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Christmas Special: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
by Wolf Marshall

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is one of the most popular and enduring holiday songs in all of music history, a sparkling gem in the mosaic of Americana. It is one of the most familiar songs of the season but here’s an interesting and little known tidbit about its origins for those holiday discussions over the egg nog. When “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was written in 1943 it was a much darker song with lyrics posing hopes for a better future. Ironically singer-actress Judy Garland (of Wizard of Oz fame), who suffered from depression, insisted the lyrics be changed to reflect a more optimistic outlook.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” became an essential part of the holiday tradition when Judy Garland immortalized it in the 1944 show Meet Me in St. Louis. Nowadays practically every Christmas collection features the tune and very often Garland’s classic version. A staple of the season and a testimony to its durability “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” continued to be featured many times over the years in various holiday-oriented movies, like the notorious Home Alone feature. More recently the tune was given new life and meaning when James Taylor covered it in 2001. Following the terrorist attacks of 911 the Christmas season in America was a special time of healing and rejuvenation and Taylor’s version helped provide the soundtrack for the process.

I have my own post-911, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” story to share. In the Christmas season following the attacks I was hired to perform in a holiday show with a massive choir, a full orchestra (members of the San Diego Symphony) and a rhythm section. Amid traditional carols and incidental music we did jazzy big-band versions of “Greensleeves,” “Deck the Halls” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” After the concert Hugh Martin, the writer of the tune, who was in attendance introduced himself and told us how much he enjoyed our rendition. He signed my chord chart of the concert as a souvenir. It was a priceless and memorable moment.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has since been covered by countless artists in countless forms. A short list of its interpreters includes Ray Charles, Kenny Burrell, Otis Rush, Joe Pass, Lee Ritenour, Al Di Meola, Gary Hoey, Christina Aguilera, Jimmy Ponder, Local H, Garth Brooks, James Taylor, The Miracles, Dexter Gordon, Oscar Peterson, Mel Torme, Doris Day, Chicago, John Denver, The Four Tops, Travis Tritt, Dianne Reeves, The Carpenters, Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, Poncho Sanchez, Bobby Womack, Ella Fitzgerald, The Jackson Five, Alan Jackson, Etta James, Hiroshima, Lee Ann Rimes, Bing Crosby, Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra, Diana Krall, Kenny G, Lena Horne, Lou Rawls, Rosemary Clooney, Chris Isaak, Linda Ronstadt, Liz Story, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, Anne Murray, Grover Washington, Andy Williams, Charlie Daniels, Floyd Cramer, Doc Severinsen, Jack Wilkins, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis, Cliff Richard, Eddie Rabbitt, The O’Jays, The Partridge Family, Kenny Rogers, Gloria Estefan, Boots Randolph, Manhattan Transfer, …you get the idea. Log onto Google or Tower Records’ web site and you’ll find that it has lent itself to over 770 versions; from slow bluesy ballads to jazzy swing numbers and grungy rockers as well as R &B, hip hop and Celtic renditions.

A favorite and timeless approach in reinterpreting “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is to set it in a slow swing feel and, on the guitar, to play it as a chord-melody piece, pick style. This arrangement borrows from the soulful swing groove of a number of jazz and blues performances and is articulated with the pick; though you can play it fingerstyle or with the hybrid pick-and-fingers approach. If you play it with a pick pay attention to the Xs in the tablature staff which shows chord tones muted by the fret hand. On the audio tracks “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is played on a clean-toned hollow-body electric—my new Heritage Super KB (Kenny Burrell model) archtop, a gorgeous gift which arrived just in time for the occasion. However this arrangement is equally convincing on nylon or steel-string acoustic or a clean-toned solid body.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is an AABA-form tune in a 36-bar structure; comprised of two (A) eight-bar verse sections, (B) a bridge or “middle 8,” and a final eight-bar repetition of (A) the verse plus a four-bar tag. The audio examples in this feature break the piece down into much smaller logical phrases for easy access and consumption. In arranging songs for guitar solo style it is advisable and more entertaining to add an intro and outro to the form as well as some personal touches. These factors are at work in my arrangement; which sports a two-bar intro, a four-bar outro, and a number of fills and connective licks as well as abundant reharmonizations.

Reharmonizing a melody and expanding the basic chord changes are skills worthy of serious pursuit by players of all stripes. In developing the ability to reharmonize it is useful to show the original chord structures as found in typical sheet music or lead sheets; though they often don’t depict what the final arrangement has become.

In this arrangement there are numerous alterations and reharmonizations but the chords shown above the music are only the basic sheet-music names. This double entendre approach will enable you to understand the source of the harmony while playing alternate sounds. Ultimately you will master these phrases, introduce new sounds into your chordal vocabulary and trace their origins via basic changes. Every seasoned player has their own personal sense of harmony but it all springs from the original form of a tune. In “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” many of the chords and fills are significant deviations and departures from the basic changes. For now just accept the reharmonized sounds on an ear level—let the theory follow in due course.

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