yourself..." in which he sings the "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" line. I never realised there was another Sinatra version with different lyrics. In fact, I spent much of last night drunkenly explaining to my friends why this song and "Fairytale of New York", with their in-built dread, fear and despair are the only Christmas songs that are worth anything at all.
posted by bunglin jones at 7:08 AM on December 21, 2006

I much prefer the 1944 version. Ella Fitzgerald does that version beautifuly on "Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas".
posted by eustacescrubb at 7:10 AM on December 21, 2006

I think the Judy Garland version is much better than Frank's peppy alternative. And I do like the original darker version. I'd love to hear that recorded.
posted by nooneyouknow at 7:15 AM on December 21, 2006

I think reminding people of death and uncertainty in a Christmas song is about the most enlightened and advanced thing a songwriter could possibly do. Unsurprisingly, though, it didn't fly. People mostly just don't want that kind of realness.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:19 AM on December 21, 2006

This is such a weird coincidence. Just yesterday in a store they were playing Sinatra's original, and the "muddle through" line stuck in my head. I remember thinking "hey, that's not how that line goes! I wonder if Sinatra sung his own version or something." Serendipitous timing, kirkaracha, thanks.
posted by jonson at 7:26 AM on December 21, 2006

Although I generally despise Christmas music, I always thought that "Merry Little Christmas" was one of the worst. It's just so damn condescending. "Oh, why don't you have yourself a merry little Christmas? Oh, you're so precious. Oh, coochie coochie coo! Oh ba ba ba ba!"

But now that I know about this song's dark past, I hate it slightly less.
posted by Afroblanco at 7:31 AM on December 21, 2006

I never knew that original version existed, but I love it now. It's so horrifyingly bleak! Of course, no Christmas song fills me with more existential dread than "Walking in a Winter Wonderland," but that may just be me.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:33 AM on December 21, 2006

The original lyrics sound like someone is about one more drink from offing themselves.

It's surprising how much one line changes the whole tone of the song. The Garland version is so emblematic of the mood of the country during the Second World War -- a little wistful, a little insecure about the future, but a little bit hopeful, too. The Sinatra version veers the whole thing into the shiny plastic kitsch that Christmas turned into after the war.
posted by briank at 7:37 AM on December 21, 2006

I love that original version. Thanks for posting.
posted by languagehat at 7:44 AM on December 21, 2006

Yes, great post. I knew there were lyric changes but not that there were so many.

I've always felt even the "bright" version is a bit melancholy -- sort of a "Wait'll next year" reminder for someone having a lousy Christmas for whatever reason, as well as a none-too-subtle reminder that you'll regret stewing through the whole season after it's over.

Those original lyrics are almost a companion to the funereal birthday dirge popularized by SCA. Which I'd love to hear professionally recorded if anyone ever has.
posted by dhartung at 8:35 AM on December 21, 2006

I never thought to look into why Garland's version seemed so "different". I assumed it was part of her complicated personality manifesting itself. In short, I assumed she made it more wistful, to great effect I might add, rather than asking for it to be made less so. What you learn on Metafilter.
posted by Ynoxas at 8:55 AM on December 21, 2006

And because it played just now, I must mention "Santa's Acid Hawaiian Space Disco" by Mr. Fab and the RIAA (that post is a year old; you'll have to find it on P2P). It mashes up a number of Christmas songs including Bing Crosby singing "Merry", but cutting up the lyrics so that they say, for example

"Hang yourself -- now"

From the Santastic mix tape
posted by dhartung at 8:56 AM on December 21, 2006

It's saying something when Judy Garland says something's too depressing.

MP3 of Ella Fitzgerald singing the 1944 lyrics. (I dunno if it's from Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas or not, but the instrumentation is really fun.)

James Taylor recorded a melancholy version [Real audio] in late 2001.
"I always sort of thought of this song with these lyrics from the movie," he said. "And it resonates more with me this way, with the sort of sadder, more melancholy lyrics. I like it better."
And I missed Martin's reaction to hearing of this recent cover [mp3]. 'Twisted Sisters, is that the group's name? Ha ha ha. That's a hoot!'
A Twisted Sister Christmas CD in 2006? What an age we live in.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:12 AM on December 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

There is a wonderfully morbid streak that runs through the whole of Meet Me in St. Louis in connection with Tootie, played by Margaret O'Brien in the movie and seen with Judy Garland in the clip. Among other things she tricks a streetcar driver into thinking he has run someone down by putting a dummy on the tracks. Also her dolls get sick and die and she buries them in the garden; the family's imminent move to New York causes their exhumation.

At the point that this song is sung she has just been out in the snow in her nightgown smashing snowmen in a destructive/self destructive act of childish desperation -- she's very unhappy. The original lyric, with it's mention of New York is directly tied into the plot; pneumonia would have been thought of as a likely outcome for someone behaving like that. But I think that Judy Garland was right (her character wants to stay in St. Louis too) -- the subdued version that's in the film fits its wistful but still hopeful mood better than the one that actually tells Tootie that she might not survive to see another Christmas.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:35 AM on December 21, 2006

out in the snow in her nightgown smashing snowmen in a destructive/self destructive act of childish desperation -- she's very unhappy.

Name your kid "Tootie" and what the hell do you expect?

I always loved the song, the movie and Garland. And no. I am not gay.
posted by tkchrist at 9:45 AM on December 21, 2006

As with so many artistic issues (and so few in real life, alas), La Garland's instincts here were sound. She knew that the song would follow the very emotional scene of O'Brien's destroying the snowmen and she knew even better her own power as an interpreter. In context, the original lyrics would sound self-pitying and therefore would tend to put the audience off. (I mean, just imagine telling your eight-year-old sister "Faithful friends who were dear to us will be near to us no more!")

The "encouraging" version is much more moving because it shows the Garland character to be focused on someone else's feelings, i.e., the baby sister. It's obvious from Garland's performance that her character doesn't actually believe the literal truth of what she's singing, but she's telling a white lie to try to comfort O'Brien. In a sense (though I doubt Garland ever thought in such intellectual terms) she is using the original lyric as subtext, a complexity that saves the song from sentimentality.

A little off-topic here, but if you watch Garland's performance of the song "Stormy Weather" from her 1960s TV show, you can clearly see her playing the same sort of "contrary" subtext. The lyric says, "Can't go on; every hope I had is gone," but Garland sings with a trace of hope in her tone and body language. All the more heartbreaking, then, to think that this poor battered creature should still believe she can "go on."

But don't get me started about Judy.
posted by La Cieca at 9:49 AM on December 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

It's no Jingle Rock Bell.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:27 AM on December 21, 2006

Kudos the the EW writer for actually digging up an interesting story. That's pretty rare for that magazine.
posted by smackfu at 11:03 AM on December 21, 2006

smackfu, i was thinking the same thing. Entertainment Weekly is correctly abbreviated EW, as in "ewwww".
posted by mikoroshi at 11:15 AM on December 21, 2006

Another nice version of the story.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:53 AM on December 21, 2006

Does anybody else remember that scene in The Victors where the weary US infantrymen, during a pause between battles, carry out the cheery Christmas errand of shooting one their own -- a deserter -- as this song plays on the soundtrack?

(Greatest Generation much?)
posted by pax digita at 12:27 PM on December 21, 2006

This is my very favorite Christmas song, and I pretty much hate them all. I can be in the worst of moods, standing on line waiting to pay for crap I don't really want to be buying, wondering how to fit in all I have to do in not-enough-hours, and the Pretenders version will come on, and I am a teary, sniffling holiday mush ball. Although the Pretenders used the "happy" version of the song, Chrissie's emotional connection comes through loud and clear. Her voice catches in all the right places, and you can practically feel her addressing it to bandmate Jimmy Honeyman Scott, her keyboardist, co-writer and later, inspiration, who died at age 25 of a cocaine overdose.

'I'm surprised that our version is very popular at all,' says Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, whose recording for the 1989 A Very Special Christmas charity album continues to get substantial airplay every year. 'I was in a particularly melancholy mood, so I don't think ours is a cheerful version. Singing it upset me; I was on the verge of tears. I was thinking about relationships, and how things had changed, and the people that I couldn't see and couldn't be with. But maybe that [sadness] is what most people feel at Christmas, and maybe that's why people relate to it.'
posted by thinkpiece at 12:39 PM on December 21, 2006

Another dark Christmas song is Emerson Lake and Palmer's "I Believe in Father Christmas," which ends with the lyric "Hallelujah, Noel, be it Heaven or Hell, the Christmas we get we deserve."

Hope all of yours are merry.
posted by CMichaelCook at 12:45 PM on December 21, 2006

I think that many of those here who prefer the "dark" version must be (shudder) Nick Cave fans or something.

The "cheered up" versions are actually sadder and more affecting generally than the original version. They don't bludgeon you; you can sense the singer's need for some light in the sadness, and it's easier to join along emotionally. It works much better.

I mean, does anyone think "I'll Be Home for Christmas" would be a better song about the loneliness of a soldier if it went into detail about blown-off limbs and battles and such? Subtlety, people.
posted by argybarg at 12:55 PM on December 21, 2006

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is my favorite Christmas song. I wasn't aware of the original version, or even the Judy Garland version. I would love to hear Judy singing this song, since I love her voice so. I just Tivo'd Meet Me in St. Louis.

Nice post, thanks.
posted by LoriFLA at 1:08 PM on December 21, 2006

Judy singing the song. (It's the "her performance" link in the post.)

The Pretenders' "2000 Miles" (YouTube) is a great Christmas song.

The Victors (1963 Time review) was based on the execution of Eddie Slovik, the only American soldier executed for desertion in World War II (out of over 21,000 deserters). In 1960, Frank Sinatra wanted to make a movie of The Execution of Private Slovik, but Joseph Kennedy told him to drop it or get off JFK's presidential bandwagon. The Victors uses Sinatra's recording of the song. (Martin Sheen played Slovik in the 1974 TV movie.)
posted by kirkaracha at 2:18 PM on December 21, 2006

Quinbus, I've seen "Meet Me in St Louis" several times, and I believe Tootie actually runs out into the snow after Judy has finished her song. If I recall, Tootie is sitting in the window, and gets progressively more teary-eyed as the song goes on, and at the end bursts into tears, runs outside, and beats on a snowman in the yard.

Tootie's childishly morbid character is played for laughs. Burying her dolls and talking about death and murder is shown as a young girl's way of acting grown-up, and also to underscore the theme of "fear of change" in the movie. I personally don't think there's a reason to believe the song would have been referencing a little girl on the verge of giving herself a fatal disease by her behavior.
posted by smashingstars at 8:54 PM on December 21, 2006

Following a tangent:

"Those original lyrics are almost a companion to the funereal birthday dirge popularized by SCA."

Now that's a song I'd love to know the origin of. I first heard the birthday dirge well before the early 80s period mentioned in your link -- it was from our church pastor in the mid-70s. The SCA was active then but I don't think this particular person (or parson, ha ha) had any exposure to the SCA. I wonder where the dirge came from.
posted by litlnemo at 2:37 AM on December 22, 2006

Y'all should hear Hey Lord by Suicide. Now that's some bleak Xmas...
posted by klangklangston at 8:55 AM on December 22, 2006

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