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