Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Stories Behind The Songs

© Joellen Armstrong | Dreamstime Stock Photos

This morning I finished reading "Stories Behind The Best-Loved Songs Of Christmas" by Ace Collins. Many Christmas songs have a way of evoking emotion and deep feeling in our hearts, and it was interesting to learn how they came to be. There are many good stories in this book that are quite detailed and lengthy, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in this type of thing. I thought it would be fun to share a few brief stories that I found to be either particularly intriguing or humorous. 

"O Holy Night"
The words to "O Holy Night" were written by a French Catholic poet who later left Catholicism and joined the socialist movement. The music was written by a man who didn't even believe in Christ...a Jew. When the political and religious "persuasions" of the two writers came to light, the song was officially denounced by the Catholic church, but it was so well-loved by that time that many continued to sing it. About 50 years later in 1906, Reginald Fessenden, former chief chemist for Thomas Edison, broadcast the human voice over radio airwaves for the very first time in history. His first words were the reading of the Christmas story from Luke 2. Then he played a song on his violin. The first song ever broadcast over the airwaves - "O Holy Night!" 

"Silver Bells" 
Jay Livington and Ray Evans were tasked with writing the music for "The Lemon Drop Kid" starring Bob Hope. They discussed how most Christmas songs were about scenes of tranquility, but for this song, they needed something that captured the hustle and bustle of Christmas in a big city. While having a brainstorming session about the music, one of them was playing with a little bell, which eventually inspired the song. Before sharing it with Bob Hope, they sang it for Evan's wife, who giggled and laughed throughout the whole song. She said she liked it except for one word...they had begun the song "Tinker bell, tinker bell, it's Christmas time in the city." They changed "tinker" to "silver" and had an instant classic. Interestingly, this same writing team wrote many other classics like  "Mona Lisa" and "Que Sera Sera" and...are you ready for this? The theme song from Mr. Ed.

"O Little Town Of Bethlehem"
This song was written by Phillip Brooks, an Episcopalian minister who spoke at President Lincoln's funeral. After enduring several difficult years of ministry (due at least partially to the stresses of the Civil War), Brooks took a sabbatical to the Holy Land. On Christmas Eve, 1865, he borrowed a horse and rode out alone through the hills around Bethlehem. It was there under the star-filled sky that God impressed some thoughts upon his heart which later took the form of a poem. Several years later, the organist in his church labored at length to write a melody, but he came up with nothing. He awoke from sleep later that night with the tune we now know as "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" playing in his mind.

"The Christmas Song"
"The Christmas Song" was written on a very hot California day in July. Lyricist Robert Wells was trying to cool himself off with fans and positive thinking, so he jotted down a list of things that made him think of cold weather. "Chestnuts roasting...Jack Frost nipping...Yuletide carols...folks dressed up like Eskimos." Wells' songwriting partner, Mel Torme, caught a glimpse of his list setting on the piano and instantly it hit him as lyrics. 40 minutes later, the two men had written "The Christmas Song."

"Do You Hear What I Hear?"
"Do You Hear What I Hear?" was written, unbelievably, by a husband and wife team whose first names were Gloria and Noel. Gloria and Noel...get it? Noel Regney wrote the words, and then asked his wife, Gloria Shayne, to write the music. After she read through the lyrics, she went shopping. The first line of the song came to her in Bloomingdale's. When she returned home, she found that she had added an extra note in her tune, causing it to no longer fit her husband's lyrics...which is why one should probably compose music sitting in front of a piano rather than walking through the mall:) Noel decided to add a word so he wouldn't mess up Gloria's melody. Had she not added that extra note, instead of "Said the night wind to the little lamb" it would have been "Said the wind to the little lamb." So I guess composing music while shopping turned out okay after all!

"Jingle Bells"
"Jingle Bells" was originally written as a Thanksgiving song. In 1840, the pastor of the Unitarian church in Medford, Massachusetts, asked his son, the church organist, to write some special music for their Thanksgiving service. When the melody came to him, he had to walk through the snow to the home of Mrs. Waterman as she owned the only piano in Medford. The song was such a hit on Thanksgiving, that the choir was asked to sing it again at Christmas. Many of the visitors on Christmas Sunday loved the song so much that they took it back home to their own communities. Since they first heard it on Christmas, they taught it to their friend and families as a Christmas song.

"The 12 Days Of Christmas"
In the 16th century, all denominations and sects of Christianity were outlawed in Great Britain except for the Church of England. One of the biggest difficulties that non-Anglicans faced was in teaching their own doctrines to their children when they were allowed no freedom of religion. Allegedly, English Catholics came up with "The 12 Days Of Christmas" as a kind of code to teach their children. It was meant to be nonsensical to those who weren't "in on the secret" but full of meaning for those who were. Each of the gifts in the song, along with its corresponding number is said to have theological significance. For example, 4 calling birds represent the writers of the 4 Gospels. Some of them (most of them) seem to me to be a stretch, but what do I know? I'm a Baptist:)

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