Local Current Blog

What makes a holiday song recording definitive?

Judy Garland in 'Meet Me in St. Louis.' (MGM)

Part of the fun of holiday music season, for those who celebrate, is hearing endless variations on some of the world’s sturdiest songs. Whether it’s Eric Clapton paying tribute to Avicii (?!) with an EDM “Jingle Bells” or Lydia Liza rewriting “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” there’s never a shortage of new ways to hear a classic.

As we prepared to take our playlist all-holiday on Dec. 24 and 25, we asked our online audience to weigh in on what constituted the “definitive” versions of some seasonal chestnuts — and it seemed like just about everyone had a different answer.

In some cases, songs are associated with very specific, iconic artists. Bing Crosby, for example, sang “White Christmas” in two different movies, so powerfully (and poignantly, given the wartime context) that the song turned him into “the Voice of Christmas” to this day.

That said, our Facebook commenters also argued for renditions by Louis Armstrong, Julie Andrews, Otis Redding, Neil Diamond, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Drifters. The latter group’s 1954 doo-wop version is a rarity, for the most-recorded holiday song, in being a truly distinctive take. Commenters also warned away from their least favorite versions, citing Frank Sinatra and Katy Perry.

The original version of “Silent Night” was performed in a church in 1818 with only a guitar for accompaniment, but Bing is also the best-known singer of that one in the recorded era; the only three singles to sell more copies were his own “White Christmas,” Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime,” and Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997.”

Among other renditions, our listeners recommended Willie Nelson, Fitzgerald again, Nat King Cole, Josh Groban, Mahalia Jackson, the Temptations, the Dickies, Miley Cyrus (“surprisingly legit”), Sharon Jones, Sinead O’Connor, Frank Sinatra, and Luciano Pavarotti. There’s the fun-loving version by John Denver and the Muppets; an Enya take for new age fans; and a beautifully icy Annie Lennox version from the 1987 Very Special Christmas album.

We can’t, of course, forget the local picks: Aby Wolf’s annual performance at the New Standards Holiday Show, and the epic combined choirs of St. Olaf College as heard during the Northfield institution’s annual Christmas Festival. A Twitter user also ups Low’s haunting take.

Just as Der Bingle will forever own “White Christmas,” so does the haunting classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” belong to Judy Garland — the iconic artist born Frances Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 1922. The song debuted in the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis, sung by Garland (above), who imbued it with the same profound wistfulness she brought to her signature song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Did anyone else do the song justice? Our Facebook commenters tipped their Santa hats to artists including Sinatra, James Taylor, Diana Krall, Ella Fitzgerald, the Pretenders, Amy Grant, Tony Bennett, She & Him, Coldplay, Tori Amos, Shawn Colvin, and (maybe my own favorite after Judy) the Carpenters. John Denver and the Muppets got more love, and one commenter pointed out that another major Minnesota-born artist has tackled this tune: “Bob Dylan’s cover is positively diabolical.”

The debates continue; David Safar brought this “definitive list” of definitive renditions to my attention. Whoever your favorite seasonal singers are, we hope you enjoy our holiday music Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on The Current. Plus, you can hear kid-friendly holiday music on Rock the Cradle radio, celebrate a very Americana Christmas on Radio Heartland, and hear funky yule jams on Purple Current; and stream a special holiday episode of The Local Show. I joined Andrea for this episode, and we closed the show out with — who else? — Judy Garland.