At this stage in life a funny thing happens in addressing a new Christmas season.
It’s pace is reminiscent of an old Groucho Marx song from the 1936 film hoot, Animal Crackers: Hello, I must be going, I cannot stay, I came to say, I must be going. I’m glad I came, but just the same, I must be going. Only Groucho, right?
This 2014 holiday is so different – it tracks back to fresh Christmases around 1943. That year’s music season was complicated for small fry – with Spike Jones’ hit, Der Fuehrer’s Face. “Face” creatively parodied the Nazi anthem, accompanied with superb Bronx cheers; the other choice was, of course, America’s popular crooner, “Der Bingle”. For today’s readers, Der Bingle was a nickname bestowed upon Bing Crosby…by the Germans during World War II. Musically there it was: Spike Jones City Slickers vs. “the groaner”. Unsurprisingly, Crosby would prevail.
Living those early years in Tappahannock, VA – by the river, my grandparent’s home was high above Prince Street, directly across from the Riverside Hotel. Holiday festivities abounded at the Riverside; the hotel was frantic with planned Christmas parties, dinner gatherings – all accompanied of course with contemporary Christmas music. That’s where our introduction to Irving Berlin’s (Israel Baline) unrivaled hit, White Christmas, occurred.
White Christmas would be the runaway smash-hit for the World War II holidays; years later, reputed to be the best-selling record of all time. The popular song resonated with American families – now separated by war, or distant work, and inundated with war-fear and insecurity. At the time, Irving Berlin shared with an interviewer, “Songs make history and history makes songs.”
Truthfully, Americans generally did not long for Christmas snowfalls – on the river we called them snow storms – even after Berlin planted the idea. The lyrics were particularly influential on northeasterners, now uprooted to the non-seasonal, snowless west coast. Slate’s Jody Rosen, who wrote: White Christmas – The Story of an American Song; and Berlin biographer, Philip Furia, brought huge insight to what was, for us, a seemlessly sentimental – verging on melancholy – celebration of Christmases – with vast separations.
The lyrics themselves are unorthodox. Furia points out how different the structure of the song was: “I’m” with a whole note – then racing over the other syllables before the next whole note, “w-h-i-t-e”, Christmas. Simultaneously, Rob Kapilow, lecturer, notes that the minor chords for ‘listen’ and ‘glisten’ border on simple heartbreak…and sadness. I remember thinking that as we sang it in the Douglas Freeman Glee Club so long ago.
All this is richly explained in Roy Harris, Jr’s WSJ piece, White Christmas and the Reasons it Endures, many years ago. His inquiry suggests where Berlin got his inspiration – as a Jewish youth in Brooklyn, like many others, the composer’s holiday experience was that of an outsider. Others surmise that the loss of an infant son, Irving, Jr., on Christmas Eve, 1928, brought an edge to his sadness annually. We lost an infant son in 1966 – it is always with us.
Philip Furia examined the potential influence of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” since both the poem and Berlin lyrics evoke a beautiful, melancholy scene. Clearly the expanded radio business was altered by war….transcription was now developed. The invention of the “disc jockey” allowed the 78 record to be played endless, bringing it to new audiences, month after month. Juke boxes by the thousands replayed it on and on – so it was.
Christmas at my grandparent Latane’s passed nicely. Big fireplace fires brought security and warmth from cold winds off the Rappahannock River. The tree was decorated with dancing lights – if one blew, all lights failed. It was testimony of one’s limitations when figuring out which festive bulb bummed out. Chasing dead Christmas lights sometimes consumed hours, becoming part of holiday ritual. That year we added White Christmas to our holiday inventory.
In Tappahannock, in 1943, I can still here the melodies stream from the hotel, across Prince Street, up the bank to that Grandparent home of long ago – intuitively knowing it was then special – and probably forever.
Is it really Christmas, 2014?