Choose Your Level Of Melancholy Thanks To Multiple Versions Of ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’
Losing Judy Garland at 47 is one of the great tragedies of music. That vibrant voice, that amazing contralto. In some ways, it is both awful and fitting that she gave us one of the saddest, most wistful Christmas songs there is: “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”
This is another one of those Christmas songs that has become nothing but background noise. It plays at the mall. It probably pops up in an ad for toasters or jewelry or a Lexus with a bow on top. It does that in large part because of Frank Sinatra, but we’ll get to that part later.
Garland’s version — the original — appears in Meet Me in St. Louis, (1944) and it was not at all the feel good hit of the summer or winter or any season. The lyrics are yearning, melancholy. It’s a song that says “maybe next year, things will be better.” It’s meant to soothe, not swing. It’s about trying to have a joyful Christmas in spite of your sadness. The arrangement is lush, and Garland’s voice — that most marvelous instrument — catches, soars, and sinks all in the same stanza. At its very core, it is a wartime song. It’s a song about knowing you may never see someone 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.
This sort of sadness simply would not do for Frank Sinatra when he recorded his 1957 version, and what Sinatra wanted, Sinatra got. He’s got a giant high-voiced lady chorus that soars triumphant and he’s going to hang a shining star upon the highest bough of the tree because of course everyone will be there.
If you want another version that roams far afield from the original, but is still really great, give a listen to the Doris Day version.
Day’s voice isn’t really an instrument for deep sorrow the way Garland’s was, so this version doesn’t retain the flavor of the original, even though Day reverts to the “muddle through somehow” lyrics. Day, though, sings them over a triumphant rise of the orchestra. It’s full of pluck instead of sadness — and that’s no bad thing, but it is definitely different from the original and is much more a song for the cheery pop of the early 1960s.
Which one should you listen to? All of them, of course. They’re all wonderful in their own way. Just don’t watch the commercials where a generic muzak version is trying to sell you a pair of leather gloves or some such, because that’s just so very wrong.