March 17, 2011
In the midst of the tragedies playing out in Japan and Libya and Bahrain, song writer Hugh Martin — an important figure in American musical history — slipped away last Thursday at the age of 96.
Martin wrote a lot of fine music for the Broadway stage and for films, but he etched his name in brass when he composed “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Trolley Song,” and “The Boy Next Door” — all classics and all written for Judy Garland in the film “Meet Me in St Louis.”
The first of those songs set Martin apart in special way, because it is relatively rare for a writer to produce a song that becomes a Christmas standard. That one became not only a standard but one of the most recorded and most popular Christmas songs of all time.
The song has an interesting history which is available in Martin’s own words at THIS LINK. This is the short version. Martin’s perennial songwriting partner, Ralph Blane, asked about a tune he had overheard Martin fooling around with, but Martin said he had given up on it. Blane had liked the melody and asked Martin to try it again. Martin wound up writing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Judy Garland’s character sang this song to her little sister (Margaret O’Brien) who was distraught because their father was moving the family from its homestead in Missouri to New York City.
In that context, the combination of Martin’s melancholy melody and his lyrics was heart-wrenching. So much so, that Judy Garland and others objected that it was too sad. Martin at first refused to change it, but actor Tom Drake talked him into it.
For instance, the song originally began: Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past. Martin changed that to Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.
That was in 1944. In 1957, at the request of Frank Sinatra, Martin changed the song again. The original lyric read, But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow / From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow. Sinatra found that a little downbeat for a Christmas album he was recording, and Martin accommodated him with, Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” which is the way it is usually performed now.
No matter, in all of its versions it’s a wonderful song from a wonderful talent.