Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
In 1942, Bing Crosby introduced a new Christmas classic to the world – “White Christmas.” The masterpiece of the legendary Tin Pan Alley composer Irving Berlin, “White Christmas” not only broke sales records for the next 80 years, it also changed the landscape of American Popular music. In a world centered on sheet music and songwriting, the song not only proved itself as a paragon composition – one which could be beautifully performed by hundreds of artists for more than a half of a century – but also as a landmark sound recording. As a recording, the song ushered in a new era for the music industry focused on individual artist interpretations, performances, and signature recordings. “White Christmas” is undoubtedly one of the most performed songs of all time and a legendary sound recording which has captivated audiences for eight decades.
The whole world knows “White Christmas” thanks to the crooning talents of one of America’s most beloved ballad singers, Bing Crosby. However, before Bing could bring the song to life, it was floating around in the creative imagination of one of Tin Pan Alley’s most successful and prolific song composers — Irving Berlin. Berlin was born in 1888, the son of a Jewish cantor in Imperial Russia, and his family immigrated to the United States when he was only 5 years old. After the death of his father, a 13-year old Berlin set out on his own, working odd jobs and performing around New York. His first big hit was the 1911 classic, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and Berlin became one of the key composers of the Tin Pan Alley era. Tin Pan Alley refers to both a physical location (28th street in New York, home of the big music publishing houses of the time) as well as a way of referring to the music business of the early 20th century – an industry which was centered in sheet music publishing and classic song forms.
There are many legends and stories surrounding the creation of “White Christmas,” in part, because Berlin told so many versions of its origins himself. In his book White Christmas, the story of an American song, Jody Rosen explains: “He told his friend Miles Kreuger, a historian of the Hollywood Musical, that the song was composed in Beverly Hills. On his 1954 promotional tour for Paramount Pictures’ White Christmas movie, Berlin unspooled a different version of the story nearly every day. The Los Angeles Mirror reported that Berlin had written White Christmas “for a Broadway show called Stars on My Shoulder…. on an August afternoon in 1938 in his Beekman Place home in New York” – a home that he hadn’t actually moved into until 1947. In an “exclusive interview” with The American Weekly, Berlin recalled that he had written the song in 1940, “for a revue.” “When I wrote ‘White Christmas’ in 1941, it was devised really to fit into a situation in the motion picture Holiday Inn.”
We know that the first physical existence of the song is found on a sheet of Irving Berlin Music Company manuscript paper dated January 8, 1940. The forty-eight-measure draft, in the hand of Berlin’s musical secretary Helmy Kresa, reveals the song’s most memorable element – its chorus – in its entirety. Kresa recalls that Berlin had come into the office early one morning and exclaimed: “I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend […] Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.”
However, it wasn’t until the song was performed by Bing Crosby on his NBC radio show The Kraft Radio Show, that anyone heard this incredible piece of music. The performance occurred on Christmas Day, 1941 – only a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Bing recorded it for the film Holiday Inn in 1942 at Radio Recorders in Los Angeles.
The film Holiday Inn and its recording were released in the summer of 1942. A summer release feels strange, considering the film’s lasting association with a Christmas Song… but the film was a catalog of music from all the holidays of the year, not just Christmas. And sure enough, “White Christmas” wasn’t the biggest hit of the summer months. At first, it was overshadowed by another song from the film, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” but by October, the song was topping the charts. On Oct 31, 1942, the song hit number 1 on Billboard’s Best Selling Retail Records Charts and stayed there for 11 weeks. “White Christmas” won an Oscar for Best Original Song in March 1943, before returning to the number 1 spot again in December of both 1943 and 1944 – the last Christmas season of World War 2.
The start of America’s involvement in World War 2 had a massive effect on Tin Pan Alley songwriting as songwriters churned out patriotic and war-themed songs. Major figures in the pop song industry even put together a committee, headed by Oscar Hammerstein II, to find a song to “do for this war what George M. Cohan’s ‘Over There’ did for the last one.” And while there were novelty songs like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” one of the most popular songs of the World War 2 era was in fact, “White Christmas,” – a nostalgic, melancholy ballad that mirrored the sentimental homesickness felt by American soldiers overseas.
The lyrics of “White Christmas”, which Bing, so carefully brings to life, depicts a nostalgic longing for the gentle holiday peace of a pre-war past. “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.” “Nostalgia” as a term was coined by a Swiss medical doctor who observed the phenomena in homesick soldiers. Even the greek root of the word in “nostos” looks back to Odysseus and his long-awaited return home from war and the homesickness we associate there. Nostalgia, as an sentiment has historically been a powerful part of times of war, and in World War 2, “White Christmas” operated as both a validation of those homesick feelings and perhaps as a balm to help ease that sense of longing. There’s a comfort in hearing the same song every Christmas, especially when one is away from home. The depiction of a perfect new England winter (“where the tree tops glisten, and children listen, to hear sleigh bells in the snow”) was a secular, unifying image of an American Christmas for soldiers away from home. The Buffalo Courier-Express wrote “When Irving Berlin set 120 million people dreaming of a White Christmas…he provided a forcible reminder that we are fighting for the right to dream and memories to dream about.”
But it wasn’t just Berlin’s song, it was also the popularity of the specific Bing Crosby recording – the perfect song, by the perfect artist, at the perfect time. As referenced in the later 1954 film, “White Christmas” Bing Crosby was an active part of the America war effort, broadcasting radio performances to troops, and touring with the USO to sing live for servicemen in Britain, Belgium and France. He was the face of a morale boosting effort during the War, one which continually relied on “White Christmas” as his signature song.
“White Christmas” is a fantastic representative example of the changing landscape of the music industry during this time. On the one hand, it is the epitome of the old Tin Pan Alley measure of success. Sheet music sales were out the roof, and singers and orchestras across the country were performing it live. However, it also transcended the Tin Pan Alley model, into what would become the newer industry standard of judging a songs popularity based on a specific sound recording. In part because the war effort shrank the size of available dance band musicians (and raised the cost of hiring those who were available), radio airplay began to shift towards pre-recorded music. The peak of the radio era was characterized by real-time performances which were broadcast live on local and national networks (just like Bing’s first performance of “White Christmas” on his radio show on the Christmas after the bombing of Pearl Harbor). For many, playing a recorded track was seen as a morally problematic, taking away jobs from hard working live radio musicians. But during World War 2, it became more and more necessary to rely on these sound recordings.
And as sound recordings became accepted on the radio, they became the new measure of a song’s popularity. Prior to this time, if you asked someone about their favorite music, they would likely tell you about their favorite song – not as a specific performance recorded by a specific artist, but as a song that they might hear in a variety of ways (playing on their piano at home, performed by their local dance band, or broadcast live on the radio). But songs like “White Christmas” changed that measure of success to a focus on a specific sound recording. It is quite remarkable that “White Christmas” (a perfectly wonderful example of that old Tin Pan Alley industry model) was one of these first important “records” in the new model. However, it was in the mid-forties that the industry began measuring song’s popularity in terms of a specific recording’s jukebox and radio airplay instead of just sales. Bing Crosby’s version of White Christmas is amazing because we can measure it by both standards – an incredibly popular song and an incredibly popular recording.
“White Christmas” is a song of yearning, capturing that common holiday tendency to nostalgically look back to Christmas’ past. While the 1942 recording introduced the song to audiences and established the tradition of “White Christmas” as a holiday classic for next 80 years, the original Decca recording got so much use, it began to become unusable from the wear. Decca brought Bing into the studio in 1947 to record the version that you are most likely to hear today.
Both the 1942 and 1947 cover versions feature Bing singing alongside the Trotter Orchestra and the Darby Singers. Since the intention was to recreate the success of the original, there are many similarities between them, beginning with the fact that both recordings remove Berlin’s original verse.
Many people don’t realize that there’s an additional section of the song, beyond the short 54 words of its iconic chorus. In the classic Tin Pan Alley Tradition, Berlin began the song with verse, setting up the premise for the song’s main feature – the chorus. The verse begins in a complete surprising setting:
“The sun is shining, the grass is green.
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day.
In Beverly Hills, L. A.” .
But it’s December the 24th.
And I am longing to be up north…”.
The verse is rarely performed and recorded, but its role was clearly defined in Berlin’s Tin Pan Alley songwriting tradition. And it gives some insight into the idea of longing in the song – longing for that storybook Christmas of our memories. Berlin’s own associations with the holiday would have been complex. As a Jewish immigrant, he would not have celebrated it growing up and the Christmas he depicts is a secular, cultural Christmas, rather than a religious holiday. And unlike many holiday classics of its time (“Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Santa Clause is Coming to Town”) Berlin presents the season with a deep, nostalgic longing, and even sadness – an emotion that he likely also associated with the season after the death of his three-week old son on December 25, 1928.
This melancholy Christmas tone is brought out through not only Berlin’s exquisite songwriting, but also the performance of Bing and his team of musicians. The flowing orchestral performance is made extra magical in the 1947 recording through the addition of flute and celesta. And Bing’s own performance showcases the crooning mastering of his famous use of the microphone and the way he uses it to bring out his own vocal dynamics and emotive expression.
The song had become such a holiday classic in its first decade of life, that it became the centerpiece of a new film composer entirely around it – the 1954 classic “White Christmas.” The film is a time capsule of its historical moment, almost ten years after the end of World War 2, the film even begins with a performance of Bing’s character Captain Bob Wallace singing “White Christmas” to the troops on the front lines – a reference to Bing’s own experiences singing to the troops during the war. The film brought in an all-star cast alongside Bing, including Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen. It immediately became a holiday classic, played on repeat during the Christmas season ever since.
“White Christmas” was not only one of the first mega-hit songs of the 20th century, but it was also one of the first mega-hit recordings. In an era, when song popularity was still largely calculated in sheet music sales, “White Christmas” took the lead on every front and forced the industry to recognize the impact of individual sound recordings of a specific song. There are some challenges when trying to quantify the exact records the song holds, because its release pre-dates the type of recording keeping on sound recordings that are so standard today, but one thing is for certain: “White Christmas,” as both a song and as a sound recording, is one of the best-selling songs of all time. In 2009, the Guinness book of World Records summarized that “White Christmas” was listed as the world’s best-selling single in the first-ever Guinness Book of Records (published in 1955) and—remarkably—still retains the title more than 50 years later. More recently, in 2019, it was still listed as the World’s Best-Selling single with more than 50 million units sold. In 1999, members of the RIAA voted the song number 2 on their list of Songs of the Century, falling only behind Judy Garland’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It has been covered by countless artists, with most estimates listing the number of covers around 500 different versions in several different languages.