Wade on Birmingham

Let your heart be light

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Through the years we all will be together
If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

One of my favorite stories ever in the Birmingham Post-Herald was a true holiday gem: the real tale of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

The song is lovely because it touches upon the wistfulness of the holiday season, almost a lament. And yet, it remains a personal favorite among all the Christmas classics.

Erin Shaw Street wrote this December 1999 story. Birmingham native Hugh Martin, the composer partnered with lyricist Ralph Blane, talks about tussling with Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra over one little tune.

Meet Me in St. Louis

A scene from “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

‘Merry Little Christmas’ was a merry little challenge

By Erin Shaw
Birmingham Post-Herald

The song “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is as much part of the holidays as chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Santa Claus coming to town.

But the man who wrote the tune recalls that some not-so-merry dealings with Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra took place before it became the classic Christmas tune we know today.

Hugh Martin, a native of Birmingham, who is now 85 and retired in Encinitas, Calif., was a pianist working in radio when he landed a job in Hollywood in 1943 as a songwriter for the MGM film studio.

Martin was a newcomer to song writing. With only three Broadway songs behind him, Martin and his partner, Ralph Blane, agreed to write three songs for a movie starring Judy Garland.

The movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” required a song to match what Martin recalled as a “tearjerker scene” in which Garland’s character sings to her sister about the family having to move to New York.

Martin secluded himself in his office to write the song. For three days he labored, but he couldn’t get the melody the way he wanted it. Frustrated, he crumpled up the sheet music and started over.

But Blane, who worked in a separate room, had heard something through the walls that captured him.

“Ralph came into the room and said, ‘There’s a pretty little sparkle.’ ”

Martin replied that it was too late; he’d trashed the song.

“Fish it out of the trash bin,” Blane told him, “and work on it some more.”

Martin did just that and completed what he thought was a great song. It started out this way: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last/Next year we may all be living in the past…”

Then the tempestuous Garland heard the lyrics.

“If I sing that song to (co-star) Margaret O’Brien, I’ll sound like a monster,” Garland told Martin.

Garland asked him to rewrite the song, to make it sound a little happier — and that left Martin distinctly unhappy.

“I was mad. I was young. But she liked the melody, so I rewrote it,” Martin said.

The rewritten song again started out with “Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” but then followed with “Let your heart be light/From now on, our troubles will be out of sight.”

The song enjoyed some success in record sales and other artists began recording it.

The tinkering with the song wasn’t over, though.

A decade later, Frank Sinatra called Martin to ask if he could record the song on a Christmas album, which would be called “A Jolly Christmas.”

There was one catch, said Ol’ Blue Eyes. The song just wasn’t jolly enough. Could Martin lighten it up a bit?

The last stanza was the problem: “Some day, though, we all may be together/If the Fates allow/Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow/So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”

Martin was frantic.

How could he make this song, a sublime tune about the passing of another year, of deep friendships and bittersweet holidays, jolly?

He pondered this question during a visit home to Birmingham as he walked down tree-lined Highland Avenue.

He turned the last verse over and over in his head.

Some day, though, we all may be together, if the fates allow.

Then it came to him.

“There was a pretty tree and I thought, ‘Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.’ ”

Sinatra’s recording brought further acclaim to the song, solidifying it as an annual holiday favorite.

Martin doesn’t write much any more, and often takes long, relaxing walks without Garlands or Sinatras to worry about.

His song ranks as the sixth-most recorded holiday song of all time, according to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Despite all the revisions, Martin said the song still evokes the feelings he tried to stir when he wrote it more than 50 years ago.

“It made a lot of people happy,” he said. “They cry because they are so happy.”

• • •

10 Yips for “Let your heart be light”

  1. Wade on Birmingham
    Thursday, December 21, 2006, 4:27 am
    1

    Heads and tales: That’s Entertainment Weekly

    headlines for 12/21/06

  2. Wade on Birmingham
    Monday, December 17, 2007, 4:18 pm
    2

    Our troubles will be miles away

    As a holiday treat, we present the Top 10 versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

  3. Ike
    Wednesday, December 24, 2008, 6:39 pm
    3

    Wade, thanks for reposting this. This is a great piece.

    Makes me want to throw the kids in the car, drive to Southside, and play that line for them.

    I might just have to take a picture of the highest bough on Highland.

  4. Wade
    Thursday, December 25, 2008, 1:37 am
    4

    I love the song, and the story behind it. Be sure to send me a copy of that photo.

  5. Erin
    Sunday, November 29, 2009, 9:24 pm
    5

    Thanks for keeping this one alive. I can’t drive down Highland at Christmas without thinking about that’s where Hugh Martin got the inspiration for the line “hang a shining star upon the highest bow.”

    I remember talking through this story with my friend and former colleague Steve Joynt, who commented that it is the most grown up Christmas song — at least the version with the original lyrics — because the words were so bittersweet. (In fact my unscientific polls over the year show that many people don’t know that the real lyrics are so dark.)

    From a writer’s perspective, this was one of those purely accidental finds that unearthed something meaningful. And for a newbie to Birmingham (I’d moved here the year before) it connected me a little bit more with my new home.

  6. John
    Sunday, November 29, 2009, 9:33 pm
    6

    http://www.bhamwiki.com/w/Hugh_Martin

  7. Wade
    Monday, November 30, 2009, 4:27 pm
    7

    Erin, it’s my pleasure. Maybe I can twist her arm into doing a 10th anniversary P-H special section on the story/song …

    John, thanks for the link.

  8. Let your heart be light. | DOGingham
    Sunday, December 19, 2010, 12:09 pm
    8

    [...] Fun fact: The classic song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was composed by Birmingham, AL native Hugh Martin. My pals Wade and Erin even wrote about him” tussling with Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra over one lit… [...]

  9. Wade on Birmingham » Merry Christmas!
    Sunday, December 25, 2011, 12:05 am
    9

    [...] Tori Amos’ cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” /* Be Sociable, Share! Tweet Also see:Merry Christmas!Merry Christmas!Merry [...]

  10. dusti
    Sunday, December 2, 2012, 6:18 pm
    10

    It’s brilliant. I find somber Christmas songs much more comforting, and this one especially speaks to me this year, having lost my father as well as my last grandparent within a two-month period. Thanks for sharing.

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