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Christmas with the Melody Makers: I’ll Be Home For Christmas

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A WHILE ago I wrote a series for TCW called The Melody Makers about the extraordinary and wonderful flowering of musical creativity among the Jewish population of New York, mainly immigrants from Europe, in the 20th century.

I wrote: ‘I am not going to pretend to understand why or how it happened but I imagine that although many of the immigrants lived in poverty, there must have been joy at feeling safe, and at being with others who had shared the same experiences. Many came from small or isolated communities and for the first time were mixing with large numbers of fellow Jews. There was also gratitude to America for taking them in, and a desire to repay its generosity. Irving Berlin, for example, rejected his lawyers’ advice to invest in tax shelters, insisting: “I want to pay taxes. I love this country”.’

This short series is a spin-off covering some of the many Christmas-themed songs written or co-written by Jews which form a large part of the festive repertoire.

Hanoe hobn! (Enjoy!)

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I’ll Be Home For Christmas was a wartime hit for Bing Crosby with its theme of a soldier overseas writing home and asking his family to put up the mistletoe and tree because ‘I’ll be home for Christmas (if only in my dreams)’. There were two million GIs in Europe in 1943 when it was released, and the song sold a million in the first year, earning Crosby his fifth gold record. The BBC banned it because the management felt the lyrics might lower morale among British troops.

The music was by Walter Kent, born Walter Maurice Kaufman to a New York Jewish family in 1911. Kent was awarded a scholarship to study the violin at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, but he decided to become an architect and write music in his spare time. He had his first hit in 1932 with a novelty number, Pu-leeze, Mr Hemingway. From 1937 he wrote film music. In 1941, soon after the Battle of Britain, the lyricist Nat Burton asked him to write the music for his song (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover. Here is Vera Lynn’s immortal version from 1942.

In 1943 Kent composed the tune of I’ll Be Home For Christmas to words by Kim Gannon, born in New York in 1900 to an Irish-American family. When Gannon pitched the song to music industry people, they turned it down because they thought the final line was too sad. Later Gannon was playing golf with Bing Crosby and sang it for him. Crosby decided to record it.

These are the words:

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents by the tree

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have some snow and mistletoe
And presents by the tree

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas

If only in my dreams

I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams.

(Later the name of Samuel ‘Buck’ Ram was added to the credits after a lawsuit in which he claimed that Kent and Gannon had made use of a song entitled I’ll Be Home For Christmas (Tho’ Just in Memory) he had written as a teenager, although it bore little resemblance to their song. Ram was also Jewish and was a very successful songwriter, with the Platters’ hits Only You, The Great Pretender and Twilight Time to his name.)

Kent never had as great a success again but continued composing for films until the 1950s, receiving two Academy Award nominations.

In 1989, Kent visited Dover and viewed the cliffs, saying: ‘It’s how I imagined they would be all those years ago.’ He presented an original manuscript of I’ll Be Home For Christmas to Dover District Council for a proposed tourist centre, but I cannot find out if or where it is displayed.

Kent died at the age of 82 in 1994 in Los Angeles. 

This is Bing Crosby’s recording of I’ll Be Home For Christmas. In January this year it was reissued, 77 years after its first release, and reached No 50 on the US Billboard chart.

Elvis Presley recorded it in September 1957 for release on his Elvis’ Christmas Album.

I love Connie Francis’s voice. This is from 1959:

In 2018 I described the Beach Boys’ rendition of We Three Kings of Orient Are on their 1964 Christmas Album as ‘truly odd’, which caused some controversy. They had a go at I’ll Be Home For Christmas for the same album and I think it is equally strange.

Fifty-six years ago today, on December 18, 1965, after the longest US space flight at that time (14 days), astronauts Frank Borman and James Lovell were hurtling back to earth aboard their Gemini 7 spacecraft. Asked by NASA if they wanted any particular music piped up to them, they requested Bing Crosby’s recording of I’ll Be Home for Christmas.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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