The brilliantly bittersweet “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” written in 1943 by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, is one of the most beloved festive songs of all – but it nearly ended up discarded in the garbage bin.
Martin, a Broadway composer, started working on a melody for the song but was struggling to find a bridge after completing the first 16 bars. “I found a little madrigal-like tune that I liked, but couldn’t make work, so I played with it for two or three days and then threw it in the wastebasket,” he recalled in 1989. Fortunately, Blaine, who had been working in the adjacent room, heard the tune and told him it was too interesting to discard.
The Judy Garland version
The pair were working on music for the 1944 MGM Christmas movie Meet Me in St. Louis, which was set in 1903 and starred Judy Garland as Esther Smith. The song comes during a scene when her younger sister Tottie (played by Margaret O’Brien) is worried that Santa won’t be able to find them if they move to New York. Garland’s character sings her “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to cheer her up. However, Martin and Blane’s original lyrics were downbeat, and included the lines: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last/Next year we may all be living in the past.” Garland, the 24-year-old star of The Wizard of Oz, complained that the lyrics were too sad to sing to a heartbroken seven-year-old.
“The original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it,” admitted Martin. “She said, ‘If I sing that, little Margaret O’Brien will cry and they’ll think I’m a monster.’ So I was young then and kind of arrogant, and I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry you don’t like it, Judy, but that’s the way it is, and I don’t really want to write a new lyric.’ But Tom Drake, who played the boy next door, took me aside and said, ‘Hugh, you’ve got to finish it. It’s really a great song potentially, and I think you’ll be sorry if you don’t do it.’ So I went home and I wrote the version that’s in the movie.”
The Frank Sinatra version
The song, released as a single in November 1944 with Garland backed by Georgie Stoll and His Orchestra, became an instant classic and attracted the attention of Frank Sinatra. In 1947, Sinatra recorded a version, arranged by Axel Stordahl, that included Martin’s original lyrics, including the final lines: “Someday soon we all will be together/If the fates allow/Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow/So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”
Ten years later, when Sinatra was revisiting the song for his Capitol Records album A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra, the singer rang Martin and requested a happier ending to the song. “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?” Sinatra asked. Martin “tweaked” the song for Sinatra with a line about ‘hang[ing] a shining star upon the highest bough’ instead of having to ‘muddle through.’”
Sinatra’s second definitive version of “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas” was recorded on July 16, 1957, at Capitol Studios in Hollywood. The song was produced by Voyle Gilmore, a man who went on to oversee the recordings used on The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl.
Arranger Gordon Jenkins, a regular collaborator with Sinatra, was keen on a lavish production for A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra. As well as background vocals on “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas” from the 25-strong Ralph Brewster Singers chorus, there was also the sound of a full orchestra, one featuring ten violinists, four viola players, two cellists, and a harpist. Jenkins also brought a jazz touch to the proceedings, using Sinatra’s long time pianist Bill Miller, who worked for EmArcy Records, guitarist Allan Reuss, who worked with Teddy Wilson and Coleman Hawkins, and drummer Nick Fatool, who worked regularly with Lionel Hampton. Jenkins himself was a jazz aficionado, having arranged the Decca album Miss Ella Fitzgerald & Mr. Gordon Jenkins Invite You to Listen and Relax a couple of years before.
“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”‘s legacy
Hundreds of top stars have cut their own versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” since Sinatra, including Tori Amos, Garth Brooks, Lady A, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, John Denver & The Muppets, Neil Diamond, and The Carpenters. Martin said that one of his favorite versions was by jazz singer Mel Tormé, who composed the famous “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” song. “Mel wrote a beautiful new verse for it, was really out of this world,” said Martin. When John Williams oversaw the score for the 1990 movie Home Alone, he asked Tormé to record a new version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Although versions were recorded in the 50s and 60s by Dinah Shore, Doris Day, and Glen Campbell, the song also has a special appeal for modern singers. Chrissie Hynde believes the song “packs an emotional wallop,” while Bette Midler said its appeal was that the lyrics are “hopeful but full of melancholy.” Linda Ronstadt said she liked both the “muddle through” line and the bravado of the “hanging the shining star” replacement – so included both in her 2000 version.
As for Martin, who was 96 when he died in 2011, he remained convinced that “muddle through” was the most honest version. “It’s just so kind of…down-to-earth,” he said late in life.