According to Billboard, more than 2,100 different holiday music CD titles have been purchased this year. Not much of the music is original. From "O Tannenbaum" to "Jingle Bell Rock," many of the season's songs have endured multiple interpretations. But no matter how many versions a song goes through, each one had an origin. This week, What's In a Song, our occasional series from the Western Folklife Center about one song and its story, looks at one of the hearty perennials.

(Soundbite of "Silver Bells")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Silver Bells...

Mr. RAY EVANS (Songwriter): This is Ray Evens from Beverly Hills, California.

(Soundbite of "Silver Bells")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...silver Bells...

Mr. EVANS: I'm a songwriter. My partner, Jay Livingston, who passed away a couple years ago, we had a very wonderful, exciting career.

(Soundbite of "Silver Bells")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) ...ring-a-ling...

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) ...ring-a-ling...

Unidentified Man #1: ...hear them ring...

Unidentified Woman #1: ...ting-a-ling...

Mr. EVANS: We were under contract to Paramount Studios with options every six months. Every six months they decided if they wanted to continue employing us. And we hadn't had a hit for a while and we were getting a little nervous about, `Are they going to pick up the next option or not?'

(Soundbite of "Silver Bells")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) the air there's a feeling of Christmas.

Mr. EVANS: This picture came along called, "The Lemon Drop Kid," starring Bob Hope, and a Christmas song was required for it. Well, we had no enthusiasm for writing a Christmas song 'cause we figured, stupidly, thank God, that the world had too many Christmas songs already.

(Soundbite of "Silver Bells")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) ...silver bells...

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) ...silver bells...

Unidentified Woman #1: ...silver bells...

Mr. EVANS: The plot of "The Lemon Drop Kid" was that Bob Hope was a tin horn, a small-time gambler in New York City, and he was in hock to the mob.

(Soundbite of "The Lemon Drop Kid")

Unidentified Actor #1: Now that you're feeling better, let's talk about the 10 grand you owe me.

Mr. BOB HOPE: Now look, Moose, all I've got is 15 cents and box of lemon drops. Will you have one?

Unidentified Actor #1: Trying to make me a sucker can be very painful.

Mr. HOPE: No...

Unidentified Actor #1: Should we be paying for surgery?

Mr. HOPE: Oh, now wait, Moose. I'll get the 10 grand. Hey, if I only had till Christmas.

Mr. EVANS: Bob Hope, to get out of the clutches of the mob, decided that he would disguise himself as Santa Claus on a street in New York, and as Santa Claus the mob couldn't find him and he'd be out of danger.

(Soundbite of "The Lemon Drop Kid")

Unidentified Actor #1: have the money for me Christmas Eve or Christmas morning you'll find your head in your stocking.

Mr. HOPE: Oh?

Mr. EVANS: That was the story of why we had to write a Christmas song, so we shared an office with two desks facing each other. And on one of the desks there was a little bell. We said, `Oh, there's our theme for Christmas and the bell makes a tinkling sound when it's ringing, so we'll call our song "Tinkle Bell."'

(Soundbite of bells ringing)

Mr. EVANS: So we wrote the song called "Tinkle Bell" because of the tinkley sound of the bell.

(Soundbite of "Silver Bells")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style. In the air...

Mr. EVANS: Jay went home after finishing the song. His wife said--Wilma--`Well, what'd you do in school today?' or something like that. And he said, `We wrote a Christmas song called "Tinkle Bell."' Well, she looked at him in astonishment, `"Tinkle Bell"? Are you out of your mind? You can't write a song with the word "tinkle" in it. Don't you know what the word "tinkle" means? It has a double meaning.' And Jay said, `I never thought of that.'

(Soundbite of "Silver Bells")

Mr. EVANS: So we started to write a complete new song, get rid of "Tinkle Bell" completely. But we liked the music that went with "Tinkle Bell" except for the word `tinkle,' and a lot of the lyrics. And we ended up with the same song we started with, only Tinkle became...

(Soundbite of "Silver Bells")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Silver bells, silver bells, it's Christmastime in the city.

Mr. EVANS: It's a stupid, stupid story, but ignorance was bliss and thank God we did, because our royalties are very, very good from our song.

(Soundbite of "The Lemon Drop Kid")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...silver bells...

Mr. HOPE: (Singing) I love to this Santa suit.

Unidentified Group: ...silver bells...

Mr. HOPE: Just fill it up with loot.

Unidentified Group: It's Christmas...

(Soundbite of different version of "Silver Bells")

Unidentified Man #2: ...time in the city.

(Soundbite of different version of "Silver Bells")

Unidentified Woman #2: ...ring-a-ling...

(Soundbite of different version of "Silver Bells")

Unidentified Man #3: ...hear them ring...

(Soundbite of different version of "Silver Bells")

Unidentified Man #4: Soon...

(Soundbite of different version of "Silver Bells")

ALVIN & THE CHIPMUNKS: will be Christmas Day.

Mr. EVANS: It's now sold over 500 million records, so who could ask for anything more? I could never ask for anything more, and I wake up every morning and say, `Boy, I'm the luckiest person in the world.' And I'm still around even at the age of 91.

(Soundbite of "The Lemon Drop Kid")

Mr. HOPE: It's nice to see you, Henry.

Unidentified Woman #3: Henry, this is the Lemon Drop Kid. He's responsible for all this.

Unidentified Actor #2: Thanks, kid.

Mr. HOPE: Oh, it's deductible.

(Soundbite of "Silver Bells")

HANSEN: What's In a Song is produced by Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis of the Western Folklife Center.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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