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Late Songwriter Tells “Merry Little Christmas” Story

Stop The Presses!

Have yourself a melancholy little Monday, knowing that the man who wrote "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has died. Hugh Martin, a Hollywood golden-age songwriter, passed away in his Encintas, California home at age 96, family members reported.

I talked with Martin at some length a few years ago when I was writing a feature story on his most famous composition for Entertainment Weekly magazine. The history of the tune is stranger and more delightfully tortured and/or charmed than most people know, with different versions of the lyrics that took it from fatalistically pessimistic to guardedly upbeat to downright religious.

(Although the song is credited to Martin and Ralph Blaine, the two partners had a Lennon/McCartney-style collaboration, where they would write separately but take joint credit—and Martin said this Christmas perennial was his sole work.)

Here are some previously unpublished excerpts from our 2006 conversation:

Q: ASCAP is reporting that "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has gone from being the third most-played Christmas song in their catalog to No. 2 this year. But you still have to catch up with Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song."

MARTIN: Oh, good, we're coming up in the world. Wonderful. The nice thing is that Mel and I are mutual admiration people, because he loved my song and I loved his song, "Chestnuts Roasting..." As a matter of fact, he said that he was inspired to write his song from hearing my song, so I feel that we're kind of buddies on that.

You never think, "Darn that Mel Torme"?

I never mind yielding to Mel, because he was such a great musician. You'd probably be surprised if I told you who did my favorite version of my song, next to Judy Garland [who originated it in the film Meet Me in St. Louis]. It was Mel Torme! He recoreded it and wrote an original new verse for it, which was absolutely beautiful.

One difference between his song and yours is that his is happy and cheerful no matter how you do it. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" can be performed in a variety of moods—happy or sad.

That's right. It had a lot of pathos in the movie, as you remember. The only reason I like my song a little bit better than Mel's is because his talks about Santa Claus and reindeer, and with mine, I tried to get away from that. Because to me, Christmas is not Santa Claus and reindeer, it's Jesus... I know Diana Krall has done a nice version this year. Have you heard any new versions of my song that you particularly liked?

I can't say that I liked it, but the strangest new version I heard was by Twisted Sister.

Ho ha ha! I can't wait to hear that one. That's a hoot.

A strange point of movie-music history is that "The Trolley Song" from Meet Me in St. Louis got an Oscar nomination for best song, but "...Merry Little Christmas" did not.

I know. When they had the meeting with the publisher, each one of us was supposed to say which song we thought had the best chance for being a commercial success, and I was the only one who said "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." I feel vindicated, because the others were voting for either "Trolley Song" or "The Boy Next Door." "The Trolley Song" was a quick hit, but it faded quickly, whereas the Christmas one took a long time to build. It was about 10 years before it ever became popular, after the movie, and I didn't think it was ever going to happen, and it finally did.

"The Trolley Song" became a staple of Saturday Night Live, when the Sweeney Sisters characters would end every medley with a bit of the song.

Oh, I didn't know that!

It was a running joke in the early '90s. I wondered if you got a check every time they did that.

Well, I probably do. I love Saturday Night Live, and I'm thrilled that they used it. Is there any way I can hear that?... I almost got killed once in Brussels, Belgium when I was in the army. This streetcar was suddenly bearing down on me, and I jumped out of the way. And as I jumped, I saw something that looked sort of familiar. So I followed the streetcar to see what the sign said, and it said "Great success... Decca Records' 'Trolley Song'." I was almost killed by my own song.

Tell me the story of how Frank Sinatra's changes to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" helped make it a smash after all.

Frank called me to ask if I would rewrite the "have to muddle through somehow" line. He said, "The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas, and I want to keep it jolly. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?" And I said, "Of course, for you, I'd do anything." So I wrote the line about "hang a shining star upon the highest bough," and he used it. Since then, it's been a little confusing, because half the people sing one line, and half sing the other. 

A friend asked me to make sure Sinatra didn't just change the line himself, because he was notorious for making songwriters mad by doing that.

No, he did ask me, and he loved the one I sent him. And wasn't I lucky to have him sing it? What an artist he was. You know, I didn't appreciate him as much when he was alive as I do now when I play his records and realize how much better he is than anybody else, except maybe Tony Bennett.

Every time I get a new batch of Christmas CDs in the fall, I'm always in suspense, putting on the new versions of the song and even fast-forwarding to see which version of that line they'll sing. About 80% of the time, by my estimation, it's the "hang a shining star" version, which, honesty, disappoints me a little.

I still kind of like "muddle through somehow." It's just kind of so down-to-earth. I just like it.

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When I got out of the army, I couldn't wait to go to a record store. I didn't have a record player or anything; I was just living in a hotel. But I couldn't wait to hear Judy's original cast version. And I was appalled when I heard her version of it on the first recording, because she got the lyrics wrong. She sang, "Faithful friends who were near to us will be dear to us once more." And it should be the other way around, of course. But they did evidently have her come in and loop it, because on the later versions of the cast album, it was straightened out. But that song has gone through more metamorphoses than any song I can think of.

I understand the very first version of the song you wrote was much more depressing.

Hysterically lugubrious. I just blush every time that I read it, but that was the way I wrote it, and I was so hurt when they didn't like it. They laughed at it when I sang it for them! They said, "We love the melody. We can't possibly use that lyric." I said "Why not? I love that lyric!" They said, "It's so dreadfully sad." And I said, "Well, I thought the girls were supposed to be sad in that scene!" And they said, "Well, not that sad."

[Here are some of those original unused lyrics Martin wrote for the scene in which Garland ponders the family's movie away from home: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last/Next year we may all be living in the past.../No good times like the olden days/Happy golden days of yore/Faithful friends who were dear to us/Will be near to us no more..."]

So I finally wrote another one. It took me a long time to get over my pride, because I really didn't want to give in. But it was Tom Drake, the "boy next door," who convinced me that I should do it. He was a nice fellow and friend of mine, and he said, "You stupid {S.O.B.)! You're gonna foul up your life if you don't write another verse of that song." So I went home and wrote it.

Didn't Judy Garland protest that dark first draft, too?

She said, "If I sing that to sweet little Margaret O'Brien, they'll think I'm a monster!" And she was quite right, and I was quite wrong—I'm happy to admit it.

I was Judy's accompanist at the Palace, you know, for 19 weeks in 1950. That was a wonderful experience, because I think she really was the greatest entertainer of the century. Marvelous lady.

So the two of you had a good relationship coming out of the movie?

We had a wonderful relationship at the Palace. I didn't get to see much of her during the movie, because her coach didn't even let me set the keys. I didn't get to know her well till we played the Palace, where, believe it or not, we shared the same dressing room. They were short of dressing rooms, and Judy said, "Well, why don't we just put a sheet down, and Hugh will be on one side and I'll be on the other, like Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night?" So we were dressing room mates for 19 weeks and really talked about everything and became fast friends.

We didn't have too good a time on A Star is Born. She brought me out to California to work on that, and she was like a totally different lady, because she was heavy on drugs and furious with everybody. I think she was terrified that she wouldn't make a success of it. I think she was just so frightened that she fired everybody. She didn't have to fire me because I quit. I got so upset at the way she was talking to me that I finally just jumped in my car and drove back to New York! I didn't even say goodbye to anybody; I just left. I had done four vocal arrangements for her, which are in the movie without giving me any credit, which I don't think is very nice. They were so mad at me for leaving, they didn't give me screen credit. But Judy and I made up later, and we were good friends at the end.

Was it just coincidence you got that job accompanying her at the Palace, if you hadn't really known her on the movie?

I'll tell you how it happened. I don't usually bother people for house seats. And I called Judy at the Waldorf and said "I hate to bother you, Judy, but I'm just dying to see your opening night and I can't get tickets for it. Do you suppose I could buy some of your house seats?" She thought for a minute and she said, "I think that would be so ordinary. I think it would be much better if you sat on the stage with me and played for me."

Going back to "Merry Little Christmas," was Judy's version not a hit at the time it came out?

Well, the whole movie was such a hit that that was a hit in the sense that it was part of the movie. But it did not become a radio hit. I think Frank was the second one [when he first recorded it, still with the "muddle through somehow" line], and then nobody did it after that. I was very disappointed. And then about 10 years later, it just began to mushroom.

Isn't there an even newer, religious version of the song?

A friend named John Fricke called me a few years ago and said that he had sung it in church, because he couldn't think of a hymn that he knew, so he wrote a little Christian version of my song. And then I collaborated with him on a version now that is on sheet music and occasionally done in churches or recorded. There is a recording by Kevin Cole that is goose-bump time. It makes me very happy. 

The song is kind of like a Rorschach test. Some performers do the happy version, some the sadder version... and some do the happier version of the lyrics but still find some melancholy in the tone they bring to the song.

I love what you said about the Rorschach test. I think you're right, absolutely, because it's been done a thousand different ways.

The only close comparison I can think of is "I'll Be Home for Christmas," which is also bittersweet and can kind of go either way.

That's true.

And as with "I'll Be Home for Christmas," people have said that your song taps into wartime sentiment.

I'm glad you mentioned that. I never thought of the war at all. I was thinking of the movie and just trying to be a good songwriter and to find the right song for that scene. But of course I was thrilled that it did become connected with soldiers and nostalgia and family. But that was not with any credit due to me. It just happened. 

All I know is, I'm grateful to God for sending it to me, because I really wasn't trying very hard. I was just noodling at the piano, and it sort of just came out—God's gift to me. I wouldn't have much money if it weren't for that song. None of my other songs have been great moneymakers. But Christmas has been old reliable. 

Thanks for talking with me, Mr. Martin.

Oh, thank you very much. Your questions were very intelligent. Sometimes I get some real dummies. 

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