Composed by Irving Berlin.
Recorded by Barbra Streisand for Columbia in September 1967 in Los Angeles.
The story – part one: There’s never been such a day…
I have learned again and again throughout my life that we as human beings are often ambivalent in our impulses and contradictory in our words and deeds. The saying that we want to have our cake and eat it too, whatever that means denotatively, certainly covers it connotatively. Said another way, we want it both ways: we want to be gainfully employed, but we also want to lead a life of leisure; we want to be married, but we want to be unmarried; we want a palatial home but we also want a low-cost, low maintenance pad; we want to be on vacation yet we can’t wait to get home. And so it goes.
Very recently, I had the great good fortune to spend a couple of weeks during the long, cold, gray period that is the weather in northeast Ohio from mid-November until mid-April in a lovely, semi-tropical beachside setting, courtesy of a couple of very generous friends. The actual time we were in this marvelous place was during the first weeks of December. Every day was beautifully clear and sunny, about 75 degrees. The beach beckoned.
We did the normal things one does in such an enchanted place. But one thing I particularly enjoyed was the cocktail hour, which took place every afternoon at around five o’clock on the balcony of the apartment we were staying at, which overlooks the beach and the Gulf of Mexico. We would sip adult beverages, perhaps have a light snack, and watch the sun descend into the waters of the Gulf. It was always a spectacular sight and experience.
As we were jovially celebrating the cocktail hour one late afternoon, we noticed a strange sight: a young woman in a bikini, had pulled a wagon onto the beach. In it were two artificial Christmas trees. She set the two trees up on the beach right next to the edge of the water. She very carefully arranged and rearranged the trees. She photographed them from numerous angles. Then she waited for the sun to set.
Soon, a number of other young people arrived, including a woman who was in a white gown carrying an infant, and a small child who ecstatically raced up and down the beach near the two Christmas trees. Just before the sun disappeared, two of the young adults gathered up the racing child, and then became very busy with their cell phones. The young woman in the bikini now had covered up a bit with a hoodie. She picked up her camera and began taking pictures.
What could this be, I wondered. A hybrid wedding, beach party, holiday party? I’ll never know.
As this tableau unfolded before me, the lyric from the verse of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” kept running through my mind: The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway, there’s never been such a day…”
The story – part two:
Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” was used in the 1942 Paramount film, Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Actually, the song was probably written in 1940 (or possibly before), while Berlin was staying at La Quinta Hotel in La Quinta, California. It went into his “trunk,” that being songwriter/composer jargon for his reserve supply of material for future use. (Above left – Irving Berlin.)
Berlin signed a contract with Paramount Pictures in May of 1940 to provide new songs for a film story line that revolved around an inn that is open only on holidays. The filming of Holiday Inn took place on the Paramount lot in Hollywood, and at an actual inn located on the Russian River in Sonoma County, California, between November of 1941 and February of 1942, dates that bookend the Pearl Harbor attack and U.S. entry into World War II. Crosby first performed “White Christmas” publicly on his own network radio show, The Kraft Music Hall, on NBC on December 25, 1941. An aircheck of that performance does exist. Crosby then recorded a version of “White Christmas” for Decca on May 29, 1942, in an arrangement by John Scott Trotter, which also included the Ken Darby Singers. This recording was released by Decca on July 30, 1942 as a part of a six-record set of music from the film Holiday Inn.
At first, there seemed to be minimal interest in the Crosby recording of “White Christmas.” But as the holiday season began in the fall of 1942, it shot to the top of the various popularity charts, and remained there well into 1943. “White Christmas” won an Academy Award in 1943 as the best original song in a film released in the previous year. By 1943, the U.S. was deeply embroiled in World War II. News from the many battle fronts around the globe was often not good, and millions of young Americans were away from home in dangerous military deployments. Tense emotions around these unsettling realities were soothed by the melancholy melody and simple yet affecting lyric of “White Christmas.” It became an enduring hit during World War II, but has continued to speak to people during the holiday season ever since because of the flood of emotions we all experience each year when the holidays arrive. (Above left – 1940s hitmaker and entertainment phenomenon Bing Crosby.)
Due to frequent reuse of the metal masters used to press the original Crosby/Decca recording of “White Christmas,” they were damaged, necessitating a re-recording which took place on March 19, 1947. This Crosby recording is the one most often heard today. Another Hollywood feature film, Paramount’s 1954 musical White Christmas, was built around the song and the emotions it aroused. This film once again starred Bing Crosby, who by 1954 was irrevocably linked with the song “White Christmas,” and whose various recordings of it had by then sold in the many millions. It is estimated that Crosby’s recordings of “White Christmas” now number well beyond fifty million copies.
How much of this history Barbra Streisand knew when she made her remarkable recording of “White Christmas” in the fall of 1967 is not known. It is my belief that she didn’t have to know any of the history to understand how to sing “White Christmas” simply because she was such an extraordinarily sensitive musician: she knew what was right, what would work. Her artistry in this performance is so profound that it transcends all historical facts, and goes directly to the emotional core of the song. Barbra Streisand’s voice, as it existed in the 1960s, was one of the most perfect singing instruments ever recorded. Her voice quality was magnificent in all registers, and producers of her recordings frequently had her show off this aspect of her talent, especially in her high register, where its use was always dramatic. She could and did belt a song with the best of them. But in this performance she uses her voice softly, mainly in its warm middle register, to maximum musical effect. Her sense of pitch and use of vibrato are utter perfection. Here we have Barbra in a restrained, yet paradoxically expressive mode: a volcano covered with snow.
But beyond the range, pitch and quality of her voice, was her intuitive ability to invest a lyric with the appropriate emotion. Indeed, her singing of the lyric of “White Christmas” not only reflects all of the emotional expression intended by Irving Berlin, it greatly enhances it. And in addition, her phrasing is impeccable, and it demonstrates a total understanding of the gentle, floating rhythms of jazz and swing.
One of many marvelous aspects of Barbra Streisand’s recording of “White Christmas,” was her inclusion of the song’s prefatory verse: “The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway….” Many classics of Great American Popular Song have verses, and often these verses contain lovely words and music that are different from the familiar melody of the main strain of the song. Unfortunately, during the swing era, a major source of disseminating popular music, the ten-inch 78 rpm record, had a space/time limitation of about three minutes and forty seconds. Consequently, when a pop song that had a verse was recorded, the verse would not fit on the record with the main part (chorus) of the song. Also, the verse contained words and music that were different from the chorus of the song, which is what song-pluggers and music publishers were trying to sell, and the best way to do that, they thought, was by repeating it. Therefore verses were simply omitted from recordings, and also from radio broadcasts, and in their place were repeats of the main chorus. This resulted in the loss of much of the overall charm and musical balance of many great popular songs. I will be exploring some of these wonderful verses and the songs to which they belong in future postings here at swingandbeyond.com They are just too beautiful not to share.
Digital remastering of this recording by Mike Zirpolo.
Here is a great song with a marvelous verse, “Over the Rainbow,” sung by Ella Fitzgerald: https://swingandbeyond.com/2022/05/07/over-the-rainbow-1961-ella-fitzgerald/
And here is one of the most incredible verses in American Popular Song, along with an iconic main melody, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” sung by Sarah Vaughan: https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/03/10/lush-life-1956-sarah-vaughan/