The enduring legacy of Bing's 'Christmas'

Diana West
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Posted: Dec 27, 2004 12:00 AM

I'm not exactly sure why it is that Bing Crosby's recording of "White Christmas" by Irving Berlin remains an indispensable audio heirloom of the season, dusted off and played each year now for over 60 Christmases. It's not that Berlin wasn't one of the preeminent composers of the American popular song; that Crosby wasn't the preeminent voice of the American popular song; or that "White Christmas" isn't a perfectly luscious ballad in that long-lost tradition. It's in the long-lostness of the tradition that the mystery arises: Why does an antique Berlin ballad written in 1942 still sound like Christmas to Americans in 2004?

I wonder this because there's no room at the pop-cultural inn for the rest of the oeuvre -- the thousands of songs by Berlin and his brothers in musical genius: Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Arthur Schwartz, Burton Lane, Jimmy Van Heusen and others who created the American popular song in the first half of the 20th century. Thanks to the great lyricists -- Berlin and Porter, of course, who also wrote lyrics, Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Yip Harburg, Johnny Mercer, Howard Dietz, Johnny Burke and others -- the American popular song also gave expression to a richly nuanced range of emotion to which contemporary music is sadly tone-deaf. Yet contemporary ears still hear something in that old Crosby record.

I went poking around assorted Crosby-Berliniana looking for an epiphany (epophany?) to explain why this one song survived the original culture war, the one in the 1950s that pitted new rock 'n' roll against not-so-old pop.

Interestingly enough, "White Christmas," which debuted in 1942 in the musically terrific (songs by Berlin) if flawed Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire vehicle "Holiday Inn," wasn't a turning point for anyone involved. Their reputations, already golden, were merely burnished. That's not to say the song wasn't an enormous hit, particularly during the rest of World War II, when its lilting poignancy -- and, as musicologist Alec Wilder notes, its "truly daring succession of notes in the chromatic phrase of the main strain" --resonated with our troops overseas in ways Berlin couldn't at first imagine. The Crosby version became "the most popular record ever," writes Crosby biographer Gary Giddens, "the only single to make American pop charts 20 times, every year but one between 1942 and 1962."

We all know rock vanquished the old pop song. Indeed, the triumph of rock culture is complete to the point that there exists no memory of pop culture B.E. (Before Elvis). But it's not Elvis' pulsating rendition of "White Christmas" that dominates today's holiday playlist. This quirk of culture would no doubt tickle Berlin, who early on peered into the deepening chasm between rock and pop and didn't like what he saw. Indeed, in 1957, Berlin asked assistants to telephone radio stations across the country to urge them not to play Elvis' "White Christmas." Which was a little like asking a hurricane to stop the rain -- in more ways than one. While Bing and Elvis were giants in their successive heydays, it is only Elvis who lives on in our rock-dominated culture. In her evocative memoir "Girl Singer," Rosemary Clooney, having noted that the two singers died weeks apart in 1977, explained their respective legacies this way: "It is ironic, and saddening, more than 20 years later, Elvis is still a presence in the American consciousness, while only aficionados still make an icon of Bing."

Except, maybe, at Christmas. Elvis may lead Forbes' top-earning dead celebrities list, but in the week before Christmas, Amazon.com ranks "Elvis' Christmas Album," which includes "White Christmas," 447th, and "White Christmas: Bing Crosby," 124th. And we all know which singer we are more likely to hear while standing in line for gift-wrap. Why?

I think the explanation has to do with what is still immutable about Christmas. Rock culture -- the convulsive world ushered in with Elvis -- infantilized the way we live and love. This rendered the old love songs -- equally wise, wisecracking and musically challenging -- into largely unintelligible artifacts of a lost civilization. But "White Christmas" is no love song, which may account for its durability, as well as Bing's perfectly mellow-gold rendition. The record speaks to an innocent yearning that still marks the public holiday season, a time-out in the year that isn't twisted by sexual hype, "ironic" expectations or an anti-establishment pose. On the contrary, folksy home, rustic hearth -- middle-class life itself -- becomes something to dream about. Which is just what the songwriter wrote. May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.