I'll Be Home For Christmas
by Walter Kent, Kim Gannon and Buck Ram
If you had to pin a precise date to the dawn of the Golden Age of American Christmas Songs, it would probably be December 1942. Irving Berlin had written "White Christmas" a couple of years earlier, and was reasonably confident about it. But, as canny as he was, he didn't foresee how the song would be transformed by a single event: Pearl Harbor. Twelve months after the attack, American servicemen were far away in the south Pacific and contemplating their first Christmas at war, under glorious tropical skies that only made home seem even more distant:
"White Christmas" isn't a song about snow, it's a song about home. And Berlin wasn't the only songwriter to understand there was a huge audience for that at a time when most families had at least one empty chair round the Christmas table. For example:
The man who wrote that music is about as obscure as Irving Berlin is famous. His name was Walter Kent, and he was born Walter Kaufmann in New York one hundred years ago - November 29th 1911. He went on to compose a driving Sinatra song I've always been quite partial to, "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die". But he's best known for two blockbuster hits of the Second World War, "(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs Of Dover", which most listeners assume is a British song, and "I'll Be Home For Christmas". The former is forever linked with the war years, but the latter survived its original context and seven decades after its publication is one of the most recorded of seasonal ballads, and the pop standard with which we salute the late Walter Kent upon his centenary.
The story of Kent's most enduring composition begins with an entirely different song - or, at any rate, a largely separate song. One day late in 1942, Kent and a couple of other songwriters called Kim Gannon and Buck Ram met up in a New York diner. Kent was still riding high on the previous year's "White Cliffs Of Dover", and Gannon had just scored a Number One hit for the Glenn Miller band with his lyrics for "Moonlight Cocktail" (I always love his wonderfully casual first line -"Couple o' jiggers of moonlight..."). "Cocktail" would prove to be the Number Two bestselling record of the year. As for the Number One, that was Bing's "White Christmas", already the top tune on the hit parade and much on the songwriters' minds. Unlike his two dining companions, Buck Ram had yet to write a major hit, but he mentioned that, like Irving Berlin, he'd written a Christmas number. It had been back in the mid-Twenties, when he was at college and decided to send his mom a song about how much he missed her. He and Walter Kent were both Jews, and Kent gently joshed Ram for writing a Christmas song for a Jewish mother. Ram tlaughed and replied that, after all, it had taken a Jew to write "White Christmas".
Which was what had given him the idea to exhume his song about Yuletide homesickness. He produced a piece of paper from his pocket, and passed it across the table:
Ram told Kent and Gannon that this time next year "I'll Be Home" would be as big a hit as "White Christmas". They said goodbye, and that would be the last time he saw Kent and Gannon until they found themselves sitting on opposite sides of a New York courtroom almost a year later.
When Ram got home that night, he looked in his pockets but couldn't find his scrap of paper. He figured he must have left it in the diner. No big deal. He had another copy, and so did his music publisher, E B Marks, Inc. In the wake of "White Christmas"'s phenomenal success, Marks thought another homesick Yule tune would be buried that season and decided to hold it for a big push the following year. Nonetheless, on December 21st 1942, the publisher registered the copyright of Ram's song under the title "I'll Be Home For Christmas (Though Just In Memory)".
And then an odd thing happened: A few months later, on August 24th 1943, a publishing house called Melrose Music copyrighted a song: "I'll Be Home For Christmas". By Walter Kent and Kim Gannon. And it went like this:
As Kent and Gannon told it, they got together earlier in the summer for a writing session and kicked around a few ideas. The one they settled on was "I'll Be Home For Christmas". According to who you asked and when, Walter Kent said he thought their song was sufficiently different from Ram's in music and lyrics for the title similarity not to be an issue; on the other hand, Kim Gannon claimed to have entirely forgotten the earlier song and to have taken his inspiration from various friends and acquaintances enduring wartime partings. At any rate, when they'd finished "I'll Be Home For Christmas", they sent it to Bing Crosby. Bing was just getting around to confronting the thorny problem arising from his previous blockbuster: What do you do for an encore? How do you follow "White Christmas"? It was just one record. However big it was, there was nothing about it that obliged Crosby to become "the voice of Christmas" for the rest of his life.
And then a demo of "I'll Be Home For Christmas (If Only In My Dreams)" turned up in the mail, and for Bing it was the song he'd been waiting for. He rushed into the studio with John Scott Trotter and the orchestra, and made the first recording of Kent and Gannon's ballad of homesick yearning.
Buck Ram had quite a different reaction. When he heard Bing Crosby had recorded "I'll Be Home For Christmas", he was intrigued. When he found out it wasn't his song, he was devastated. When he discovered it was a song by Walter Kent and Kim Gannon, he was infuriated. You'd think that, as an attorney in his pre-songwriting days, Gannon might have anticipated a bit of trouble on the old legal front. On October 1st 1943, E B Marks filed suit, charging copyright infringement and demanding that Melrose Music cease distributing their version of "I'll Be Home For Christmas". The judge found no similarity in the music or lyrics other than the title. And there is no copyright in title: That's why there's a Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn song called "Time After Time" and a Cyndi Lauper/Rob Hyman song called "Time After Time". So two compositions bearing the title "I'll Be Home For Christmas" would have had no legal ramifications - were it not for the fact of that encounter in the diner and the missing piece of paper. The court ordered Ram's name to be added to the writing credits on Kent and Gannon's song and instructed Melrose Music to ensure he received his share of the royalties. In return, E B Marks agreed to withdraw Buck Ram's song until at least January 1945.
And by January 1945 "I'll Be Home For Christmas (If Only In My Dreams)" was such a boffo song, E B Marks had no desire to compete with their own lucrative co-copyright. So Buck Ram's "I'll Be Home For Christmas (Though Just In Memory)" disappeared from the world forever. Almost. But it's still out there if you know where to look for it.
In December 1943, just before the last Christmas of his life, Glenn Miller and the Army Air Force Band went on the air for a live holiday radio show. Naturally, there was plenty of seasonal music, including a "Christmas Medley". It begins with "Silent Night" , and then:
I've no idea how Glenn Miller got hold of the Buck Ram song. By that time, the Kent/Gannon song was already a hit. Was it a clerical error? Told to include that new "I'll Be Home" number, did Miller's arranger grab the wrong tune? For whatever reason, the Miller performance gives us an opportunity to contrast the two songs side by side. Ram's "I'll Be Home" is certainly wistful, in the manner of, say, Willard Robison's "Guess I'll Go Back Home This Summer", but it never quite wrings the ache out of the subject in the way Walter Kent's tune does. As for the sub-title, "I'll Be Home For Christmas (Though Just In Memory)" is a somewhat awkward qualifier compared with the way the later song distills the same thought: "I'll Be Home For Christmas (If Only In My Dreams)." Putting Ram's text next to Gannon's, you notice the first part shares the same lyric form. But there's a lot more of Buck Ram's, including a rather cluttered middle-eight:
By contrast, Kim Gannon's lyric compresses to the absolute minimum the theme - a homesick singer spending the holidays far from where his heart lies:
There's nothing wrong with Ram's version: It's just not organized well enough. Gannon's is less descriptive and more impressionistic: snow, mistletoe, presents, next. And what comes next is a beautiful line that sits just perfectly on Kent's notes and wrings the full juice out of the subject:
I don't doubt Kent and Gannon would never have written it without Buck Ram's first draft, but in the end they did a better job.
The song betrays its age - or at least its author's - in just one respect. Kim Gannon was born in 1900. When he was a boy, Christmas morn was not the lavish consumerist cornucopia that greets most American moppets today, and gifts were modest enough to rest on the branches of a small fir tree. Within a few years of that first Crosby recording, "presents on the tree" rang oddly enough to most singers that they preferred to subsitute "round the tree" or "'neath" or, more clunkily, "under".
"I'll Be Home For Christmas" quickly became the troops' most requested number at Yuletide USO shows. But the end of the war changed the song, and removed its larger context. There were no longer millions and millions of loved ones parted by a huge global upheaval not of their choosing. So why then couldn't the guy get home for Christmas? Broke? In jail? His chick split? She died of some incurable disease? Pick whatever you fancy. But peace and prosperity weakened the premise of the song. What had once been poignant now trembled perilously on the brink of maudlin. By the time Frank Borman and James Lovell up in space on Gemini 7 asked the Nasa ground crew to play the song for them at Christmas 1965, its extraterrestrial airplay only emphasized how a once universal lyric had been rendered weirdly particular - especially when compared to Berlin's "White Christmas", a song that captured wartime homesickness but without directly alluding to it.
And then the world turned again. By the Seventies, widespread divorce gave "I'll Be Home For Christmas" a whole other constituency: Where it had once taken Tojo and Hitler to enlarge the song, now mass familial disintegration did the trick. Almost six decades after the original lyric was written, Carly Simon went into the studio to record "I'll Be Home" and decided to pen a second chorus:
It would be even better if she'd respected Kim Gannon's rhyme scheme: "inside"/"surprise"? "kids"/"things"? "free"/"dreams"? Yet, even if the rhymes were true, it's still not quite right: it makes too explicit what's better left oblique.
"Destiny has its reasons," sings Carly Simon, "and sometimes the ride is free." In a sense, for Buck Ram it was. He didn't write a note of Walter Kent's music or more than six syllables of Kent Gannon's lyric, but he lived very well off their work for the rest of his life. And he had the last laugh. A decade after "I'll Be Home For Christmas", he re-emerged as one of the first generation of rock'n'roll writers, penning all the big hits of the Platters, including "Only You", "Twilight Time" and "The Great Pretender". For both Kent and Gannon, "I'll Be Home For Christmas" proved the peak of their songwriting careers.
Still, on what would have been his hundredth birthday, Walter Kent's seasonal insurance policy is as sung and recorded as any entry in the American Songbook. Thirty-two bars, nine lines of lyric, but with an awful lot of America in them: those "presents on the tree" from last century's oughts, a gift for a faraway Jewish mother in the Twenties, homesick GIs sitting cross-legged on faraway shores and listening to Bing on USO Christmas tours...
~It's Christmas at SteynOnline. We're celebrating with Mark's two-part audio tribute to Hugh Martin, composer of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", including a rare performance by the songwriter himself from The Mark Steyn Christmas Show. And join us next week for another very special audio edition featuring one of the greatest Christmas songs of all.
~And don't forget Mark's brand new Christmas CD with Jessica Martin, Making Spirits Bright, featuring almost an hour of sparkling seasonal standards.
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