Have Yourself a Melancholy Christmas

In praise of James Taylor’s latest.

As Richard Turner points out in the Nov. 26 Wall Street Journal, James Taylor’s new rendition of that most melancholy of yuletide songs, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” seems a lot more appropriate to the current era of post-9/11 grieving and wartime anxiety than the song ever seemed to its original context, the MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis.In that movie, Judy Garland sang it to soothe little sister Margaret O’Brien’s sadness about their daddy Leon Ames’ pending transfer to New York, circa 1900. (The movie’s improbable happy ending is that he decides to keep his family in Missouri!) On the other hand, as Turner also points out, the song’s true context was 1943, the year it was written, when the United States had just entered World War II. Turner reports that even Garland—who subsequently committed suicide—thought “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” too much of a downer. In fact, it’s somber but also reassuringly Churchillian, and this listener likes Taylor’s version quite a lot. (Hipsters should be forewarned that Chatterbox, as he made clear in this tribute to Paul Simon, does not pretend to have cutting-edge taste in contemporary music.) Alas, Turner’s story links only to a snippet of the Taylor rendition (and in any case, you can’t get to the Journal Web site without a subscription). You can hear the whole thing by clicking here.

Chatterbox is on record decrying Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” on the grounds that they remove God from religious holidays. As Chatterbox put it earlier, “Berlin’s ‘White Christmas,’ ‘Easter Parade,’ and ‘God Bless America’ foster an unhealthy confusion about what to render unto Caesar and what to render unto God.” According to this logic, Chatterbox should also dislike “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” As an atheist, though, Chatterbox feels a limit to how deeply he can take offense, particularly considering that “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” doesn’t secularize in order to dumb down a serious topic with gooey sentimentality. The song’s title is amazingly bitter, with that condescending “have yourself” where you’d ordinarily expect just “have” and the belittling “little.” It’s hard to avoid reading the song’s cheeriest lines as pure sarcasm: “Here we are as in olden days/

Happy golden days of yore.” But they are followed immediately by a simple and moving expression of real feeling: “Precious friends who are dear to us/ Will be near to us once more.”

Throughout, the song is a deft balancing act between disillusion about what’s bad in life and sincere gratitude for what’s good. It bravely assures that the bad times will pass (“In a year our troubles will be out of sight”; “In a year our troubles will be far away”), then backs away from that assurance to acknowledge that they might not (“In a year we all will be together/ If the Fates allow”). Then it concludes, touchingly, that “we’ll just have to muddle through somehow.” And finally it ends with a return to the sour: “And have ourselves a merry little Christmas now.” We will be brave; bravery might not be enough; but we’ll just have to grit our teeth and endure; but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. That’s an amazingly complex sequence of thoughts for a song about the joys of Christmas, even a pagan one that talks about “the Fates.” Perhaps it’s no accident that Taylor’s producer, Russ Titelman, has also worked extensively with Randy Newman, whose own musical career has been a high-wire act to balance the sweet against the sour. Chatterbox wonders whether Newman (whose casting of Taylor as God in his underappreciated rock-opera Faust always struck Chatterbox as mockery) now regrets that Sweet Baby James thought of covering “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” before he got the chance.