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The Story Behind 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas'

Nov 19, 2010 (Fresh Air)

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Songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine wrote the classic song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" for Judy Garland's 1944 movie, Meet Me in St. Louis, along with dozens of other songs for MGM and Broadway musicals.

In 1989, Martin and Blaine, who has since died, joined Terry Gross for a discussion about their lives and the story of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which has since been recorded by scores of musicians — including Tori Amos, Garth Brooks, Robert Goulet, Lady Antebellum, James Taylor and Bob Dylan, to name just a few — in the past 65 years.

The song "began with the melody," Martin said. "I found a little madrigal-like tune that I liked but couldn't make work, so I played with it for two or three days and then threw it in the wastebasket."

Luckily, Blaine had heard the tune, too — and told Martin it was too good to throw away.

"We dug around the wastebasket and found it," Blaine recalled. "Thank the Lord we found it."

With the melody saved, the two men started working on the words. But the first draft was too sad, and Judy Garland asked for a revision.

"The [film producers] said, 'No, no — it's a sad scene, but we want sort of an upbeat song, which will make it even sadder if she's smiling through her tears," Martin said. "Then we wrote the one you know in the movie."

Martin details what it was like to work with Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Gene Kelly, among others, in his new memoir The Boy Next Door. He also wrote the music for the Broadway productions Best Foot Forward; Look Ma, I'm Dancin'; and the stage version of Meet Me in St. Louis.

Interview Highlights From Hugh Martin's 2006 Interview On Fresh Air

On The Original Version Of 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas'

"The original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it. She said, 'If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they'll think I'm a monster.' So I was young then and kind of arrogant, and I said, 'Well, I'm sorry you don't like it, Judy, but that's the way it is, and I don't really want to write a new lyric.' But Tom Drake, who played the boy next door, took me aside and said, 'Hugh, you've got to finish it. It's really a great song potentially, and I think you'll be sorry if you don't do it.' So I went home and I wrote the version that's in the movie."

On The Many Covers Of 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"

"The strangest version [I heard] was by a group called Twisted Sister. My all-time favorite versions are from the olden days. Judy Garland, of course, [was] always tops with me. And Mel Torme, who wrote a beautiful new verse for it, was really out of this world. And Frank Sinatra, you can't beat 'Mr. Blue Eyes.' "

On His Favorite Christmas Memory

"My favorite Christmas memory was of being 6 or 7 years old, and my mother decorating the tree. And she was a very artistic woman, and she did sensational Christmas trees, so it was a real joy every year when she would decorate it, and it was a very wonderful moment. That was my favorite Christmas memory."

On How He Views Christmas Today

"I'm really upset by Christmas now. I just hate Santa Claus and the jingle bells and reindeer and the wrapped packages and the holiday push. I hate all of that. I just loved it when it was, well, all my life ago, 90 years ago."

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