Thursday, December 22, 2016

Characters in Christmas Songs

Over the years several characters have become attached to Christmas. In England Father Christmas dates to at least the 17th Century. Santa Claus emerged in the United States in the early 19th Century. The 1823 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (better known as 'Twas the Night Before Christmas...) elaborated on his mythology, even giving the names to the reindeer who guide his sleigh. For a period in the late Forties and early Fifties, there was a time when songwriters were intent on introducing new Christmas characters through song.

The trend started with Gene Autry's smash hit "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". Although the song contributed to Rudolph's enduring popularity, he had actually been introduced many years before that. In 1939 Robert L. May created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as part of an advertising campaign for the department store Montgomery Ward. That year Montgomery Ward published a book that told the story of Rudolph. Rudolph was a young reindeer who was ostracised by his peers because of his red, shiny nose. It is on a particularly foggy Christmas Eve that Santa Claus discovered Rudolph and asked him to guide his sleigh. Here it should be noted that in the original story that Rudolph was not part of Santa's herd, as in the later Rankin/Bass television special.

The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer proved immensely popular. In 1939 alone Montgomery Ward distributed 2.5 million copies of the story. It was after World War II, for reasons that are not clear now, that Montgomery Ward simply gave the rights to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to his creator, Robert L. May. In retrospect it might have been a mistake on Montgomery Ward's part, for Rudolph was about to become more popular than ever. In 1948 Max Fleischer directed an animated short for the Jam Handy Organization. The following year would have something even bigger in store for Rudolph.

Robert L. May's brother in law was Johnny Marks, a radio producer and songwriter. Mr. Marks got Mr. May's permission to adapt the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to song. The song was introduced by crooner Harry Brannon on radio in November 1949. It was also performed on the December 6 1949 episode of the radio show Fibber McGee and Molly by Marion Jordan's character Teeny. That having been said, it was Gene Autry's single released that same year that would make Rudolph a holiday superstar. In 1949 alone "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Gene Autry sold 1.75 million copies. It would go on to sell  12.5 million copies. For a time it would be second best selling song of all time, right after "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby. The song would also launch Johnny Marks's highly successful songwriting career.

Of course, since then there has been the Rankin/Bass special based on the song (which featured new songs by Johnny Marks in addition to the original song), books, comic books, colouring books, a feature film, and tonnes of merchandise.

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" would also inspire a bit of a fad towards new Christmas characters. In fact, the very next Christmas character introduced in a song was directly inspired by the success of Rudolph. Noting the success of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", songwriters  Walter "Jack" Rollins and Steve Nelson decided to write their own song centred around a wintry character. They sent the resulting song to Gene Autry, who recorded it.

Interestingly enough, while "Frosty the Snowman" is regarded as a Yuletide song, it makes no reference to the holiday or any of its trappings It is simply about a snowman who came to life one day through the magic in an old silk hat. Although it is generally only played and sung during the holiday season, there is really nothing to keep "Frosty the Snowman" from being sung all winter long.

Regardless,"Frosty the Snowman" would prove to be an enormous hit for Gene Autry in 1950, although it was not as big a hit as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer".  Little Golden Books published a book, Frosty the Snowman, almost immediately. In 1954 UPA produced an animated short based on the song. Of course, in 1969 Rankin/Bass produced an animated TV special based on the song, which would make the character even more famous.

The year 1951 would see two more songs featuring new Christmas characters, although neither would see the success of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" or "Frosty the Snowman". One was "Suzy Snowflake" by Rosemary Clooney. "Suzy Snowflake" was written by Sid Tepper and Roy C. Bennett, who were responsible for "Red Roses for a Blue Lady", among other songs. The idea behind "Suzy Snowflake" was quite simple. It revolved around a snowflake personified as a girl named Suzy. "Suzy Snowflake" would do respectably well, although it would not be the success the success that "Frosty the Snowman", let alone "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", was.

Regardless, in 1953  Centaur Productions adapted the song "Suzy Snowflake" as a stop-motion animation short. Starting in 1956 Chicago television station WGN would air it each year alongside UPA's "Frosty the Snowman" and one other short (more on it in a little bit).

The other song to introduce new Christmas characters in 1951 was "Hardrock, Coco, and Joe (The Three Little Dwarves)". "Hardrock, Coco, and Joe (The Three Little Dwarves)" was written by Stuart Hamblen, who had written the song "Texas Plains" (which Patsy Montana redid as "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart") and would later write Rosemary Clooney's hit  "This Ole House"."Hardrock, Coco, and Joe (The Three Little Dwarves)" centred around the dwarves of the title, who assist Santa on his midnight ride during Christmas Eve. In the song it is Hardrock who drives Santa's sleigh and Coco who helps with navigation. Santa Claus had no real need for Joe, but took him along "'cause he loves him so."

To promote "Hardrock, Coco, and Joe", the song's publisher, Hill and Range Songs Inc. looked to Centaur Productions to create an animated short based on it. The result was a 2 minute, 45 second, stop motion animation short titled "Hardrock, Coco, and Joe". Along with the animated short "Suzy Snowflake" (also produced by Centaur Productions) and UPA's "Frosty the Snowman", it would be aired on WGN for years.

In 1951 "Hardrock, Coco, and Joe (The Three Little Dwarves)" was also recorded by Gene Autry. Unfortunately, the third time did not prove to a charm for Mr. Autry and "Hardrock, Coco, and Joe (The Three Little Dwarves)" did not perform particularly well on the charts. Today it is often forgotten that he even recorded the song.

The next Christmas character to be immortalised in song was not a new character at all, much like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Unlike Rudolph, however, Mrs. Santa Claus had been for over a century before having a song centred around her. Mrs. Claus was first referenced in the story "A Christmas Legend" by James Rees in 1849. Afterwards Mrs. Claus would be referenced on and off for much of the 19th Century. She even received a starring role in Katharine Lee Bates's 1889 poem "Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride" ("Goody" is short for "Goodwife", an old, polite form of address much like today's "Mrs.").

References to Mrs. Claus would continue into the 20th Century, with whole books written about her, including Sarah Addington and Gertrude's 1923 book The Great Adventure of Mrs. Santa Claus and  Alice and Lillian Desow Holland's 1946 book The Story of Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus and The Night Before Christmas).  It was in 1953 that the song "Mrs. Santa Claus" appeared as the flip side of Nat King Cole's single "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot". "Mrs. Santa Claus" was composed by  Jack Fulton, Louis Steele, and Hazel Houle. Curiously, "Mrs. Santa Claus" turned out to be more popular than "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot", which, well, has sort of been forgotten.

By the mid Fifties the trend towards new Christmas characters had pretty much ended. This is not to say that since then composers would not occasionally attempt to introduce new holiday characters in songs. The year 1960 saw the release of Lou Monte's  single "Dominick the Donkey". "Dominick the Donkey" centred upon Santa Claus's donkey, Dominick, whom he uses to deliver presents to children in Italy because reindeer do not handle the hills there well. Unfortunately, "Dominick the Donkey" did not prove to be a hit. It only made it as far as no. 14 on Billboard's "Bubbling Under the Hot 100" chart in December 1960. While "Dominick the Donkey" would never be a hit in the United States, it would prove to be on in the United Kingdom upon its re-release in 2011. There it peaked at no. 3 on the UK singles chart.

Since "Dominick The Donkey" there have been very few attempts to introduce new characters into popular holiday mythology through song. One notable exception came in 2014. That year rock band The Killers (who release a Christmas single each year) and late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel teamed up to write "Joel the Lump of Coal". The song centres on a lump of coal named Joel at the North Pole who finds, to his dismay, that he is to be given as a "booby prize" to a naughty little boy. The song was accompanied by a music video done in a style approximating the stop-motion animation of the old Rankin/Bass specials. The song saw some success, reaching no. 27 on the Billboard Hot Rock Songs chart.

Ultimately the Christmas songs from the late Forties onward did not add a large number of characters to holiday mythology. Suzy Snowflake is remembered only by fans of classic American pop music. Hardrock, Coco, and Joe are remembered only by those Baby Boomers and Gen Xers in Chicago and the few other places the animated short was shown. Dominick the Donkey was pretty much forgotten until recently. Only Frosty the Snowman would go on to lasting fame. As to Rudolph, he had originated in an advertising campaign and was already famous well before his song was written. Regardless, these songs are still enjoyed by many today, whether or not their characters were incorporated into the mainstream holiday mythos. And who is to say that fifty years from today Joel the Lump of Coal won't be as well known as Frosty or Rudolph? If only Rankin/Bass would make a special based on the song.

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