The Story Behind 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' Songwriter Hugh Martin co-wrote the Christmas tune that Judy Garland made famous in the 1944 classic Meet Me in St. Louis. Martin, who recently released a memoir, explains how he came up with his famous lyrics.
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The Story Behind 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas'

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The Story Behind 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas'

The Story Behind 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas'

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(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. Im David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.

Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine were songwriting partners during the golden age of Broadway and MGM musicals. They are best known for writing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," song Judy Garland sang in the movie, "Meet Me in St. Louis."

(Soundbite of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas")

Ms. JUDY GARLAND (Actor, singer): (Singing) Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the yuletide gay. Next year all our troubles will be miles away. Once again, as in olden days, happy golden days of yore, faithful friends who are dear to us will be near to us once more.

Some day soon we all will be together, if the saints allow. Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow. So have yourself a merry Christmas night.

BIANCULLI: Hugh Martin has written a new memoir recounting his songwriting years, called "Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door." Terry spoke with both Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine in 1989 about the movie version of "Meet Me in St. Louis," which was directed by Vincent Minnelli. Terry asked them about working with Minnelli.

TERRY GROSS: Did he have any suggestions about how he wanted to get into the songs and...

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, boy. He sure did.

Mr. BLAINE: He's a perfectionist.

Mr. MARTIN: And they were very brilliant suggestions too.

GROSS: Can you give an example?

Mr. MARTIN: The best example, I think, that when we wrote "The Trolley Song" and everyone had loved it, Vincent came up with the idea that he wanted it song by the chorus before Judy sang it, which sounded terrible to me. I couldn't understand why he wanted that. It just seemed wrong to me. But now seeing the movie, I can see how beautifully that idea worked out, of having the chorus kids come in on the car and set up the whole melody and lyric idea.

Mr. BLAINE: And then John Truett, the boy next door, dashing and trying to catch the trolley and she's so thrilled that he's trying to make it, and does finally, at the end.

Mr. MARTIN: He masterminded all of that and he was a wonderful - wonderful director.

GROSS: Did he is telling you how he wanted to stage it affect how you wrote the song at all?

Mr. MARTIN: Oh yes, because when he wanted that extra chorus of "The Trolley Song," we have to write to brand new lyric for it.

Mr. BLAINE: See, it's on the way to the fair.

Mr. MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BLAINE: And it was - we made a travel log of what part of St. Louis we were driving through.

Mr. MARTIN: But we welcomed that, sort of, being produced by brilliant people like Minnelli and Freed. It brings out the best in us. We don't resent it, we love it.

Mr. BLAINE: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: Now I want to play a version of "The Trolley Song." Now this is a song that's kind of owned by Judy Garland in a way, as a singer.

Mr. MARTIN: You bet.

GROSS: But on this version, we're going to hear Hugh Martin singing it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: How nice.

GROSS: And this is from an album that Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine made together in 1957.

Mr. MARTIN: I'm very flattered. Thank you.

GROSS: Let's give it a listen.

Mr. MARTIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, "The Trolley Song")

Mr. MARTIN: (Singing) With her high-starched collar, and my high-topped shoes and her hair piled high upon my head. She went to find a jolly hour on the trolley and found my heart instead. With my light brown derby and my bright green tie, I was quite the lonesomest of men. I started to yen, so I counted to 10 then I counted to 10 again.

Clang, clang, clang went the trolley. Ding, ding, ding went the bell. Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings for the moment I saw her I fell. Chug, chug, chug went the motor. Bump, bump, bump went the brake. Thump, thump, thump went my heartstrings. When she smiled I could feel the car shake. Clang, clang, clang.

GROSS: Hugh Martin, I like your singing a lot.

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, bless you, Terry.

GROSS: Do you still sing?

Mr. MARTIN: You know, just your playing the record has given me the old itch to sing again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: I'm going to go home and do my vocalises. Thank you for playing it.

GROSS: Oh, it's a pleasure. How did you come up with clang, clang lyric?

Mr. BLAINE: Well, after we had written three different songs for Arthur Freed, which we thought would be corny to be about a trolley, and we thought that we'll write something wonderful for Judy to sing on the trolley. And we did three different songs, of which he said, I know, oh, I love it. It's a beautiful song, but I've got a better place for it. I'm going to use it in the follies.

Mr. MARTIN: Which she never did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: It was a tactful way of throwing them out. And I'm so glad he did.

Mr. BLAINE: And finally he says now about "The Trolley Song," I want you to try again for me. And I said Hugh; he's not going to take anything less than a trolley about - a song about the trolley. So I went to the public library in Beverly Hills and was rummaging through some old turn-of-the-century newspapers and found a picture of a double-decker trolley, which they incidentally used in the movie. And under the trolley picture said clang, clang here comes the trolley. And I said, Hugh, look at this. And he said clang, clang, clang went the trolley. And about, was very few minutes he had the whole thing going. In fact, it didn't take long to write that song at all once we got the first line.

Mr. MARTIN: It was exactly three hours. Can you believe it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLAINE: We were in Freed's office demonstrating it in three hours.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. So excited.

Mr. BLAINE: And he says that's what I wanted all to time.

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, he was so excited.

Mr. BLAINE: He knew what he wanted.

GROSS: That's great.

Mr. MARTIN: And, you know, oh this is interesting about the verse. Remember, Ralph? I called up the Irene Sharaff, who had done the costumes for the film and I said, Irene could you tell me what Judy might be wearing in this scene? And she said why do you want to know? And I said well, we are working on this new song for the trolley and I might be able to work in some of those phrases if I know what they wore in those days. And she said well, it might be, she might have on a high starched collar. She might have on high topped shoes. And I said might her hair be piled high up on her head?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: And she said yes, it might. And I said well, what might the boy be wearing? And she, you know, I practically set her words to music from the costume descriptions.

Mr. BLAINE: And then when the picture was made her hair was hanging down, not piled upon her head.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. BLAINE: He was wearing a straw hat, not a brown derby.

Mr. MARTIN: They screwed us up again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLAINE: Didnt do a thing that the lyrics said. We're doing it in the show.

Mr. MARTIN: But it made a nice verse.

Mr. BLAINE: Yes.

Mr. MARTIN: Yes.

GROSS: Because you don't think about that as youre listening and watching.

Mr. MARTIN: That's right. Right.

GROSS: Have you both been in retirement for the last few years?


Mr. MARTIN: Ralph always says no and I always say yes. So you explain your standpoint...

Mr. BLAINE: Well, you're never retired as long as your head is on your head and you can think of things you can put down on paper. It's not like physical. I mean it's mental.

Mr. MARTIN: I always say yes, because I haven't done anything in show business were like 15 years. Well, I've been very active in church work. That's the passion in my life now, is that I became a Christian 10 years ago and got baptized. And now I'm a zealot for Jesus, and that is more exciting to me than the theater.

GROSS: Do you do music within the church?

Mr. MARTIN: Yes. I've written a few sacred songs, but they're not as good as my pop songs, so I've sort of stopped doing it. But I do play a lot - I use my 10 fingers to - I go on camp meetings circuits and all those things. I tell Ralph, I feel just like Katherine Hepburn in the opening scene of the "African Queen" when she's pumping away at that old organ and her hair is flying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, I want to play, you Ralph Blaine singing something from the Martin and Blaine album, again recorded in 1957. And why don't we listen to you singing "The Boy Next Door," one of the songs that you both wrote for "Meet Me in St. Louis."

Mr. MARTIN: Oh wonderful.

Mr. BLAINE: Good.

Mr. MARTIN: He does that beautifully.

GROSS: Do you want to say anything about writing the song before we hear it?


Mr. MARTIN: It was just one of those melodies that really, I'm so grateful for because it really just came out of the blue and then we put lyrics to it. It's nothing really special. Oh, there's one little special thing about it. After it was more or less finished, I asked Ralph if he thought it needed any finishing touches. And he said why don't you work the address into it - Sally's address, 5135 Kensington Avenue? So we added that and I think it's a nice touch.

Mr. BLAINE: It's a wonderful touch. I love that verse.

Mr. MARTIN: It was her real address.

Mr. BLAINE: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: We're quite escaped the verse and start with the melody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Because we're so - just because were so limited for time.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. I really messed you up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: That's okay.

Mr. BLAINE: I live at 5135 Kensington Ave and he lives in 5133.

GROSS: Hit it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "The Boy Next Door")

Mr. BLAINE: (Singing) How can I ignore the girl next door? I love her more than I can say. Doesn't try to please me. Doesn't even tease me. And she never sees me glance her way.

And though I'm heart-sore, the girl next door. Affection for me won't display. I just adore her. So I can't ignore her. The girl next door.

GROSS: That's Ralph Blaine singing "The Girl Next - The Boy Next Door sung as The Girl Next Door."

Mr. BLAINE: I have a terrible habit now. I've been listening for six weeks now as the young lady Donna Cain sings "The Boy Next Door." I tried to sing it on an interview the other day and I completely got mixed up and I had the boy and the girl all mixed up and my sexes were completely totally destroying - I couldn't help myself.

BIANCULLI: Ralph Blaine and Hugh Martin speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. Ralph Blaine died in 1995.

After a break, we'll be back with a more recent conversation between Terry and Hugh Martin.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Hugh Martin, with the late Ralph Blaine, co-wrote the songs for the musical "Meet Me in St. Louis." He has a new memoir out. It's called "Hugh Martin: The Boy Next door." Terry spoke with Hugh Martin again by phone shortly before Christmas in 2006.

GROSS: Now you once told the story on our show about how you and your late partner Ralph Blaine wrote "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Can I ask you to tell it again?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, first of all, I feel rather self-serving admitting this, but Ralph didnt really write it, honey. We wrote our songs separately so it's words and music by me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, well, good. So now you're really able to tell the complete story of how you wrote it.

Mr. MARTIN: I can really tell the complete story. Ralph was working in one room and I was working in another on "Meet Me in St. Louis," and I played the first 16 bars of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" over and over and over and got stuck. I could not get - I couldn't find a bridge for it. And so I just put it aside and decided not to work on it. And Ralph, who had heard it through the walls, came to me the next day and said whatever happened to that little madrigal-sounding melody that you were playing? And I said well, I couldn't make it work, Ralph and so I discarded it. And he said well, you find it and finish it because I have a big feeling about it. And so we did find it and I did finish it.

But the original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it. She said, if I sing that to little Margaret O'Brien 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.

GROSS: Now I should explain that in the 1944 movie musical "Meet Me in St. Louis," when Judy Garland sings this, you know, she and her younger sister are very - it's Christmas time but she and her younger sister are very unhappy because their father's job is taking him from St. Louis to New York and he is going to move the whole family to New York, and they don't want to go and leave their friends behind. So the younger sister, played by Margaret O'Brien, is crying, and Judy Garland tries to comfort her by singing the song.

Now you said that the first version was lugubrious. What made the lyrics lugubrious?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I'll sing it for you.

(Singing) Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: Pretty sad.

GROSS: But you changed that lyric, didn't you?

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, I did. The one in the movie was let's see, have yourself a merry little Christmas. Oh, until then we all will be together if the fates allow. Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow. That was the one that was in the movie. Then I got a phone call from Frank Sinatra saying I'm doing an album called "A Jolly Christmas," and I love your song, but it's just not very jolly. Do you think you could jolly it up a little bit for me? So then I wrote the line about have your - hang a shining star up on the highest bough. And Frank liked that and recorded it. And people, they do, sometimes they do that line, and sometimes they do the muddle through line somehow.

GROSS: I like the muddle through one.

Mr. MARTIN: I like the muddle through one better too.

GROSS: We're about to hear a version of "Have Yourself a Merry Christmas" that you recorded a year ago and...

Mr. MARTIN: That's right.

GROSS: ...was released earlier this year in a CD that's called "Hugh Sings Martin."

Mr. MARTIN: Right.

GROSS: And this features recordings that youve made, you know, throughout your career, particularly liked in the, I guess in the 40s and 50s.

Mr. MARTIN: That's right.

GROSS: But it has this new recording from a year ago. You made this recording when you are 90?

Mr. MARTIN: I was 90 years old. I don't know how I got through it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And you're at the piano playing and singing. It's quite beautiful. Do you want to say anything about making this recording before we hear it?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I just want to say, Terry that I never would have continued singing at all if it hadn't been for you, because you did an interview with Ralph and me in 1989, I think it was, when "Meet Me in St. Louis" opened on Broadway. And you played a little recording of me singing "The Trolley Song" and I was just about to stop singing because I wasn't getting all that much encouragement. But when at the end of the cut you said, ooh, I like your singing; I like it a lot, and that thrilled me so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: But I kept on singing.

GROSS: Well, it thrills me to hear you say that.

Mr. MARTIN: I mean it.

GROSS: And I still really like your singing.

Mr. MARTIN: Thank you.

GROSS: And I want to thank you for writing such a great Christmas song. Some of those Christmas songs tend to wear thin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: Boy, God really blessed me.

GROSS: And your song is so enduring. It's just one of the most beautiful and moving I think of all the Christmas songs. So thank you so much and thank you for talking with us again.

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, thank you, deeply, for saying that.

(Soundbite of song, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas")

Mr. MARTIN: (Singing) Here we are as in olden days. Happy golden days of yore. Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more.

So have yourself a merry little Christmas night.

BIANCULLI: Hugh Martin, playing the piano and singing. He spoke with Terry Gross in 2006. His new memoir called "Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door," has just been published.

Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1"

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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