In Aimee Mann's new Christmas music CD, she changes the lyrics of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from "until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow" to "hang a star upon the highest bow." She wasn't the one to change it first, obviously, but it's disappointing that such a talented artist - especially one not known for being a shiny, happy person - decided to change it. That lyric change completely detracts from the power of that song, and frankly ruins what is my favorite Christmas song. I believe it was Frank Sinatra who originally wanted to make the song more "upbeat." (The song has an interesting history, and the original songwriter, Hugh Martin, is still alive at 92.)
I don't know Judy Garland except for The Wizard of Oz and her strange celebrity daughter, but she does a version of that song that just gives me goosebumps. Throughout the song, her voice sounds ragged at times, but soaring above it all at others. Her phrasing is beautiful. But it's at that lyric - "until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow" - that makes me want to drive to Michigan and give my mom a hug. This song is one of the saddest I've ever heard, but it's also brimming with hope. I love it. It's down below. I guess it was in a movie first?
The other song I'm obsessed with lately is "River." Every year, someone new covers it, and this Joni Mitchell masterpiece is becoming probably her most famous. It's an incredible song, full of English teacher things I like - an extended central metaphor, a central irony (or is it paradox? I always just let the kids argue) - and places where a singer can really go nuts with range. In recent years, I've heard versions of this song by the Indigo Girls (just Emily singing, it's simple and beautiful), Travis (the lead singer's ability to hit the notes is impressive, a very nice job), Sarah McLachlan (she's got a great voice, of course, but she doesn't do fragility well), Madeline Peyroux (in a duet with kd lang, she slows it down a little too much for me), Robert Downey, Jr. (oddly, probably my favorite cover of it, perhaps because his singing of it makes it sound like it's about drug addiction), Peter Mulvey (he sort of growls through it, it's pretty cool), Michelle Branch (this was pretty awful), and James Taylor (he's respectful, but boring - and I don't like his voice). On Youtube, I just found someone named Allison Crowe, who seems to do a pretty nice job with it. That's the youtube below.
Both of these songs are very similar in theme - they're about Christmas, and the dark times that come with the season, but also about how to get through them. Oddly, I'm almost always joyful during Christmas - I really do love the season - but these two songs resonate.
Other current favorites of this Christmas season: Otis Redding's incredible "White Christmas", Sarah McLachlan's cover of John Lennon's "Happy X-Mas (War is Over)", the Jackson 5's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and Johnny Cash's "Blue Christmas."
Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas":
Allison Crowe singing "River" by Joni Mitchell:
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