Contact: Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
November 23, 2009
DeKalb, Ill. — America may have been in the depths of The Great Depression in 1934, but it was the start of a golden age for Christmas music, says noted Christmas carol expert Bill Studwell.
As a tip of the stocking cap to that era, Studwell has named “Winter Wonderland,” which was released in 1934, his 2009 Carol of the Year, with an honorable mention to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which burst on to the scene that same year.
Those songs opened the flood gates to two decades of classics like “White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Silver Bells,” “Blue Christmas,” “The Christmas Song, “ and nearly 20 others. All were released between 1932 and 1951, and all remain popular today. It was an unprecedented period of growth for the genre,” says the professor emeritus from Northern Illinois University.
Studwell has written about all of these songs, and hundreds of others, researching their history and origins, become the nation’s recognized expert on Christmas music in the process. That status was reaffirmed this year when the 73-year-old Studwell earned his first movie credit for serving as a technical consultant to the producers of Disney’s latest version of “A Christmas Carol.” He reviewed songs used in the movie to ensure that they were appropriate to the Victorian era depicted in the Dickens story.
The songs he chose to recognize in this, the 24th edition of his Carol of the Year series are of much more recent vintage, but no less classic and beloved.
Studwell is particularly fond of “Winter Wonderland,” ranking it 18th on his list of personal favorites. “The image of a couple strolling through the romantic setting of a snowy winter day is an experience which many of us, including the authors, have enjoyed at one time or another,” says Studwell, who grew up in Connecticut.
“It’s a beautiful tune, very lyrical in that compelling big band style, and the lyrics are even better,” says Studwell.
The piece was by far the most popular effort of lyricist Richard Smith (who wrote the song while in a sanitarium, recovering from tuberculosis) and composer Felix Bernard. It was an immediate hit and has been popular since its 1934 debut. A 1946 version of the song by Johnny Mercer rose to No. 4 on the Billboard airplay charts, and Perry Como’s rendition of the song on his 1959 Christmas album made it into the top 10. Dozens of other artists have recorded the song over the years including The Andrews Sisters, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Elvis Presley and the Eurythmics.
Sadly, neither Smith nor Bernard lived long enough to enjoy much of that success. Smith died just one year after the song was released, while Bernard died 10 years later.
Without Ida Cantor, “Santa Claus is Coming Town” might never have made the big time. Never heard of her? That’s not surprising. She wasn’t famous, but her husband, Eddie was one of the most popular entertainers of the early 20th century. He didn’t want to sing the song, noting that other artists had passed on the song as being too silly and childish. Undeterred, Ida convinced him to sing it on his radio show anyway.
Cantor performed the song just before Thanksgiving in November of 1934 and the next day 100,000 orders for the sheet music came pouring in. By Christmas, 400,000 copies of the music had been sold and an instant classic had been born. George Happle and the Hotel Taft Orchestra recorded the song that same year, becoming the first in a long list of performers that today includes Bing Crosby, Bruce Springsteen, Ella Fitzgerald, Aerosmith, Randy Travis, Merle Haggard and dozens of others. The piece also spawned a Rankin and Bass Christmas special based on the song.
The tune was a collaborative effort by Haven Gillespie, a fourth-grade dropout who was a veteran of the original Tin Pan Alley, and J. Fred Coots who eventually went on to great success writing revues for the Ziegfeld Follies and the Cotton Club before starting his own career as a night club singer.
When Gillespie brought him the lyric for “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Coots dashed off the tune in 10 minutes. It took two years before Cantor (whom Coots was working for at the time) launched it on its path to becoming one of the most popular Christmas songs ever.
“The song is mostly for children, but the lyrics include so many iconic lines like ‘You better watch out, you better not cry…’ and ‘making a list and checking it twice.’ Those have become ingrained in society,” Studwell says.
Over the next two decades there seemed to be a new hit Christmas song every year. It is difficult to say why that era spawned so many great Christmas songs, but Studwell has a theory.
“That period, from the 1930s until the 1950s was a difficult period. In that span you have the Great Depression and World War II. They were hard times, and there is something about hard times that seems to spur creativity,” he says.
Studwell began researching Christmas carols in 1972 when he created a pamphlet about “Oh Holy Night” as a gift for a family member. Since then, he has researched and written handbooks, dictionaries, essays and booklets on the topic, delving into the background of hundreds of carols. He has conducted more than 500 media interviews on the topic for newspapers, magazines, radio and television and has served as an adviser to several projects compiling recordings and lyrics of carols.
He estimates that he has devoted more than 6,000 hours of his life to studying and writing about Christmas carols. At the height of his research, he immersed himself in collections at libraries across the country and had a room full of tables stacked high with more than 400 reference volumes from around the globe.
He also champions several other musical genres that he believes are under-appreciated and has written extensively on college fight songs, state songs, patriotic music and circus music, becoming a nationally recognized expert in each. He recently began writing fiction. In all, he has authored more than 45 books, with several set for publication in the months and years ahead.
Studwell now resides in Bloomington, Ind. He can be reached by telephone at (812) 330-1996.
# # #