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Anatomy of a Showtune: Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas'

Each holiday season, many folks find their thoughts wandering back to home. And whether home is a familiar house just around the corner, a small town somewhere across the country, or even clear across an ocean, the season invariably invokes images of a more idyllic reality than the one we know; replete with a loving family nestled around the Christmas tree, or gathered around a warm hearth, taking refuge from the wintry conditions outside with some hot cocoa, and enjoying each other's company.

In our modern age, it seems strange that the images of what Christmas should look like remain so infused with such old-fashioned ideals, rather than the "playing xBox in the basement/staring at freshly unwrapped Apple gadget" reality we live in. But as the world continues to spin on its axis, somewhat more crookedly by the estimation of some, and we move further away from these Norman Rockwell standards and into the glossy, often cold, reality of the technological age, these images of more classic holidays continuously prevail.

For this prevailing snapshot of idyllic Christmases passed, we can look to the songs of the season. While more up to date inventions may influence our gift exchanges, it is the yearly musical exchange of melodies, imagery, and ideals of earlier generations that keep us coming back to these hallmarks of a bygone era. As to the origins of this phenomena, we need look no further than one of the most beloved sources of of seasonal imagery, Irving Berlin's perennial holiday classic, "White Christmas."

With a lilting string-line and lyrics that invoke a perfect place in space and time, where tree tops glisten (despite the obvious effects of climate change) and children frolic on snow covered hillsides. listening closely for Sleigh Bells in the distance (instead of flying a drone out to see where the noise is coming from), through the years the song has proven not only its longevity, but the also serves as a reminder of prevailing hope for a warmer and kinder world.

Though the origins of the song remain debated, the central narrative of its birth places Berlin in the La Quinta Hotel in 1940. It is said that upon his completion of the melody, Berlin, known for his all-night writing sessions, called out to his secretary at the time, exclaiming, "Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I've ever written - heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written!"

Though many folks first happened upon the song as part of the film Holiday Inn, its first public appearance came when Bing Crosby introduced it on his radio show, "The Kraft Music Hall" on Christmas Day, 1941. And while the song has earned its place in the pantheon of hopeful Christmas classics in the years since, that day it debuted to a nation in mourning, making its first appearance just 18 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The original Broadway cast of 'Holiday Inn'

On May 29th, 1942, Crosby recorded the song in just 18 minutes with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers for Decca Records, as part of the Holiday Inn film soundtrack. Historically it seems that the song's impact was less apparent to Crosby at the time, with Bing merely stating, "I don't think we have any problems with that one, Irving." upon its completion. Though Crosby's reaction was less enthusiastic than most would expect, the song quickly proved itself to be not only the first commercially viable secular Christmas song (one written by a Jewish-American composer, at that) but an enduring symbol of happier times in the years to come.

In 1942, as America officially entered the second World War and many families celebrated their first holiday apart. both servicemen and their families took a great deal of comfort in the song. With lyrical imagery of home and family resonating deeply with Americans both at home and abroad, the Armed Forces Network was inundated with requests to play the song. In that year alone, it spent eleven straight weeks topping the Billboard charts as well as three weeks on top of the Harlem Hit Parade, marking Crosby's first appearance on a black-oriented chart. The song would also go on to earn the 1942 Academy Award for Best Original Song. Crosby himself would go on to make several notable USO appearances overseas alongside long-time friend, Bob Hope.

"I hesitated about doing it because invariably it caused such a nostalgic yearning among the men, that it made them sad," Crosby said of his USO shows, "Heaven knows, I didn't come that far to make them sad. For this reason, several times I tried to cut it out of the show, but these guys just hollered for it."

In the following years the song, re-released by Decca an additional 16 times, became a perennial hit, topping the pop charts in 1945 and 1947, respectively. In fact, it was so beloved in its first five years of play that in 1947 Crosby agreed to re-record the song, using the same musicians and singers, when the original master recording became damaged after being used to press so many additional singles. The 1947 recording of the song is the version that most people are familiar with today, with its added introduction of flutes and celesta. In 1954, a full twelve years after its initial release in Holiday Inn, the song also became the titular centerpiece for the film, White Christmas, starring Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera- Ellen, and Rosemary Clooney.

In the years since its release, Crosby's version of song has sold over 50 million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling single of all-time. In 2009, the Guinness Book of World Records addressed some debate surrounding the song's status as the all-time best-seller, citing competition from Elton John's re-worked version of his song, "Candle in the Wind", honoring Princess Diana. The tome ultimately addressed the controversy stating that both songs are winners. With John's having sold 33 million copies, Guinness named the song the "best-selling single since UK and US singles charts began in the 1950's", but that the distinction of best-selling single of all-time belonged to "White Christmas" since it was released before those charts were instated. The song was listed as the world's best-selling single in the first-ever Guinness Book of Records, published in 1955, and still retains the title more than 50 years later.

The original Broadway cast of 'White Christmas'

In terms of its lyrical content, the song also has a little-known introductory verse, sung: "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 the twenty-fourth,- And I am longing to be up North..." Though excluded from most recordings of the song, it has been featured on versions sung by Darlene Love, Barbra Streisand, Karen Carpenter, and Bette Midler. In 2011, Lady Gaga also put her stamp on the song, adding a second verse, sung: "I'm dreaming of a white snowman. With a carrot nose and charcoal eyes. And when he cries, I'm gonna tell him it's okay. Because Santa's on his sleigh, and he's on his way."

In the years since its release, "White Christmas" has become an indelible part of the holiday season. Spurred on by over fifty years of covers by some of music's most iconic stars, Irving Berlin's melancholy tribute to the snow-flecked season has proven its timelessness each and every holiday since its initial release. In recent years, the tune has also made its way to the Broadway stage, first as part of the stage version of the film White Christmas in 2004 and now as part of the current Broadway season in Holiday Inn, running at Studio 54 through January 15th.

Yet through every incarnation of the song, every re-arrangement, every cover, every added flourish, year after year, folks always seem to come back to the original. And iconic though it may be, Crosby, a performer known for his modesty was quoted as saying, "A jackdaw with a cleft palette could have sung it successfully."

But despite any reservations Crosby himself may have had about his contributions to the song it is the warmth in his crooning baritone, meeting a heart-rending melody by one of history's finest composers, that first brought Irving Berlin's ode to lilting nostalgia into our purview. A song that has kept the spirit of Christmas alive through our nation's darkest hours and ensures that the values of a simpler time do not get lost in our highly modern celebrations. A song that keeps us dreaming of merrier days and brighter times ahead. That disseminates the true reason for the season and forever extols the simplest of virtues: the familiarity of home, the love of family, and the eternal romance of a snow-covered holiday.

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From This Author Alexa Criscitiello