I Heard The Bells…

Joe&WillinMarshfield+Piano

Jazz pianist Joe Reid (left) and I (right) have put together a bunch of one-hour programs of music during the past six years.

You can click here for a list of our musical programs if you are curious.

We share them at public libraries, retirement communities, memory cafes, and coffee houses.

Joe&WillRobbinsLibrarybyJinny

Our latest program features songs written for — and/or made famous by — Bing Crosby.

I had known very little about Mr. Crosby before requesting several biographies about him via our local inter-library network (which includes the terrific Robbins library pictured above in a photo by Jinny Sagorin).

Mostly I remembered him for singing an incongruous but lovely duet with David Bowie on a Christmas TV special.

Bing Crosby and David Bowie

I also knew that he loved golfing and had sung “White Christmas” — which became one of the highest selling recordings ever made.

And I was aware that at least one of his children had written about how challenging it was to have him as a father.

After reading several books about him, my perspective on Mr. Crosby has become much more complicated and fascinating and human…

To begin with, I hadn’t understood how HUGE a star Bing was.

His weekly radio programs reached millions of listeners for decades.

He was in the top ten of Hollywood box office money-makers for decades.

His recordings regularly topped the charts for decades.

He was definitely one of America’s first “superstars.”

He was also a devoted Catholic, following the spiritual path of his mother (who had requested that Bing’s father convert to Catholicism before they were married).

He sang an extraordinarily wide range of songs — from cowboy to Irish to jazz to pop to show tunes to hymns to Americana.

Although a Republican, he had a huge hit during the early years of the Great Depression with Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s empathetic lament for the common man, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” — which hit the airwaves right before FDR was elected to his first term as president.

And he was one of the first recording artists to release an album of Christmas holiday songs.

Bing-Crosby-Christmas

One of the many Christmas songs Bing recorded — “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day” — has become a new favorite of mine.

church-3413155_1920

Bing recorded it on October 3, 1956, and it soon became a holiday classic.

I recorded it earlier this month with pianist Doug Hammer at his studio in Lynn, MA (and our version is included in the player at the beginning of this blog post).

I discovered on Wikipedia that the lyrics were written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day, 1863 while the USA was in the middle of our astoundingly horrible and bloody Civil War.

Henry_Wadsworth_Longfellow_from_a_photograph_taken_in_middle_life

He lived in Cambridge, MA — a couple of miles away from where I now live — and one of his sons had left home to fight in the Union Army.

antietam-80541_1920

You can click here to learn more about Longfellow’s poem on Wikipedia if you are curious.

He experienced many deep losses during his lifetime — his first wife died after a miscarriage and his second wife died from burn wounds after her dress accidentally caught on fire — and perhaps as a result, he developed very empathetic heart.

Quotation-Henry-Wadsworth-Longfellow-If-we-could-read-the-secret-history-of-our-enemies-17-85-13

Many different composers have been moved to set this particular poem to music over the years.

JohnnyMarksandBurlIves

In 1956 Johnny Marks — a Jewish songwriter whose creative output also includes “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” “Run, Rudolph, Run,” “Silver and Gold,” “A Holly, Jolly Christmas,” and all of the other songs from the Rudolph holiday TV show — devised a lovely tune for a few stanzas from Longfellow’s poem.

I’m not sure why this song touches me so deeply…

abraham-lincoln-1432905_1920

Perhaps it is an echo of Longfellow’s broken-heartedness and faith reverberating from the depths of America’s civil war to our present moment of cultural unrest…

I am grateful to be reminded of the gentle power of words and music during this season of short days and long nights.

I am grateful to Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons and Stephen Fischer and Jinny Sagorin for the images in this blog post.

And I am grateful to YOU for reading and listening to this blog post.

May we experience more peace and empathy in the new year!

RedBellOnChristmasTree

26 thoughts on “I Heard The Bells…

  1. Oh, Will! What a marvelous post! I dearly love Bing Crosby. I grew up with his music, and the first Christmas album I bought was his- with the photo you show on the cover. I still play it. My favorite song of his is “I’ll be home for Christmas”. It was the song my parents generation loved, as their husbands and friends were off to war. I had no idea that Longfellow wrote the words to “I Heard the bells.” It is beautiful! Merry Christmas to you, Will! 🎄

    • Thank you for reading and listening to yet another blog post, Jennie. I also love “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” That song and “White Christmas” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” were all written and released during WWII — and consequently carry a significant emotional charge for millions of families… The history of the Longfellow poem is also intimately connected with war. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. A merry and heartful and rejuvenating Christmas to you, Jennie!

      • It was a great pleasure to read your post, Will. These are all songs that I dearly love. Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong generation. Music can make you feel that way… but of course you know that. 🙂 I’m so sorry I could not take the day off and hear you in Concord. A very Merry Christmas to you! 🎄

      • Yes. During during the past six years I have happily immersed myself in music written from the 1920s to the 1960s! And no pressure ever about coming to one of my performances… What you are doing at your school is precious and hugely important work/play!!!

    • Hi, Barbara. I am reading through the “comments” section on my blog (which I only recently realized was an option) and fear I may have missed responding to you last month. Thank you for taking the time to read/listen to my blog post AND thank you again for taking time to leave such generous feedback.

  2. Hi Will. I appreciate the depth of your posts and background. I too have enjoyed Bing’s music and with your songs and history added, I have a new deeper appreciation for him and his music. Your voice is clear and evocative with soothing accompaniment by your friend Doug. May 2020 be a year of deepening in peace and goodwill.

    Holiday blessings, Brad

    • Thank you for MORE listening, Brad. I love learning a little bit about the history and context of songs —how they came to be written and performed. Somehow it adds an extra layer or two of meaning when I sing it (or when the song sings me…) I second your gentle call for deepening peace and goodwill in 2020 here on planet earth!!!

  3. Lovely musical opening: what an inspiring concept—peace on Earth, good will to men. Wonderful to hear you sing it.

    I enjoyed all the history you provided too. Bing Crosby was my mother’s favorite, and your post brought back her off-tune impersonation of one of his classic musical riffs.

    Your gentle posts continually lift my spirits. All good wishes to you this holiday season.

    • Thank you for making time during this potentially-very-busy holiday season to listen to/read another one of my blog posts! I am delighted that my post might help lift your spirits a bit. I am also glad that your mother sang whether she was perfectly in tune or not. After reading several biographies about Bing, I have a much better appreciation for how deeply his long career on radio, records and movies impacted the cultural life of people in the USA and also around the world. Thank you for your good wishes. I wish you peace and rejuvenation during this time of long nights and short days (although the days are starting to get longer again!)

  4. My parents were huge Crosby fans and I still love his music. His version of ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ has been known to bring a tear to my eye when I imagine mum and dad listening to it, thousands of miles apart for years during WW2. Besides, my dad’s ears stuck out a bit like Bing’s. Merry Christmas, Will – and a happy new year!

    • Thanks for listening!!! I have learned that several of the songs Bing recorded — including “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “White Christmas,” and “It’s Been A Long, Long Time” — became important/meaningful to people during WWII. I will add “I’ll Be Seeing You” to this list. I was singing it yesterday while walking around my neighborhood. It’s a gem of a song. Apparently in the early days of Bing’s movie career (the short films he did for Mack Sennett, maybe?) the makeup department was tasked with gluing or taping his ears so that they didn’t stick out so much. But due to the bright, hot lights used during filming, this solution didn’t last very long before his ears needed more glue/tape… Once he acquired some clout, his ears were allowed to stick out. He DID, however, agree to wear very natural-looking toupees for his entire career, although he also found ways to wear hats (thus avoiding the use of a toupee) whenever possible in his movie roles and in his public appearances. Merry Christmas to you and a happy, peaceful, industrious new year as well! I look forward to more vicarious travel around Great Britain via your blog in 2020…

  5. What a lovely post, Will–and what a lovely version of this song. I didn’t know or had forgotten the origins of the lyrics. Thank you for sharing that, as well. Wishing you and yours a very happy holiday season!

  6. A beautiful rendition of my husband’s favorite carol. Every year he wonders if churches are afraid to use it because it is not upbeat enough. But I find it both recognizes darkness and holds out hope. (I really appreciate learning the backstory from you!)

    • It definitely recognizes darkness… and blessedly affirms hope (even in the midst of a bloody and brutal civil war in which his beloved son was fighting!) Deep breath in. Deep breath out. THANK YOU, as always, for reading and listening!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s