The Holy-day Spirit


Another delicious Thanksgiving has come and gone.

Days are short.

Nights are long.

And increasingly cold.

Last week jazz pianist Joe Reid and I shared our program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and composers at a retirement community in Newton.

As I have probably noted in previous blog posts, a significant number of great winter holiday songs were written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and composers.

In 1942 Irving Berlin gave us “White Christmas.”

In 1945 Mel Tormé and Bob Wells gave us “The Christmas Song.”

In 1949 Johnny Marks gave us “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

In 1950 Jay Livingston and Ray Evans gave us “Silver Bells.”

In 1959 Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen gave us “The Secret of Christmas.”

In 1966 Jerry Herman gave us “We Need A Little Christmas.”

In 1995 Jason Robert Brown gave us “Christmas Lullaby,”

And the list goes on and on!

In this political moment here on planet earth — when many are working to arouse a righteous sense of “us” versus ‘them” in their followers — I am grateful to be reminded of the folks who bridge cultures/identities and bring people together.

Mel Tormé’s parents were Jewish immigrants who fled Russia for a new life in the United States. Although he is most famous as a jazz vocalist, he also co-wrote 250+ songs, many of them with Bob Wells (born Robert Levinson), who was also Jewish.

According to Tormé, the song was written during a blistering hot summer day in an effort to “stay cool by thinking cool.”

mel-torme

As Mel recalled, he “saw a spiral pad on Bob’s piano with four lines written in pencil: Chestnuts roasting… Jack Frost nipping… Yuletide carols… Folks dressed up like Eskimos. Bob didn’t think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter, he could cool off. Forty minutes later that song was written. I wrote all the music and some of the lyrics.”

The forty minutes that they devoted to creating that song certainly paid off extraordinarily well for Mr. Wells and Mr. Tormé!

Many songwriters aspire to create a holiday standard, which will then be recorded and performed year after year — generating an ongoing stream of revenue.

When I was first putting together a program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish composers and lyricists, I worked with the wonderful pianist Megan Henderson — who is now the musical director for the Revels organization, which creates the beloved Christmas Revels held at Sanders Theatre each December.

As we were musing about the different reasons that these winter holiday songs came to be written, we came up with the term, “Christmas ka-ching!” to describe the economic motivation that no doubt was driving some of the songwriters.

Several winter holiday songs were created to be performed in films.

One of my favorite holiday standards, “Silver Bells,” was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans for a 1950 movie, The Lemon Drop Kid, where it was sung by Marilyn Maxwell and Bob Hope.

I always associate it with my mother’s mother, a hard-working private nurse who lived in the borough of Queens for most of her life and no doubt did a lot of her holiday shopping on “city sidewalks, busy sidewalks — decked in holiday style.”

Jay Livingston, who wrote the music for “Silver Bells,” and Ray Evans, who wrote the lyrics for “Silver Bells,” were a famous Jewish songwriting team with many hits to their credit including “Mona Lisa” and “Que Sera Sera.”

ray_jay

Jay was born Jacob Harold Levison in 1915 in a small industrial suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, and Ray was born Raymond Bernard Evans — also in 1915 — in Salamanca, not far from Buffalo, N.Y.

They met at the University of Pennsylvania when they both joined the university dance band, and their songwriting partnership endured until Livingston’s death in 2001.

I love the verse — not always sung — they wrote for “Silver Bells.”

“Christmas make you feel emotional. It may bring parties or thoughts devotional. Whatever happens or what may be, here is what Christmastime means to me…”

A contemporary Jewish songwriter, Jason Robert Brown, wrote another one of my favorite winter holiday songs — “Christmas Lullaby” — for his first musical revue called Songs for a New World.

 


Mr. Brown is an extremely gifted human being who sometimes works as music director, conductor, orchestrator, and pianist for his own productions — and has won Tony Awards for his work on the Broadway musicals Parade and The Bridges of Madison County.

JasonRBrown

“Christmas Lullaby” honors one of the deepest miracles of all — how a woman (with a little genetic input from a man — or, in the case of Jesus’ mother Mary, with the help of the Holy Spirit) can grow an entirely new human being inside her body.

I think about this miracle in my Music Together classes, because I have been teaching long enough for many mothers — who originally attended with their first child — to become pregnant and return for more music with their second (and even third) child.

Neil Postman wrote at the beginning of his book, The Disappearance of Childhood, that “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”

Although this sentence also appears in a book published the following year by John Whitehead called, The Stealing of America, it appears to have been coined by Postman.

And regardless of who gets credit for it, I LOVE this idea.

One of my sisters-in-law — who has parented two children and worked with hundreds of others in the public schools of Western, MA — incorporated this quotation into a work of art which I see hanging on her wall every time I visit.

Sometimes I remember during my Music Together classes that part of my modest legacy here on planet earth may be the spontaneous and affirmative musical fun I shared with these extraordinary little souls — who will grow up to face unimaginable challenges stemming in part from the ignorant (and at times utterly greedy) choices that we grownups have made during the past 100+ years.

Perhaps some seeds of improvisation and collaboration and harmony and community and inter-connectedness and playfulness and creativity and love and respect will have been sown during our musical time together — which will blossom to help solve/resolve future challenges in a time that I will not see.

And perhaps these wonderful holiday songs will also travel into the future, continuing to touch and guide people’s hearts and minds for generations to come…

Let’s keep singing and humming and whistling and playing them!

Thank you to all of the songwriters who have created such a great legacy of music for us to share.

Thank you to Joe Reid for performing 47 shows with me in 2017 at retirement communities, public libraries, community centers, memory cafes, and synagogues around New England.

If you are curious to see what’s on our calendar for 2018 you can click here.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for recording — while playing the roles of both pianist AND engineer — the songs in this blog post with me.

Thank you to Nate Bloom, a writer who has made it a personal quest to track down and figure out which winter holiday songs have been written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and songwriters.

And THANK YOU for reading and listening to another blog post!

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10 thoughts on “The Holy-day Spirit

    • Thanks for reading and listening, Jane! We have several communities where we return 3-5 times per year to share our musical programs, and for the most part we are received whole-heartedly (since the music we love to perform is also the soundtrack for their lives and memories…) I hope you and C are doing well!!!

    • You are very welcome, Justin!!! That was a truly lovely gathering in honor of Peter on Sunday. THANK YOU for hosting all of us so graciously and creatively and collaboratively and deliciously!

  1. Thank you for another graceful and informative post. The Christmas Lullaby was lovely — as were your thoughts about the children you teach. For some reason, the first recording didn’t play for me.

    • Thank you for listening to and reading another one of my posts!!! Not sure why the first song didn’t play. I know that the browser I use sometimes affects how different web sites function… Happy and healthy and musical holydays to you and your family!

  2. Your posts are really interesting, Will–they get me wondering about things, such as why there are so many Xmas songs written by Jews and not much in the way of Hanukkah songs? I don’t know enough about Jewish religion and culture to know if religious music is less a part of things? Anyway, we certainly would have fewer great Christmas songs without the input of the composers you write about. And you, personally, are doing so much to brighten lives, with your sharing of music with children and the elderly, and all of us, too!

    • I am sure there are a wide variety of obvious and subtle reasons why these great songwriters didn’t write many Hanukkah songs… or maybe they did — and fewer singers were green-lighted to record them; so they have not become as familiar and beloved as the Christmas-themed ones? Certainly there were far fewer Broadway shows or Hollywood movies or radio/TV shows with significant Jewish plots/protagonists for which these songwriters might have had reason to write a great Hanukkah song. I also have the impression (not sure where I may have gotten it) that Hanukkah may be a Jewish historical event/holyday ritual which has became more important in the 20th century as a parallel phenomenon to the increasingly consumption-focused, present-laden Christian holyday of Christmas. I am looking forward to reading and learning more about the (often Jewish) business men who created Hollywood and much of the entertainment industry in the US. How immigrants to the US — which is all of us except for the Native Americans/First Nations folks — interact with the dominant cultural norms they experience upon arrival is a fascinating and at times heart-breaking (and even family-splitting) process. I often wonder when I am reading about Jewish songwriters here in the USA what they were feeling and how much detailed news they were getting about the horrors unfolding in Europe during the 30s and 40s… and how that may have influenced their music and lyrics… Lots of food for thought! THANK YOU, as always, for reading and listening, KerryCan!

  3. Love to you Will
    So nice to read and listen on your blog as I could not go tonight to the library gig. Always inspiring you are.!!

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