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I’m too old for Kanye and Lady Gaga and too young for Johnny Mathis and Perry Como. My idea of good music comes from James Taylor, and my idea of a great Christmas album is JT’s. I was listening to him sing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas the other day when I realized he was singing different lyrics than what I was used to. At the climax of the song, instead of singing the triumphant Hang a shining star upon the highest bow he sings, Until then, we’ll just have to muddle through somehow.
James Taylor takes this song to new depths of melancholy with his mournful voice, the sad mood of the music and the sadness of the muddling through lyric. Through the wonders of Wikipedia, I learned that rather than doing a new interpretation of the standard, Taylor was simply returning the song to its roots.
The song was originally sung by Judy Garland in the film Meet me in St. Louis. The family in the movie is moving from St. Louis to New York, Christmas is coming, and Judy Garland sings to five-year-old Margaret O’Brien to express the family’s sadness over their upcoming move. The original lyrics were even sadder; she was supposed to begin the song, Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last. Judy Garland objected, saying, “People will think I’m a monster if I sing that to a five-year-old.” The lyrics were changed, but Garland still sang about muddling through.
They were changed again over a decade later at Frank Sinatra’s request. Sinatra wanted to include the song on a Christmas album and phoned Ralph Blane, the lyricist, and said, “I’m doing an album called ‘Jolly Christmas.’ Can you jolly that song up for me?” And so “muddling through” gave way to hanging a shining star upon the highest bough.
Fast forward fifty years or so and James Taylor was recording his Christmas album in the fall of 2001. The horrors of 9/11 were fresh and JT felt “muddling through” captured the mood of the nation, so he did what he could to restore the song’s original feel.
“Muddling through” sure describes my feelings today.
By now I’m sure you’ve seen the NRA statement about putting an armed good-guy in every school as a response to the recent slaughter of the innocents in Connecticut. I have two responses. First, sadly, I think we may very well need to go in that direction. When I lived in Europe I saw international schools (housing the children of diplomats and military and corporate bigwigs who are ripe kidnapping targets) surrounded by razor-wire topped walls and the school couldn’t be accessed except through a gate protected by armed guards. That may be our future.
But I had a second reaction that I wanted to say to the NRA. It’s not about the armed part, it’s about the good-guy part. I want the NRA and all the rest of us to grapple with the reality that the world isn’t neatly divided between good and bad people. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.” The problem in our world isn’t that bad guys have access to guns, it’s that people have access to guns. We’re muddling through this Christmas because a “madman” massacred 20 beautiful, innocent children. But there are thousands of families who muddle through every Christmas because dad shot mom or mom shot herself or a teenager playing around shot another teenager. When we blame bad guys we deny the truth that “good” people do bad things every day. In the culturally unfashionable words of the Apostle Paul, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
Here’s a link to James Taylor’s attempt to rescue Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas from Frank Sinatra. I give a lump of coal to Sinatra for convincing Ralph Blane to jolly the song up. Blane had it right the first time. We’re all just muddling through.