Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

I can recall as a child watching the sitcom, Family Matters religiously.  It would air as a part of a series of Friday night shows that were all family-friendly and classic examples of sterile and ideal 90's family life.  We called it TGIF.  Family Matters followed the Winslow family and their patriarch, Carl, through the daily trials and triumphs of being a middle-class family in a Chicago suburb in the mid-90's.

And their video game deal with Activision.

The show was pretty standard as your sitcoms go and since a good percentage of you probably watched it too, I won't spend time going over the finer points and recurring themes in the show.  I will however share that for the entire time the show was on the air, I really had no concept that all of the characters were black, nor that this was anything out of the ordinary.

It wasn't until some time later that I went back and watched the show after being an adult for some time that I realized it.  Now, I take great care to make my point here because:

          #1 I am not a racist 
          #2 I still find this show one of the best sitcoms ever (because whatever the hell you people watch on TV nowadays is pretty much crap).

I still don't understand why it was any better with Charlie Sheen, but I guess you can polish a turd after all.
I couldn't help but realize that some part of me had been irrevocably altered.  I no longer could just look at the Winslow's and say, "Here's that really funny TV family that I used to watch."  Somewhere along the way my brain had absorbed the idea that people could be classified in many different ways, and this is not abnormal.  I have a 3 year old son.  I've watched over the past few years as he comes to terms with this world he was thrust into.  Initially he just began observing patterns in his day and found that "food time" and "play time" and "bath time" and "bed time" were basically the rule.  He began categorizing all new things as based on those initial criteria.

Eventually he'd come across something that didn't fit into any of those four categories (like pizza for example, which is in fact both party and food) and he'd make a new category and keep moving on.  I think this behavior continues on for the rest of our lives.  I think we're always finding new things and putting them into various boxes to label and associate them.  I think it's human nature and by itself is essentially harmless.

It was the reaction I had when I realized the incongruity with how I remembered the Winslow's and how I perceived them in context with my current category system.  I became quite disappointed in myself.  It was like a part of my childhood was wrest from my control.  It wasn't that I felt any differently about the show or that somehow learning that the characters were black was anything bad.

I just didn't have a box for skin color before and now I did.

In 1944 the movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis premiered.  It was a pretty standard plot, family with various age children, living in middle-class 1944, and the oldest daughter (played by Judy Garland) has a crush on the neighbor guy (Tom Drake) and they eventually get engaged despite some comedic hurdles along the way.

The other storyline is that the father has recently received a promotion requiring the whole family uproot and move to New York.  This means, among other things that the family will miss out on the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.  Ultimately, dad decides that moving is a bad idea for his family and they all live happily ever after.

You see, movies before Michael Bay and MTV were like big, 90-minute music videos. Devoid of significant plot, they were designed to provide a fertile place for actual musicians to create their produce and the American public in this era always asked for seconds on veggies.  Of this single movie, Hugh Martin (1914-2011) and Ralph Blaine (1914-1995) had created three hits that still occasionally get radio play today.  The piece we're focusing on today for the second Listening Friday of Christmas 2014 is one of my favorite pieces of music of all time.

Judy Garland's character is trying to convince her younger sister, Tootie, that moving to New York will be alright and that Santa will still be able to find their house.  She sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to calm her.  The song itself has undergone quite a few notable revisions in its history, even beginning before this movie was released.  Hugh Martin wrote several lines that were downright depressing, focusing on the somber air in the flick and giving an encouraging sentiment to enjoy the moment now because next Christmas the family could be anywhere.  Several producers, the director and actors all requested he alter the lyrics to add a more hopeful nature to the piece.

Other changes came when Frank Sinatra recorded the track for a Christmas album and was noted as saying to Martin, "The name of my album is 'A Jolly Christmas'. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?"  The line in question was the "we'll have to muddle through somehow" which you'll notice in the Judy Garland original, but in subsequent versions was changed to "hang a shining star upon the highest bough."

The song speaks to an area of our culture that praises the so-called "perfect Christmas" and established standard that frankly is really hard to achieve in most of our lives.  The truth of the matter is that most of us are pretty normal and a big part of being normal means a lot of crazy, goofy crap happens.  Especially, when we try to achieve a "perfect" anything.

I think Hugh Martin got that when he wrote it, and the ensuing evolution of the lyrics to a more positive place contrasted with the original purpose of the song, to tell someone everything will be OK when you yourself have no reason to believe it.  But ultimately, your outlook is yours alone and you are the only person who can control it.  And the other important thing to understand is that you can't control how anyone else thinks either.

I recall an episode of Family Matters where the son, Eddie, was pulled over and harassed by law enforcement.  This was complicated by the fact that his father was also a cop.  Carl confronts the officers who pulled over his son in the following scene:

The fact of the matter is we can't change anyone's viewpoint on anything and Carl knew it as evidenced by the way he spoke to the rookie at the end of the scene.  Race, religion, ethics, whatever. The views we develop are long established by the boxes we've created and how we've filled them. That's why we need to be so careful who we let influence our choices on what goes into which box. If we believe a certain way, we have to continually question and analyze why it's the way it is and if it's the right way or if there's a better way.  I think far too often people allow far too much control over their own categorization of ideas instead of turning off the news and exploring an issue for themselves.  Often times the news (and even Facebook) will show two sides to an issue that is much more multifaceted than that.

When I watched this episode the first time I had to have been like 10 or 11.  I didn't have a box- for any of this.  I didn't really understand why anyone would be mean to Eddie, let alone what his skin color had anything to do with it.  But the fact of the matter is that there are people in this world who think the behavior of a person is linked to their appearance and I'm here to tell you that people who think like that are in fact unequivocal assholes.  

The only thing we can do is to put our own boxes in order and I for one endeavor to put all people into one gigantic box.  Will it stop injustice?  Or anger?  Or racism?  Or violence?  I doubt it. But what can one person do?  You can put all people into the same box, and categorize them only by their actions and their words.  That's what you can do.

That's all any one of us can do, but now imagine if it caught on...

And we'll muddle through.


See you next Friday.


Judy Garland's original version-

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones' version-

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones


Leroy Anderson: A Christmas Festival

In 1950, A Christmas Festival was premiered in the middle of June.  At this time, Leroy Anderson (1908-1975) had been writing frequently for the Boston Pops, having garnered the attention and respect of its conductor, Arthur Feidler, back in 1938.  Anderson had a tremendous capacity for writing relatively short, relatable and digestible orchestra works that could be played by studio orchestras and then broadcast on the radio.  You see, back in the 1950's people would actually listen to orchestral music without having to sit through an action film.

That is, if you call what Hans Zimmer does "music".

A Christmas Festival is like the holiday mother lode.  In Anderson's own words it is not a medley of carols, but a reckoning.  A wholly consummate bible of all that pre-1950's Christmas music could proffer to mankind, hewn together to accommodate the limited technical requirements of his time and place.  In fact, it literally could not be contained by the recording faculties of the era.  To quote Anderson from an interview with Dick Bertel of WTIC Radio, Hartford, Connecticut:

"...when this was done, I think it was in 1950 or 1951, they still had single records as the main part of the market; LP's were just about coming in. so while it was played all the way through, that is, when it was recorded, for the LP, we also had to make a split after four minutes - the Christmas Festival runs about 8 minutes so that meant that when I wrote it I had to make a place in the middle where you could stop...
"... and if I may brag a bit, I defy anybody to find out the exact spot where that occurred..."
Already, this is a piece of music that is bursting at the seams of convention.  I like to imagine the hypothetical conversation between Leroy and his wife Eleanor as they discover that Arthur Feidler has commissioned the work went like this:


Leroy places the receiver on the cradle of the phone as he reaches for the wing of the large red chair and  slides into it as an untethered pile of bricks slides off a pallet on a moving truck.  His wife enters the room, immediately aware of the change of demeanor as a cold pall fell softly upon the parlor room.

"It was Arthur..." Leroy trails off.

"Yes?" Eleanor replies expectantly. 
"He..." Leroy trails off as he searches the wall to his left for the words that will not come. "He said, 'It's time.'"

Eleanor grows pale as the gravity of realization washes over her like the thousands of Christmas-past before. "It cannot be!  It's much too soon, my dear!  You'll have to call him back and expl-"

"Explain what?  That it's too much to bear?  That it's February?"
"That it isn't my destiny?!"

"It's just that..." 

Leroy calms a bit, realizing the brunt of his frustrations laid bare had upset his bride.  "What, my dear, what?" he said calmly, rising to hold her in his arms.

"T-the children..." she stammered.  "I asked Jane and Eric what they wanted Santa to bring for them and...and," she began weeping openly into Leroy's shoulders.  
"What was it?"
"Jane asked for a pair of Hopalong boots and Eric..." she breathed heavily, "He asked for a pistol!  That shoots!" 
She collapsed into his arms like a crushed rag doll, sobbing uncontrollably.

"Damn that Meredith Wilson!  That infernal '76 Trombones' simply wasn't enough for him, now he wants my children!?"  Eleanor was inconsolable, Leroy was galvanized.  "It's time.  I'll be in the study."


I did take a few liberties there considering that Leroy was probably really stoked to write this work, and it shows.  Also, Meredith Wilson didn't write "It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas" until 1951 and "The Music Man" premiered in 1957, but hey it's artistic license.

One could make the argument that Leroy Anderson was not a serious composer of serious music and therefore somewhat less important an author of music history than others of his time.  I would counter that many dismiss Hemingway on similar terms for his favoritism of short words opposed to the loquacious vocabularies of his contemporaries.  Quantity does not an artist make.

Anderson was a cult favorite for all things in the light orchestral category and one of the best things about that is that his music maintains a certain relevance today.  Since my wife and son are now listening to that Christmas radio station daily, I've heard "Sleigh Ride" about 47 times already this year!

The other side of Leroy Anderson is that his music is still played frequently by Pops orchestras and school bands and orchestras.  A frequent trick to getting kids to realize that instrumental music isn't all lame is to relate it to something that has credibility in their stupid lives of Beats by Dre and pictures of cats.

Or whatever...
It's recognizable and relevant to them because they've heard it on TV and the radio and the movies. It's part of the easily acceptable culture to them and therefore they can buy in without fear of looking foolish.  The other neat part is that it's just a lot of fun to play and to listen to as well.  It's not easy to write parts for specific instruments and make them fun to play for all.  As a trombonist, I can give you hours of music with horrifically boring trombone parts, but Leroy (being a trombonist himself) knew what he was doing.  He spread the love around.

As a special note, this is the remastered original recording.  

See you next Friday.




Merry Christmas Again From Listening Friday!

It's that time of year again.  It's slightly after Halloween.  The leaves are turning, the air is crisp, and freaking Lowe's already has their inflatable Christmas decorations up for sale.  I'm never sure if it's vogue to complain about the pervasive nature of the commercial Christmas holiday, but at the risk of being gauche- it genuinely seems to be early this year.  There is, in fact, a radio station that has been playing Christmas music since November 1st.  Consider this: already, we've 14 days of Christmas music under our belts and we're not even thawing the Thanksgiving turkey yet, which brings me to my point-

The commercialization of Christmas, the ever-present, ever-increasing monopoly it holds over the November and December is a plot.  It is a cleverly concealed and crafted agenda, put forth by none other than...

I, for one, welcome our new turkey overlords.

So, in traditional Listening Friday fashion we will introduce the "Six Listening Fridays of Christmas" with a farcical entry.

This year, instead of selecting the best worst pieces of Christmas music, I've decided to go with five of the  best worst pieces of Christmas music videos! These are those forgotten gems in the deep recesses of YouTube that everyone who was involved in their creation wishes would remain unearthed like those old E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial video games. Meanwhile, the American public sits impatiently until they can wash their ears (and eyes) clean of the dreck and chaos that is the American commercial Christmas*

*Before you go calling blasphemy, in this context I imply a differentiation between the commercial Christmas with elves and trees and Macy's and the Christian Christmas with Jesus and stellar phenomena and farm animals.

So, here they are, in not particular order, the five most popular, wretched videos of Christmas music known to mankind:

#1- Andy Williams - It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

I like to think that every time we hear Mr. Williams belt out this classic example of Christmas Carol gone crooner he's actually singing it live against a piped-in orchestra in some dark, desolate cave on an island in the middle of the Pacific ocean.  I also like to think that CIA scientists turned him into a cyborg during the Cold War in an effort to explore the possibility of using the aging population of swing era vocalists as weapons of mass destruction.

You see, the baby boomers in America firmly believe that anything they did in their childhood must be relived again and again in the name of tradition, even especially if that tradition is painfully annoying. Therefore, most of the American population is immune to the destructive nature of this style of music.  The Russians however were not, and the US government knew that.  The problem occurred when the Berlin wall fell and everyone sort of forgot about old Robo-Andy and thus he's condemned to a life of perpetually singing this song in the dark (as evidenced in the video below) and we're forced to listen and reflect on how many of Aunt Ruth's sugar cookies we can eat before we develop holiday-induced diabetes.

#2 Trans-Siberian Orchestra: Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra was invented to act as a gateway drug for bored kids of the 80's and 90's so they'd think that by learning to play the violin they might actually lose their virginity.  This plan failed miserably and thus a large portion of humanity's genetic pool was erased from existence.

This song of itself is not terribly awful, perhaps only over-played (which is not a crime in and of itself).  The music video however is an altogether different story.  I'll be honest here.  I'm having a hard time of coming up with any way to classify or explain the rationale of what you're about to watch, but if you thought the 80's were weird, the 90's took the cake for cheese and bad clothing. Take elements of post-Cold War era Europe, Bill Clinton, Kittens, Eddie Van Halen, and a poorly supervised child and you just about sum up the 90's.  In that context, this video will most likely be praised centuries later as the most accurate documentation of the rise and fall of Rock and Roll music in Western society.

The plot follows a small child who wanders outside in her backyard in the middle of the night, while the History channel plays in the background.  She discovers the most elaborate middle-class residential Christmas display known to man and disregarding everything she learned in "Stanger-Danger 101" at school proceeds to dance around in what appears to be falling pieces of cotton.  At some point her mother puts down her Redbook and realizes she hasn't seen her 8 year old in the past 3 or 4 days and goes to locate her.  Unfortunately, two small kittens have adopted the child into their pride and she lives out her remaining days on the streets of Manhattan in a sort of Gen X version of the "Jungle Book".  And that, my children, is how "RENT" was born.

#3 Wham!: Last Christmas

Nothing quite says Christmas like unmarried twenty-somethings with enormous hair frolicking around a ski resort like a Guns and Roses Christmas Special.  This video has everything: A flimsy pretext, ambiguous body language, an impossible to understand plot, and forbidden love.  There's also a terrifying dinner scene where, what I can only assume is probably 3 or 4 metric tons of hairspray sits around a table surrounded by candles and a fireplace!  It's like the world's largest potato cannon, poised to launch George Michael all the way back across the Atlantic Ocean.

All kidding aside, what I think most people want during the Christmas holiday is to spend it with family and close friends and secretly wish that your hair looked like this.  Call NASA, because the 80's pop scene already invented anti-gravity.

#4 Paul McCartney: Wonderful Christmas Time

In 1979, Paul McCartney invented chroma-keying, the same technology now used round the world to make weather men appear like giant overlords who control our climate at their whims.  However, Paul originally used this to make it look like his band and piano were zipping through outer space dressed as 70's angels as they recorded yet another holiday classic that would be burned into the American psyche, despite the fact that everyone secretly knew we were only pretending to like post-Beatles McCartney.

What I like about this song is its deliberately shameless and borderline offensive use of the sleigh bells.  Wikipedia explains that Sleigh Bells were invented by Santa Claus himself and given to Beethoven with implicit instructions that use of the sleigh bells in any piece of music would automatically make that piece sound "Christmas-y".

If you watch closely, at one point a large armada of mall Santa's arrive at the bacchanal and appear to burn down the house whereupon Paul and friends continue to dance around the pyre of holiday magic.  Incidentally, this video was originally designed to sell scarves in the southeastern United States, but horribly backfired and instead led to Majorie Kinnan Rawlings inventing the reindeer and requiring the scarf as part of the uniform at Hogwarts' School of Wizardry.  
It's 104°, but dammit if it's not fashionable!

#5 RUN-DMC: Christmas in Hollis

If you were alive in the 1980's, this one will require little introduction.  It hearkens back to the day when hip hop was king and "illin'" was socially appropriate to use as an adverb for just about everything.  The other exciting thing from this era is that no matter how cold it gets, everyone is still required to wear a track suit.

On a somewhat more sobering note, it is a bit remarkable to reflect on the evolution of the hip hop culture from the time of RUN-DMC to present day.  Upon discovering Santa's wallet full of cash, the good Reverend RUN immediately attempts to return it with nary a thought of keeping the old man's money because that would most certainly be "ill".  And when it comes time to sit down to Christmas dinner, we see DMC's mother at the center of the scene with what is almost certain a fake plastic prop turkey and all the trimmings- family comes first in Hollis as evidenced by the young men in the video.

I can't say it any better than they did:

Rhymes so loud and proud to hear it
It's Christmas time and we got the spirit
Jack Frost chillin', the orchid's out,
And that's what Christmas is all about...

We'll continue our series as we count down the Listening Fridays until Christmas.  

See you next Friday.



Robert Schumann: Violin Concerto in D Minor

My kid likes Frozen.  I suspect if you also live with a 3 year old human, you might be subjected to bouts of the soundtrack from time to time.  In the dark recesses of my mind, I fantasize that Disney executives have crafted an irresistible formula for attracting and enslaving the minds of small children in order to ensure an eternity of Disney fandom.  That between "Love is an Open Door" and "Let it Go" some sort of subconscious Morse code escapes from my stereo and convinces my preschooler that Daddy hates him unless we buy a lot of shit we don't need at prices we can't afford made by children who aren't fortunate enough to live in a country with child-labor laws.  Case-in-point, I put on "Frozen" radio on my phone yesterday and out comes the familiar tones of you-know-what.  I look at the boy and ask, "Is this what you want to listen to?"

Incidentally, children can grow mustaches at will.
I've preached about my moral-centric hatred and categorical rejection of the radio and its inherently bad taste in placing profitability over musicality (a model which LF.com unfortunately does not employ - believe me we tried...). Despite this, I sometimes find a gem in the wavelengths.  In this case it was NPR and they were talking about one of my favorites, Robert Schumann (1810-1856).

They were going on about all the usual stuff- Schumann married Clara Wieck against her father's, Friedrich Weick, will.  The elder Wieck also happened to be Schumann's piano teacher who was selling him on the fact that Robert would be able to make a killing in the virtuosic piano game.

"Babies.. before we're done here.. y'all be wearing gold-plated diapers."
Unfortunately for Schumann, he injured his hand.  While it's not directly known how this injury occurred, scholars think it had to do with his anti-syphilis medication, a surgery to make his hands work better (not a great idea in the 1800's b-t-dubs), or some sort of mechanical finger strengthener device.  In any event, with a bum hand he wasn't going to wow any audiences and switched to composition.  In the ultimate act of father-figure retribution, he marries the daughter of his teacher, which royally cheeses off Freidrich who then pursues legal action against the post-nuptials.

The other big issue with Schumann is that he pretty much went nuts towards the end.  He suffered from what essentially sounds like bipolar disorder for most of his life.  He'd have these spats of manic composition and produce amazing amounts of work, followed by periods of deep "melancholia" to use the parlance of his time.  It eventually became more troubling as he began to hear voices of dead composers in his head whom sang him melodies and told him to do stuff.  He'd hear angelic choirs which would turn demonic and eventually the whole ordeal drove him to throw himself into the Rhine river to prevent his loss of control from causing any harm to his beloved Clara.  He was rescued by boaters and sent home.

Ultimately, the combination of already prevalent mental-illness and what was quickly (and presumably) becoming late-stage syphilis led him to become deeply troubled, to the point that he checked himself into a mental asylum and left his affairs in the hands of Clara and Brahms.  I say "presumably" above because we really don't know what happened to Schumann.  Typical treatment for syphilis at the time was doses of mercury, which is pretty much the worst thing you could do and during his autopsy, a large tumor was found at the base of his brain, lending credence to the whole auditory hallucination deal.  

In his later years, Schumann began to compose from this place of mental breakdown and took liberties ill-afforded to his contemporaries who were less involved in the whole syphilis, mercury-poisoning, brain-tumor ordeal.  One such piece is our target of focus today, his Violin Concerto in D minor, written in 1853 about a year before Schumann attempted suicide.  He wrote the work for violinist Joseph Joachim whom he had composed a number of other works for, however upon playing through the piece Joachim felt it represented too much of Schumann's terminal decline and basically hid the work from the public for the rest of his life.  He placed the piece in the custody of the Prussian State Library and wrote instructions in his will that the work not be performed until 100 years after the death of Schumann (which would of course be 1956).  This is where it gets weird.

In 1933, Joachim's grand-nieces are hanging out in a weird part of town and decide to attend a séance in London.  Schumann and Joachim (now dead for 77 and 26 years respectively) both drop in unannounced and tell the girls that one of them (Jelly d'Arányi) has to perform this work and they've got to go to Berlin to find the manuscript in the library.  Neither girl had ever heard of the work before.  

Nothing happened until 1937 when Schott Music (a German publisher) discovered it and asked the opinion of American-born violinist,Yehudi Menuhin who loved it and was totally down with premiering it in San Fransicso, right up until d'Arányi drops the whole "did your dead great-uncle speak forth from beyond the grave and tell you to premier his 80-year-old concerto that all his bros thought sucked - I DON'T THINK SO!"

Unfortunately, neither of the two violinists would get the chance to premier the work as Germany still held the copyright and they were hellbent on having a German premier the work since they were into that whole "Deutschland ist das beste" deal in the early-mid 20th century for an unrelated reason. The honor went to Georg Kulenkampff, who apparently was a much better Nazi than violinist. 

Interestingly enough, Paul Hindemith was commissioned to create a violin-piano reduction of the score, still in manuscript form.  Hindemith of course by this point was essentially barred from performing his own works in Germany, but the Reich let it slide just this once since it was convenient for them.  Menuhin would perform the work next in Carnegie Hall and d'Arányi would garner the privilege of fulfilling her dead uncle's supposed vision by premiering the work in London at the Queen's Hall.

It's really a pretty beautiful work, and upon hearing it I'm given to wonder if it was nothing more than Joachim's opinion that created a sort of pall of doom and gloom over the work and convinced Brahms and Clara to hide it from the public, lest Robert's reputation be ridiculed and subjected to harsh criticism.  It speaks loudly to the public perception of mental illness of the day, that just the association of a piece of music with a state of mind and being could reflect so poorly on one's character.  It then becomes a sad commentary on our state of affairs today that mental illness still is awarded with such stigma when in all reality it is no different an affliction than cancer, diabetes or any number of debilitating diseases to which a cure is somewhat complicated and to which the best medication can be support and love, not fear and derision.  

So, think not then of what ailed Schumann in his composition, but instead focus on what he was able to accomplish and listen with clear ears and heart.

See you next Friday.


(I present the 2nd and 3rd movements as I was unable to locate a recording that had all three.  Joshua Bell has a few, but the way the 2nd and 3rd movements are structured, it's really enjoyable to listen to the contrast between both).