“White Christmas” (1967) Barbra Streisand

“White Christmas”

Composed by Irving Berlin.

Recorded by Barbra Streisand for Columbia in September 1967 in Los Angeles.

The story:

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. 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.

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.

The music:

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.

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