Schmidt: What Judy Garland can teach us about politics in 2017
I love writing this column. I love figuring it out in my head, in the shower or on my commute; I love being forced to articulate my responses to political events that otherwise just leave me stewing in anger or sorrow. One of the many awful thoughts I had on election night was, “there is no way I can keep writing about politics every two weeks under these circumstances,” but it turns out that being forced to take stock of the appalling situation around us is actually helpful (for me, anyway).
All that being said, however… Look, I’m writing this on Christmas Eve after my wife and I spent a couple of hours assembling our daughter’s big present. Santa’s cookies and scotch are out in the kitchen, the house has a yuletide glow; I just can’t bring myself to engage our daunting new political reality again tonight. Yes, we do need to commit ourselves to an unending struggle for justice while the progress of the last eight years is threatened and the odds seem, at the institutional level at least, to be hopelessly stacked against us. But not tonight, damn.
You’ll be reading this after the holidays, but it’s important we bring some of this glow with us into the new year. So for once, and maybe once only, I’m giving you a column that is less personal, less political, and more in the spirit of the holidays.
There are a lot of great holiday songs out there, but for my money, they don’t get better than Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. It’s originally from a movie called Meet Me in St. Louis, one of those amazing Vincente Minnelli MGM musicals of the 1940s and ‘50s, that wasn’t actually even a Christmas movie. The film is set at the turn of the twentieth century. The family at the heart of the action, the Smiths, are modern middle class, middle American people, living and falling in love and having their hearts broken during a time of transformation; at the end of the film, the family goes to the World’s Fair and sits, in horse-drawn buggies, looking by electric light at an exciting new world.
But the song isn’t a happy or excited or giddily modern tune at all.
At one point in the film, the Smith patriarch announces that he has been promoted at his firm, and that, as a result, the family will be moving to New York. His daughters are heart-broken; Have Yourself…, performed by Judy Garland, is a sad goodbye to the home, and friends, that the Smiths are leaving behind.
In fact, the first draft of the song was, in the words of the song’s lyricist, Hugh Martin, “dreadfully sad,” and “lugubrious.” “Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” it began. “It may be your last.”
Garland refused to sing that version, feeling (correctly), that singing such mordant lyrics to her younger siblings would come across onscreen as self-indulgent and cruel. “If I sing that, little Margaret [O’Brien, who played the youngest Smith child] will cry,” she told Martin, and the audience “will think I’m a monster!” Martin and his writing partner, Ralph Blane, re-wrote the song, and in the movie, it completely confirms Garland’s judgment. Seeing her attempt to sing a hopeful yuletide song to her kid sister, and fail, is much more affecting than the original version of the song could have been: “Someday soon, we all will be together,” she sings, but she can’t really commit to a false promise. “…if the fates allow. Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.” As Martin put it, the song is sadder because Garland is smiling through her tears.
The film was released at the end of 1944, just over three years after the United States entered the Second World War. The movie was a hit, but not as big a hit as the song, which is among the most-covered Christmas tunes in the American songbook. For a population which had made enormous sacrifices during the war, and which had no way of knowing that the conflict would end within the next year, the unconvincing but not impossible hope in lines like, “faithful friends who are dear to us, will be near to us once more,” resonated. Garland’s single of the tune (on Decca Records) was particularly popular with service personnel. When she sang the song at the USO’s celebrated Hollywood Canteen, soldiers in the audience cried.
To Martin and Blane’s credit, the ambiguities in the song – the sad but not defeated hopefulness of it – shine through in multiple covers, even those that follow the cheerier rewrite that Martin provided at Frank Sinatra’s request. It’s a sweet but sobering little Christmas song, and my favorite.
There, I did it! A whole column with nothing about our Sisyphean political position! All I’m saying is, if, over the next couple of weeks, as we dig our way out from the festivities, you could do worse than thinking of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and reflecting on the people that made the song a hit; people who resigned themselves, after three exhausting years in a fight against fascism and in defense of their friends, their neighbors, and their democracy, to one more year, or even longer, in that struggle. You certainly can’t call it a hopeful song, but it’s not despairing either. It’s a song for people who know they have a hard fight ahead, and, well… any hopeful resolution to that sentence would feel like an act of bad faith, a refutation of the spirit of the song.
So I’ll just say, Happy Holidays, everybody. See you in 2017.
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