Posts Tagged ‘Darling West’

The much-acclaimed 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis spins the tale of a St. Louis family from summer 1903 to spring 1904. A posh production helmed by Vincente Minnelli, it’s at once nostalgic and not, dreamy and dour, with most of the songs dating to the early 1900s or before. However, the film is spiced by a handful of new tunes by songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine: “The Boy Next Door,” the Oscar-nominated “The Trolley Song” and a song that’s since become a seasonal classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

This NPR/Fresh Air page delves into the song’s history; this Wikipedia page does, too. But if you choose not to click through, what you really should know is this: Martin’s and Blaine’s first version was rejected by Judy Garland, co-star Tom Drake and Minnelli. As Martin explained to Fresh Air host Terri Gross in 2006, “The original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it. She said, ‘If I sing that, little Margaret 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.”

Garland’s rendition was released as a single and, though it only rose to No. 27 on the pop charts, became a hit with U.S. service members fighting in World War II. It’s easy to hear why; she captures the nuances of the lyrics, which are simultaneously hopeful and yearning, cherishing the days that used to be while wishing to forge similar memories again: “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….”

Here she is performing it on the radio in 1944:

In 1957, Frank Sinatra – who first covered it in 1948 – asked Martin to change the line “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” to something a tad more upbeat, as he wanted to re-record it for his A Jolly Christmas LP and found that line depressing. As a result, it became “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” It zaps some of the song’s strength, I think.

In the years since, it has joined the Great American Songbook and been performed by hundreds upon hundreds of artists; SecondHandSongs lists 1575 recorded renditions, for example, and that’s likely an undercount. Simply put, it tugs at the heartstrings like few others; and, in some respects, could well be the theme song for Christmas 2020. In any event, here’s a Song Roundup of renditions that have captured my ear through the years and also this morning…

Ella Fitzgerald sings it from her 1960 Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas LP. Note that she sticks with the “muddle through” line…

…while Lena Horne, on her 1966 album titled Merry From Lena, does not.  

The a cappella jazz vocal ensemble Singers Unlimited perform the “highest bough” version song on their 1972 Christmas LP.

In 1987, Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders deliver a stirring rendition of the Sinatra version for the A Very Special Christmas CD compilation. (Interesting to note, but it was after this record that the song’s popularity jumped into hyperdrive.)

In 1992, the Stylistics put their soulful spin on it and make it sound brand new, though they, too, sing the “highest bough” line.

Linda Ronstadt also “hangs a shining star” on her 2000 A Merry Little Christmas album. 

In 2004, Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight joined together for this moving rendition, which appeared on Warwick’s My Favorite Time of Year album; they actually make me not mind when they sing “highest bough” line. 

Also in 2004, Chris Isaak channels his inner Sinatra for this version from his Christmas album, but sings the original “muddle through” line.

In 2011, She & Him (aka Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) covered the Sinatra version for their A Very She & Him Christmas set.

First Aid Kit shared their beautiful version, which they performed on BBC Radio 2, in 2017. They, too, “muddle through.” 

Finally, the rendition that ignited this journey: Malin Pettersen and Darling West, who shared their cover a few weeks back. As I said at the time, it’s a hauntingly beautiful rendition of a haunting beautiful song. (And, note, that they also sing the original “muddle through” line.)

Friday night, while scrolling through my iPhone’s Photo Library, I came across ancient family photos that I imported via the Photomyne app while packing for our Big Move in late 2018. When used, taking a picture of a page in a photo album results in auto-cropped files for each photo thereon. The big plus: It’s faster and easier than the scanning process, as it only requires a click. It also, obviously, preserves the integrity of the album(s). The downside: The quality, as shown to the left (that’s me in the early 1970s), is nowhere near as good as a scan. As thumbnails, the photos of photos look okay – washed-out, but good enough to recall the moment in time. Up close, however, they’re somewhat blotchy and pixelated.

Cover songs work in similar fashion. At their best, they’re metaphoric pipelines to and from the collective unconscious, shedding insights not just into the singer and song, but all who have braved the same musical journey. At their worst, they’re little more than carbon copies of the original, somewhat faded and hard to hear, but enjoyable nonetheless.

And, with that out of the way, here’s Today’s Top 5: Cover Songs, Vol. 55…

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – “One of These Days.” This Neil Young song (originally from Harvest Moon) is obviously dear to CMA’s heart, as she’s covered it before.

2) Phoebe Bridgers – “If We Make It Through December.” So, a few years back, I compiled a list of songs Courtney Marie should cover… and this Merle Haggard song was one of them. To my ears and heart, it’s one of the greatest songs written about making it through tough times – and Bridgers does it justice.

3) Malin Pettersen and Darling West – “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” This is a haunting beautiful rendition of a song that is, itself, hauntingly beautiful.

4) Margo Price – “River.” Who hasn’t covered this non-Christmas song? Yet when it’s done right, as it is by Ms. Price, who can complain? The heart aches while listening to it.

5) Molly Tuttle – “White Rabbit.” Molly boards the Jefferson Airplane for a flight high above the clouds with this very cool rendition of a Summer of Love standard.

And one bonus…

Scary Pockets featuring Rett Madison – “I’m on Fire.” I’m somewhat over covers of this Boss tune, as the Staves’ rendition from a few years back sort of made all others moot. But this kind of redraws the blueprint. (Rett, by the way, is an up-and-coming L.A.-based singer-songwriter – her recent single, “Kerosene,” absolutely smokes; and Scary Pockets is a funk band with a knack for cool covers.)