“No wonder I didn’t recognize it. It must be the only Christmas song not written by a Jewish songwriter.”
So said Wolowitz, a lead Jewish character on TV’s “Big Bang Theory,” after hearing his buddy sing “Good King Wenceslas,” a traditional carol.
Popular culture outlets are finally catching up with the fact that about half of the most popular modern Christmas or “holiday” songs were written by Jewish songwriters. This still comes as a surprise to some – but it really isn’t a shocker when you realize that the lion’s share of enduring Christmas hits were composed between about 1920 to 1965. That is the songwriting era that produced what is now called the Great American Songbook. About 75 percent of all Songbook hits, now referred to as standards, were written by Jewish songwriters.
But enough detailed history – I know you want names and songs and some good background stories. I’ll sprinkle just a bit more history as I share names and stories.
Facts and Stories:
The Old Standby Hits
Every December, the American Society of Composers and Publishers- ASCAP – issues a list of the top 10 holiday or Christmas songs based on amount of radio airplay that year. (Up until 2011, the list included 25 songs.)
The list changes only a little from year to year, so the “special” 2009 list, which contained the top 25 most played holiday songs of the decade, 2000-09, is a very good benchmark of the perennial recent favorites.
Twelve of the 25 songs on the 2009 list were written or co-written by Jewish songwriters, and all were written between 1934 and 1963. The name of the Jewish writer/co-writer is preceded by a number indicating the song’s ASCAP ranking:
1) Winter Wonderland, music by Felix Bernard
2) The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting..), words & music by Mel Torme and Robert Wells
3) Sleigh Ride, words by Mitchell Parrish
6) White Christmas, words & music by Irving Berlin
7) Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow, music by Julie Styne, words by Sammy Cahn
9) Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer, words and music by Johnny Marks
11) It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, words by Eddie Pola, music by George Wyle
12) I’ll Be Home for Christmas, music by Walter Kent, words by Buck Ram
13) Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, words and music by Johnny Marks
14) Silver Bells, words and music by Jay Livingstone and Ray Evans
17) A Holly Jolly Christmas, words and music by Johnny Marks
22) [There’s No Place Like] Home for the Holidays, words by Al Stillman, music by Bob Allen
Johnny Marks is the Jewish king of this list – he wrote three big Christmas hits, but no other real hits in another genre. He was born into a pretty affluent suburban New York Jewish family that long had been secular. He was an honors grad of prestigious Colgate University and he might have been expected to follow his father into engineering, but he was drawn to songwriting at an early age. For many young people who reached adulthood between the two world wars, songwriting had an allure that made it similar to wanting to be in a rock band in the 1960s.
Marks struggled until Gene Autry’s wife persuaded the singing cowboy to record “Rudolph” in 1949. It became a monster hit and remains so. Marks was smart enough to retain all rights to the song.
The song was inspired by a 1939 poem of the same name that was written by Robert May, then working as a low-paid copywriter for the Montgomery Ward Department Store company. Early in 1939, May’s boss told him to write a cheery Christmas story for kids that the stores could give away in the form of a free booklet to shoppers. May, whose sister married Marks in 1947, also was born into a secular and affluent suburban New York family. But his family lost all its wealth in the Great Depression, not long after May graduated from Dartmouth.
May’s Jewish wife was dying of cancer as he worked on his poem in a small Chicago apartment. He picked a deer as his hero because his 4-year-old daughter loved deer. He ran couplets by his child and his in-laws. His wife died not long before he completed the poem, which was a smash hit with Ward customers.
After the war, Ward gave him the rights to the poem and it sold well in regular book form. But it was Johnny Marks’ song that made Rudolph a superstar, leading one sociologist to comment that it was the “20th century Christmas symbol most likely to become a lasting addition to Christmas celebrations.”
Sadly, May buried his Jewish origins and even usually left out the role of his daughter and in-laws in later interviews about his poem.
Irving “White Christmas” Berlin never buried his origins, but he always was a secular Jew as an adult, although he had been born into a religious family. Two anecdotes his daughter tells in her biography of her parents sheds light on Jews, Christmas songs, and why American Jews wrote such songs (aside, of course, from the money, which always was the principal motivator).
First, Berlin was taken by the fact that Christmas in America was a lovely family holiday – his Christian neighbors’ celebrations on the Lower East Side were not marked by Christmas pogroms, as in his native Russia.
Second, Berlin loved America for lifting him out of poverty, and he celebrated its traditions, including the gentle American Christmas. When the Nazi tide reached its zenith, he and his wife contemplated where they could run if America fell, and thus save their “half Jewish” children from death. Knowing this, you realize that “God Bless America,” his equally famous tune, was a prayer of protection for his family and for the America that had treated him so well.
I recently spoke to the widow of Bob Allen, the composer of the music for “Home for the Holidays.” Allen was born in a small town near Troy, New York. He had a full scholarship to a nearby engineering school, but he spent the summer of 1945 playing with a New York dance band, and that led him to chuck the scholarship and pursue a career as a pianist and songwriter. Early in November of 1954, famous Jewish music producer Mitch Miller told Allen that Perry Como wanted a new holiday song for release that Christmas, and he and his lyricist partner, Al Stillman, had one day to write it. Allen went to Rockefeller Center, was inspired by the skaters, and wrote the music in one afternoon. Stillman wrote the lyric that night. Como recorded the tune the next day and it was pressed and in stores, selling like hot latkes, within about 10 days.
What is often forgotten is that songwriting between circa 1920 and 1965 was largely an on-demand business. When songwriters, Jewish or not, were commissioned to write a Christmas song, they wrote it – and now and again the song turned into a big hit.
Three Especially Cool
Oldie Christmas Songs
Not in the Top 25
1) Santa Baby. This song was written in 1953 by Jewish songwriters Philip Springer and Joan Javits (the niece of Sen. Jacob Javits of New York, an ardent supporter of Israel). It was written for African-American singer Eartha Kitt, who was a very sexy woman; “Santa Baby” has often been called the sexiest Christmas song ever. Kitt, too, was an early and ardent supporter of Israel, and appeared at Israel Bond rallies. The song was a big hit in 1953, but fell into relative obscurity because nobody “big” followed Kitt in recording it. (Springer and Javits, unlike the other songwriters mentioned above, are still alive)
It revived in popularity when Madonna, whose decades-long devotion to Kabbalah and Israel visits qualifies her as Jew-ISH, recorded it in 1987. More attention followed when it was used in the hit 1989 film “Driving Miss Daisy.” Ironically, it played behind a scene where Miss Daisy’s Jewish daughter-in-law annoys the Jewish Miss Daisy by acting “like a Christian” and throwing a bedecked Christmas party.
2) You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch. The music for this Dr. Seuss TV special song was written by the late Albert Hague, who was born in Germany to Jewish parents who considered being Jewish a handicap and raised him as a Lutheran. He fled to America in 1937 and a kindly Christian doctor arranged for him to get a resident visa. He embraced his Jewish heritage in America and proudly identified as a Jew. Trained as a composer, he acted late in life, playing a music teacher in the film and TV version of “Fame.”
3) Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home). Written in 1963, by the Jewish songwriting team of Jeff Barry, the late Ellie Greenwich, and Phil Spector, it was number 21 in 2012 on the Billboard chart of hot holiday songs. The original and best known recording is by African-American singer Darlene Love, who has performed it on the David Letterman show episode closest to Christmas every year since 1986. In 2010, Rolling Stone magazine selected this song, as sung by Love, as the number 1 rock and roll Christmas song of all time. Rolling Stone began its description of this song by saying, “As Darlene Love told Rolling Stone, it took three Jews to write the greatest Christmas song of all time.”
Two Cool Recent
1) Mistletoe, released in December 2011, was a colossal hit for the young singer Justin Bieber. It combines elements of rock, reggae, and rhythm and blues. It was written by Adam Messinger and Nasri Atweh, Canadians who work under the name “The Messengers.” A 2011 press release says: “Considering Nasri’s Christian/Palestinian roots and Adam’s Jewish background, the Messengers are utilizing their diverse cultures to rewrite the holiday season in the spirit of fun and hope for every child. Toys collected by their drive will be donated to Children Affected by Aids Foundation. In addition, all monies raised will go to Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.”
2) “Underneath the Tree,” co-written by Greg Kurstin, who is Jewish, and singer Kelly Clarkson, was number one on several Billboard charts as of the second week of December, 2013. It is the first single released from Clarkson’s first Christmas album, “Wrapped in Red.” The single consciously has a Phil Spector/Baby Please Come Home/”Wall of Sound” feel to it.
Kurstin is a top producer, and Clarkson recently told Jay Leno that she waited to do a Christmas album until he was available. She added, “He’s Jewish, so he didn’t know any of the songs. We were in the studio and I was like ‘Rudolph’? No. ‘White Christmas’? No. But he’s so talented.”
“I say: ‘Mr. Kurstin, aren’t you ashamed to not know the songs of your landsmen?'”
Question: Is All This Good for the Jews? Answer: I don’t know for sure.
I have heard the theory that Jews, consciously, are subtlety secularizing Christmas through all these non-religious Christmas songs. Maybe it has had that effect – a little – but I am convinced that if every Jewish songwriter of a Christmas hit had been given a shot of truth serum, not one of them would say that “secularization” was something they ever even thought about.
I have thought that all these tribe-member-written holiday songs, some of which are pretty good, perhaps have spurred Jewish assimilation. They are the soundtrack of the Christmas cultural tidal wave every December. But, you know, even without the soundtrack the wave would be pretty overwhelming.
Pretty much I judge it all at face value. These songs have fed and clothed thousands of Jews who work or worked in entertainment and their progeny. We historically have prospered in the niches the rest of the world didn’t think that valuable, and so-called holiday music is part of that “riches from niches” Jewish success story.
Plus, I suspect that a rather large and growing portion of the American Christian population is at least somewhat aware that so many of the Christmas songs they love were written by Jews. A few grumble, but most are a bit grateful or admiring. And that’s good for the Jews.