Hugh Martin and (possibly) Ralph Blane (the record has become somewhat unclear regarding Blaine’s contribution to the songs by this supposed songwriting team) may have written this immortal holiday classic for the movie Meet Me in St. Louis, but Judy Garland pretty much saved it from the scrap heap, and not just because she contributed its definitive rendition.
The melody strikes a perfect note of bittersweetness, but the original lyrics were plot-specific and much more overt in their depressing content than the current ones…not only were they embarrassingly ‘lugubrious’, to use Garland’s description, but to sing them to a young child (which is what is happening in the film at this point) would be unspeakably cruel.
Thanks to Garland insisting on the necessary lyrical changes, the version heard today is mournfully optimistic, and you have to pay fairly close attention to realize just how depressing the sentiments being expressed really are. This sets it apart from both the holiday standards of its time, which tended to be idyllic and joyful, and from most of the later downbeat Holiday-themed standards like “Blue Christmas” that generally display their sadder elements much more openly. In fact, in all the length and breadth of the Christmas music genre, there’s really no other song like it, which is something to treasure in what is otherwise one of the most generic fields of music in existence.
Verdict: One of the few ubiquitous Christmas standards that I will unreservedly stick up for.