Not everyone gets what they deserve at Christmas, but this holiday season we've been blessed with an appropriately poignant and reflective song.
Not a carol and hardly a jingle, reliable handyman James Taylor's low-key remake of the 1943 standard "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has stood out on radio stations this year like a still-rooted pine among garish Christmas trees. Old but new, borrowed and a little blue, it's timeless yet just right for right now.
It's an unintended masterpiece. Taylor recorded it in two takes last July as a throwaway, while he was laying tracks for his next album. But the mid-summer afterthought took on a unique resonance in the wake of Sept. 11. The song's stripped-down and somber sound - piano, acoustic guitar, jazzy drum brushes and Taylor's familiar vocals - struck a chord with friends and music executives who heard it.
A CD-single was rushed to radio stations by mid-November. An accompanying note from Taylor reads, "It seemed important to get it out there now. It's a simple, sweet message: `Just get through the hard times at hand and there'll be better days ahead.' "
The song first appeared during some of the country's hardest times in its history. It was written at the height of World War II for the Vincent Minnelli musical Meet Me in St. Louis. Sung by Judy Garland, it reflects the uncertainty of that tumultuous time. Instead of tinsel, it mentions troubles and the need to put them out of sight, miles away.
Lyrics including "Through the years, we all will be together/if the fates allow/Until then we'll just have to muddle through somehow," are a long way from "Here Comes Santa Claus." Songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane's opening lyrics were even darker: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last." Garland squelched that line, and the words "let your heart be light" replaced them.
In the near 60 years hence, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has been recorded more than 500 times by artists from Frank Sinatra to Gloria Estefan to Garth Brooks. But Taylor's new version takes on an added dimension through the prism of December 2001.
"Here we are, as in olden days/Happy golden days of yore," suggests both the willful naivete of America before to the terrorist attacks, as well as a self-referential acknowledgement of the song's roots during the last "good war" (and at the same time inadvert- ently suggests the moral worthiness of America's new conflict).
Like Christmas itself, too many Christmas songs take a worthwhile message and bury it in bombast. This year, that feels especially incongruous, and Taylor's spare arrangement is perfectly proper. His honey vocals sound like an old friend, arm around the shoulder, realistic but encouraging.
The song was recorded in a historical vacuum. Yet that only adds to its mystical timeliness among the random incidences of chance. An artist only truly taps the Zeitgeist when he's not trying. An artist does what comes naturally, then sees what the fates allow.
So now, out of the vacuum, Taylor's seemingly impossible melding of nostalgic longing and aching immediacy brings the song its quiet power and the in-your-car-and-wait-for-the-song-to-end -even-though-you've-reached-your-destination intensity. Both melancholy and hopeful - and hasn't that always defined James Taylor at his best? - its seasonal message and soulful messenger are the perfect back-to-basics blend for a similarly minimalist Christmas.
2001's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is that rare gift because you can't buy it. You can only catch it by chance on radio, when the seasonal spirit synchronizes with your station settings (or you can download it from the Internet). But, like the real meaning of Christmas, it can't be found on sale at Best Buy or Kmart.