Muddling Through: A History of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

Christmas Tree Maybe it’s spending twenty minutes stalking a parking spot at the mall; maybe it’s the Christmas cards staring at me accusingly, taunting me to go ahead and send them anytime before the first of the year. But I seem to have Christmas on the brain this weekend, not necessarily in a good way. So I do what I always do when I get overwhelmed by the season — I pull out my THE JOHN GARY CHRISTMAS ALBUM and let this Bing-Crosby-like crooner transport me back to a more innocent age.

One of the songs on the CD is an old chestnut: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I’ve always loved this song. I think its lyrics are so lovely and understated. And I recall that last year, about this time, my magazine addiction Entertainment Weekly published a really fascinating article about the history of this song. Now, if I can remember an article from a whole year ago – considering I rarely remember when it’s time to buy more toothpaste – this must be some fine writing. And lo and behold, I was able to retrieve this article in EW’s archives with the miracle of technology. So consider this a WordHappy twofer: great songwriting and great journalism.

According to the EW article “There’s Something About Merry,” written by Chris Willman, the song underwent two revisions to make it “happier.” As originally written by Hugh Martin for the film Meet Me in St. Louis, Willman describes the first incarnation of the song:

For the now-famous scene in which Garland and her little sister, a 7-year-old Margaret O’Brien, are despondent over the prospect of moving away from their cherished home, he wrote an initial set of lyrics that were almost comically depressing. Among the never-recorded couplets — which he now describes as ”hysterically lugubrious” — were lines like: ”Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last…. Faithful friends who were dear to us/Will be near to us no more.”

Even Judy Garland apparently couldn’t stomach something so sad, and convinced Martin to come up with a slightly less downbeat tone. This next version was the one imagines the possibility of a brighter future, but has the line, “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Then, in 1957, Martin was approached about the song yet one more time by no less than Frank Sinatra. He wanted the “muddle through” line rewritten to match the jolly tone of his album A Jolly Christmas. So the line was rewritten again, now being sung, “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

So now you know; in your debates where you and your friends cannot seem to come to agreement about what the words are to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” — you’re all right! For what it’s worth, the John Gary version – one of the finest interpretations, in my opinion – contains both sets of lyrics.

Now, back to those cards. . .

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2 Responses to “Muddling Through: A History of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas””

  1. Muddling with Hope « Living Little Says:

    […] with Hope Jump to Comments I have figured out the history of my favorite songs thanks to this blog and this […]

  2. It’ll Nearly Be Like A Picture Print By Currier & Ives « Design Intervention Says:

    […] Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – As far as I’m concerned, this song was the only good thing to come out of the musical, Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland. Apparently, the lyrics were quite sad originally, so much so that it had to be revised to be happier before Judy Garland would sing it. After that, it was rewritten again to make it happier still, and in the process my favorite line got dropped: “Someday soon we all will be together, if the Fates allow / Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Again, as in “O Little Town,” there’s that pairing of joyful sentiment with sorrowful. Maybe I’m disturbed, but there’s something very winning about that to me. (Frank Sinatra had the “muddle through” bit changed to “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” More on that here. […]

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