(You Know When I Said I Had Posted The Last Christmas Music Post Of 2019? Oops!) Reconsidering “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day”….

The post last week about “definitive” recordings of Christmas songs sparked some excellent comments. An epic was Jeffrey Valentine’s own list, which I recommend highly. One comment, however, churned around in my brain: it was from periodic commenter Patrice, a singer and musician herself as well as an expert in sacred music, who wrote in part,

A beautiful Christmas song you didn’t include is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (which I think was covered by Bing) with its lyrics by Longfellow after the loss of his son in the war.

As I said in my reply to Patrice, I had thought about the song, but didn’t include it on the list for three reasons: 1. It seems to have declined in popularity 2. There weren’t many recordings to choose from, and the two versions I was most familiar (by Bing and Johnny Cash)  with had different melodies. 3. If i was going to pick a “definitive” version, it would be Crosby’s, and I have a pro Crosby bias. This was one of those times when correcting for bias creates a bias.

So the song went around and around in my brain for days, and kept me awake at night. Finally, I researched it.

The Longfellow connection is moving and fascinating. The poet’s oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Union Army, but, in November, he was seriously wounded in November of 1863 during the Battle of New Hope Church. Longfellow was terrified that his son, who had enlisted against his wishes, would perish, and he was still mourning the death (in a fire) of his second wife two years earlier.

With all of this on his mind, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem titled “Christmas Bells” on December 25, 1863.  It wasn’t published until February 1865, after Charles had recovered: Longfellow may not have submitted it for publication if his son had died. The poem seems to have been written to bolster his own depressed spirits.

The poem is powerful, and the verses omitted in the musical version should be sung. As with “Do You Hear What I Hear?’, written during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the lyrics gain meaning by understanding the context in which they were written. In 1863, with the Civil War still raging and Longfellow’s son on the brink of death, it was far from certain that “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail.” The line was more than Christmas boilerplate; to Longfellow, it was a fervent hope.

Here’s all of “Christmas Bells”:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

The poem was first set to music in 1872  by the English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, who used a melody he had written 1848. There have been many musical arrangements since, but in 1956 composer Johnny Marks,  like Irving Berlin a Jew who composed great Christmas songs, added his version to the list. Never heard of Johnny Marks? You should, for he has a legitimate claim to being the best Christmas songwriter of all time. Marks wrote “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and  Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run.”

And the music to  the version of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” that became the standard.

There’s a reason Bing Crosby has a claim to the “definitive” rendition of the song: he was the one who introduced the Marks melody.  He recorded it on October 3, 1956, using  verses 1, 2, 6, 7. It was released as a single, and was immediately hailed by reviewers.  “Bing Crosby’s workover of ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’ looks like a big one for the ’56 Yule and a hit potential of enduring value,” wrote one. The Marks version has since been covered more than 60 artists.

Patrice was right. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a great Christmas song with a moving connection to the Civil War and a great American poet, and it belongs on any list of outstanding Christmas ballads.

And yes, Bing Crosby nailed it.

10 thoughts on “(You Know When I Said I Had Posted The Last Christmas Music Post Of 2019? Oops!) Reconsidering “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day”….

  1. Jack,
    I feel like my father wouldn’t have let this go without mentioning “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” by Gayla Peevy. That song could get played in the middle of July if the mood struck,

  2. Wow! Those last two verses…
    Here’s one I heard the other day by Gary Puckett & The Union Gap. It was recorded during, and about, Vietnam, but someone created this video with a nod towards OEF/ OIF.

    • And every night they lie awake
      And dream of mama’s chocolate cake
      And wonder if they’ll be a tomorrow
      And will they ever see their home and their family
      Or will they ever be back home
      And boys who never learned to pray
      Look to the heavens everyday
      And stumble through a simple little prayer
      And ask the Lord above
      To send them home to the one’s they love
      Oh god I hope they make it home
      And every day some young man die’s
      And in the night some young girl cries
      He’ll never hear his baby’s laughter
      He’ll never ever see his home and his family
      Or what he’s done for you and me
      But I guess he’s on his way back home

    • As far as I’m concerned, Christmas ends on January 5, 2020- the twelfth night of Christmas.

      It’s my favorite Holiday, so I’m never in a hurry to see it go.

      Plus, once January 6, 2020 gets here, it’s just friggin’ winter-and I’m in upstate New York. So, I’m not in a hurry for that.

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