Every Christmas people play that ultimate of all popular Christmas songs, “White Christmas.” It has arguably been the most popular song ever, the best selling single, the song that keeps both Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby’s names alive today among people who otherwise would never know either man. The song was written by Berlin for the 1942 movie Holiday Inn and was sung by Bing Crosby, who recorded a version that reportedly sold over 50 million copies.
And it might sound sacrilegious, but I never particularly cared for that song – it just doesn’t do it for me, which was unfortunate because the song was always inextricably linked in my mind with Bing Crosby. I thought he was a crooner who crooned slow, boring songs and whenever I watched a movie with him, I automatically skipped his songs. But recently I’ve come to realize that Crosby, apart from being one the most successful, innovative, most recorded artists of all time (check out PBS’s recent airing of the documentary Bing Crosby Rediscovered) who had more hits than any other subsequent artist (apparently even including The Beatles); but Crosby also had an extremely long career, which means he sang a great variety of songs and it was egregiously narrow minded of me to judge him by one song alone. I now no longer skip his songs.
He was very hip in the 1930s, doing jazzy things with his voice that, according to Michael Feinstein on PBS’s documentary, no one else thought to do, things with the melody that were not written but that songwriters never minded that he did. He developed a more mainstream singing approach later on, a little less jazzy, but was still much more than just a square singer of old fuddy-duddy songs. He never sang squarely. And it came naturally to him. To watch Bing Crosby sing, he has a very natural, easy-going approach that is impossible to imitate, but looks effortless. He doesn’t look like he’s working at all (as opposed to contemporary singers, who look and sound like they are working very hard, indeed).
So I’m coming to a belated appreciation of the man. I don’t always like his movies, but since his movie career is practically as long and varied as his singing career, I’ve discovered that if I don’t like one thing, there’s always another movie I’ll like. I’ve always been a big fan of his Road To movies with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour and he has an excellent rapport with Fred Astaire in Holiday Inn and Blue Skies (it is a pleasure simply to watch those two men sing and dance together). He did movies from the 1930s all the way into the early 1960s and even gave some first rate dramatic performances in the 1950s, such as the film The Country Girl with Grace Kelly.
I would like to offer some Christmas songs, then, that are not “White Christmas” and are not sentimental, but are simply fun and cheery.
“Jingle Bells” – Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters
I’m not generally much of a fan of “Jingle Bells” – it always seemed like a juvenile song to me – but this is just fun. Here Crosby sings with the Andrews Sisters. I always thought “Jingle Bells” was a relatively recent song, but it was written in 1857, by James Pierpont and was meant to be a sleighing song, not specifically a Christmas song at all.
“Christmas Is a Comin'” – Bing Crosby
I’ve been singing this all month (what little we’ve had of it, anyway). There is a line in there about having a friendly cat and since I adopted a very friendly cat recently I keep singing the song to her. She just looks at me and wants to play. The song was written by Frank Luther (a man who contributed to early country/western music) who adapted the song from a nursery rhyme and Christmas carol.
“Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer – Bing Crosby and Judy Garland
Recorded live on the radio in 1950 by Judy Garland and Bing Crosby, this is also fun. The song was written by Johnny Marks. The story Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was written by Robert L. May in 1939, who wrote the story for the department store, Montgomery Ward, which wanted to sell children’s book as a Christmas promotional. Johnny Marks was May’s brother-in-law and the song was most famously sung by Gene Autry. The story was turned into a stop-motion animation film (the same process of animation used in King Kong) in 1964, that also featured the song.