Kimberly Sena Moore Ph.D.

Your Musical Self

A Brief History of Holiday Music: Crooners, Movies, and Novelty Songs

Holiday Music from the Great Depression through Post-War America

Posted Dec 20, 2011

This is the third and infal article in a three-part series on the history of holiday music. The first article described the origins of holiday music and the second covered the 19th-century reinvention of Christmas.

One of the results of the Victorian-era's reinvention of Christmas was the creation of dozens of new Christmas songs, including favorites such as "Silent Night," "Jingle Bells," and "Away in a Manger."

However, this trend died down and little new holiday music was composed from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. There were some exceptions, such as "Go Tell It On the Mountain" (1907) and "Toyland" (1903), but by and large we see a drop newly-composed holiday music.

Until the Great Depression.

The 3 decades spanning from the Great Depression through the post-war 1950s saw our second surge of newly-composed holiday music. Much of this music was secular in nature (i.e. it was not tied specifically to religion) and much of it was composed in America. Generally speaking, current "standard" holiday music that emerged from the mid-20th century were tied to entertainment and the media, to the crooners of the day, or were novelty songs.

Christmas through the Media

One of the hallmarks of the 20th century is the invention and rise of electronic entertainment, namely, the radio, TV, records, and movies. Many Christmas songs from these decades were tied to and/or premiered through one of these forms of media:

  • One of the first "kiddie" songs introduced through the radio was "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" (1932-34).
  • The tune "Winter Wonderland" (1934) was first recorded by Guy Lombardo in 1934 and became a big hit again in 1950 when it was recorded by the Andrews Sisters.
  • Gene Autry, the famous "Singing Cowboy," both wrote the lyrics to and helped popularize this 1946 Christmas standard: "Here Comes Santa Claus."
  • Another Gene Autry-introduced song, that also happens to be the second largest-selling holiday song behind one listed below, is "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1949). It has likely maintained it's popularity in part due to the beloved animated TV special that premiered in 1962 and is still aired annually.

Christmas Crooners

Many holiday songs we know and love today were made popular by the famous crooners of the time: Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, and more. Although many of these were premiered in movies, it was the singers themselves that made them memorable:

  • This song is the biggest-selling Christmas song of all time. It's initial, most popular rendition took only 18 minutes to record. Since then, there are reportedly over 500 recorded versions of this song in more than 12 different languages. What song is it? Irving Berling's "White Christmas" (1940), which made it's debut in the 1942 movie "Holiday Inn" and was most famously sung by Bing Crosby.
  • Another Bing Crosby favorite was composed during the height of WWII and speaks to the longing of soldiers wanting to return home to be with their loved ones: "I'll Be Home for Christmas" (1943).
  • "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was composed in 1944 for the movie "Meet Me In St. Louis," starring Judy Garland. Interesting little fact? One line from the original version--"...until then we'll have to muddle through somehow..."--was later changed to make the song more hopeful and less bittersweet--"...hang a shining star upon the highest bough..."
  • The 1950 movie "The Lemon Drop Kid" brought us the lovely song "Silver Bells," sung in the movie by Bob Hope.
  • In 1954, Perry Como introduced us to the song "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays."

Novelty Songs

Novelty songs are those written and performed to be comical, sometimes satirical, and often nonsensical. Many songs we enjoy listening to year after year fall into this cateogry, including:

  • "(All I Want For Christmas Is) My Two Front Teeth" (1946)
  • "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" (1952)
  • "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" (1953)
  • "I'm Getting Nuttin' for Christmas" (1955)
  • "The Chipmunk's Christmas Song" (1958)

Wrap-Up

This 3-part series primarily covered holiday music in the Christmas tradition, which is where we find the majority of our holiday music. There are other holidays celebrated around this time of year--namely Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa--whose music is beyond the scope of this series, but may perhaps be good subjects for future articles...?

References

Nobbman, D.V. (2000). Christmas Music Companion Fact Book. Anaheim Hills, CA: Centerstream Publishing.

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