The Melancholy Story of White Christmas
December 14, 2012
He had no business writing the song. He had no business writing about Christmas.
He was a Russian. He was a Jew.
In the dark days of December, he was a melancholy man.
But from the mind and the heart of Irving Berlin came the one song that struck a nostalgic chord in America during 1942, grabbed the soul of a nation, and has never let go.
The Berlin home always had a Christmas tree, stockings hung on a mantle, a turkey, and plum pudding.
It was time for celebration.
It was a time for family.
And no one loved his family more than Irving Berlin.
In the dark days of December he was a melancholy man.
Irving Berlin could not read a note of music, yet he composed more than a thousand songs, and four hundred of them became American standards, songs like Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Easter Parade, Cheek to Cheek, No Business Like Show Business, and God Bless America.
He was the master. As composer Jerome Kern would say, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. Irving Berlin is American music.”
He was working in Beverly Hills. He was alone and lonely. He missed his family.
And he sat down one night and worked on a new song. It had some potential, he thought. But it didn’t quite capture the way he was feeling. So, Berlin threw the lyrics in a trunk and could have forgotten them.
A couple of years later, Berlin rummaged through the trunk until he found them and worked throughout the night, writing, re-writing, revising, and rearranging the words. There was no need to worry about the melody. It was already locked in his head.
The next morning, he walked into his office and told his secretary, “Grab a pen.”
“You need to take down this song.”
Irving Berlin grinned. “I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written,” he said. “Heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written.”
She took his random, scribbled the words and wrote down the lines to White Christmas.
It was slow. It was nostalgic. It was melancholy.
But then, during the dark days of December, Irving Berlin was a melancholy man.
The song was given Bing Crosby. He listened to the music. He scanned over the lyrics. White Christmas was all right, he thought. But the song wasn’t anything special. He simply told Berlin, “I don’t think we’ll have any problems with it.”
Bing Crosby sung White Christmas for the first time on his NBC radio show, The Kraft Music Hall.
He sang it, and a heartbroken nation listened.
He sang it, and a grief-stricken nation heard it.
He sang White Christmas for the first time on Christmas day. He sang White Christmas for the first time eighteen days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and left America weeping for its missing and its dead.
In the dark days of December, America was a melancholy nation.
Crosby recorded the song with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers for Decca records, and it only took him eighteen minutes to get it right.
Classics every one.
Armed Forces Radio was swamped with requests for White Christmas. For the fighting men, it would be their first winter, their first Christmas in trenches of Germany, on the islands surrounding Japan.
It was a season of loneliness. The soldiers were homesick, and White Christmas provided them with a vision of home. White Christmas brought them back, if only for eight lines, fifty-four words, and sixty-seven notes.
It was enough.
If Irving Berlin had left his original lyrics intact, White Christmas might well be one of the America’s least sung and remembered songs.
He had written:
The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December twenty-fourth …
And I am longing to be up north.
But Berlin removed those lines. Hard editing is always good. Instead he visually captured a portrait of home just like the one the soldiers used to know, where treetops glisten, and children listen,” and the lonely boys in the trenches remembered the days they were children and wondered if they would ever see home again.
White Christmas was a nostalgic song of hope with a melancholy melody, but, during the dark days of December, Irving Berlin was a melancholy man.
He had lost his son on Christmas Day in 1928. The boy was only three days old.
And Berlin spent every Christmas for the rest of his life beside the grave of his son in New York. There were no songs to be sung, only tears to be shed. And Berlin sat in the December chill dreaming of a White Christmas that would never be.