Monday, December 14, 2009

White Christmas

I’ve hardly done an exhaustive study, but I suspect that virtually every major popular singer or band has made a Christmas album, or at the very least recorded a Christmas song. I’m reasonably sure, though, that next to Bing Crosby’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” perhaps the most famous Christmas song is Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting over an open fire…”). But like Crosby’s version of “White Christmas,” the most widely known version of Cole’s “The Christmas Song” isn’t the original recording. Interestingly, both songs date from the World War II era, the first (surviving) recording of “White Christmas” dating from 1942 (issued on record in conjunction with the release of the film Holiday Inn) and “The Christmas Song” from 1944, written by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells and perhaps inspired by the massive popular success of “White Christmas.”

The Nat King Cole Trio recorded “The Christmas Song” twice over the space of two months in 1946, the second version recorded with a small string section. It was this second version, released in November 1946, that became the huge hit. However, the version that receives the most airplay today, and the one I heard on the radio yesterday, is the version Cole re-recorded in stereo in 1961. As a consequence of hearing the song yesterday, I was motivated to peruse James Haskins’ and Kathleen Benson’s Nat King Cole: A Personal and Professional Biography. They indicate that although Cole won over a white audience in 1946 with “The Christmas Song,” he continued to suffer at the hands of white bigots. For instance, when he moved into a largely white neighborhood in Los Angeles in 1948, various acts of vandalism were committed against his house. At another time Cole’s daughter recalled, “Someone came in the night and on the front lawn they burned the word ‘Nigger.’ This was an isolated incident, but it was so powerful—burned in the lawn. I think I went out that morning to wait for the school bus, and here was this word. And it seemed to take the longest time for the grass to grow in. The shadow of that word was always there” (p. 81). In 1949, Cole was unjustly harassed by the IRS, and in April 1956—eighteen months after the release of the “beloved” Christmas movie, White Christmas (1954), starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye (pictured above, with Cole)—members of the White Citizens’ Council, an organization advocating regional resistance to the Supreme Court and Federal prerogatives regarding race, attacked Cole on stage in his home town of Birmingham, Alabama. (A month before, Martin Luther King was on trial in Montgomery, Alabama for leading a conspiracy to violate the state’s boycott laws, for which he was found guilty.) I conclude that ten years after Cole’s hit recording of “The Christmas Song,” and in the context of the Civil Rights era, the song could no longer encourage white audiences to believe that the suppressed anger felt by a black man could be channeled into ”harmless” music.

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