An Appreciation: Hugh Martin

Update: March 15, 2011: A great, great retrospective of Hugh Martin‘s and Ralph Blane‘s interviews and performances through the years with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross of NPR is here. Into his 90’s Martin’s Southern charm was intact.

Another legend of the American Songbook has passed from the scene. Hugh Martin, writer of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” died in early March at the age of 96. (Read Time magazine’s obit here.) Martin is one of those figures, like orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett or vocal arranger Kay Thompson, who contributed mightily to the stage and screen musicals that produced our greatest songs, but whose name few in the general public ever knew. They knew his songs, but notably, his best work—three songs that almost everyone knows through their repeated recordings and performances over the last 65 years—was created for one project, the hit 1943 Judy Garland movie Meet Me in St. Louis.

Probably the second most beloved (after Singin’ in the Rain) of the classic MGM musicals, Meet Me in St. Louis belongs in any serious film or music library. Click to buy from Amazon.

Martin’s partner, Ralph Blane, was credited as co-writer on the team’s best known songs. Martin and Blane began writing together when they worked in singing groups in the 1930’s. Their skills caught the attention of Richard Rodgers, who selected them to score the Broadway show Best Foot Forward. When the show became a hit, MGM invited them to Hollywood, where they provided vocal arrangements for movies and began work on Meet Me in St. Louis..

Both men created music and lyrics, rather than assuming distinct roles as composer and lyricist, and both wrote songs alone (like Lennon and McCartney) that the team received credit for. Which writer deserves the major credit on their work together is a matter of some dispute. What’s not in question is the fact that their best songs rank with the best of Rodgers, Gershwin, Berlin, or Kern. Here are some notes about their “big three” from Meet Me in St. Louis and a melody they wrote that every baby boomer knows, but very few know the song it came from.

 

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”—Introduced in the film by Garland and immortalized ten years later by Frank Sinatra, this beautiful standard took an unlikely path to carol status. As the Time article explains, the song’s original depressing lyrics were brightened for the movie and then further uplifted at Sinatra’s request. The song accompanies the scene in which Garland’s character Esther explains to her little sister Tootie (the movie-stealing Margaret O’Brian), that their family will have to move to New York with their lawyer father, leaving behind friends, romances, school plans, and worst of all, the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
“The Trolley Song—One of Garland’s signature songs, this rousing anthem was brought hilariously back to life in the 1990’s on Saturday Night Live as the finale of the cabaret act by the singing Sweeney Sisters (Jan Hooks and Nora Dunn). The song as performed in Meet Me in St. Louis is an expertly built expository suite that advances the plot—Esther’s excitement at her budding romance with neighbor John Truett (the boy next door)—while standing on its own as a popular song. It also provided a star-turn production number for Garland without her ever leaving a streetcar.
“The Boy Next Door”—Although well known to jazz singers, this song isn’t as familiar as the previous two, but it’s at the top of the Martin and Blane catalog and the American songbook as a whole. Its wonderfully chromatic first line of the refrain—”How can I ignore the boy next door,” which in musical parlance contains a flatted third on “ig-NORE” and a flatted second on “DOOR”—continued the trend Richard Rodgers was establishing by adding unexpected notes to simple melodies, his “Oh what a beautiful MOR-nin” with its flatted seventh coming only two years earlier in Oklahoma. The rest of “The Boy Next Door” is just as striking. Here’s a nice version by the singer Stacy Kent.
And then there’s this Martin and Blane melody, which every baby boomer (and every car safety advocate) knows, but whose origin I, a converted Martin and Blane fan, did not know until I heard a radio tribute to Martin the weekend after his death. Just as Jerome Kern’s classic “Look for the Silver Lining” was appropriated by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, Martin and Blane’s finale to Best Foot Forward became a jingle that everyone could hum in the 1960’s but whose creators few were aware of. The song is “Buckle Down Winsocki” from the 1943 film of Best Foot Forward. This one has never been released on DVD, so watch for it on TCM. Whichever way you buckle, it’s a rousing march.

Had they written nothing else, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” would have kept Martin and Blane familiar to fans of movie musicals. Their ode to the holiday season is the best of the melancholy wartime Christmas songs (with “White Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”) that powerfully convey the hope and sadness felt by those separated from loved ones at the most communal time of the year. But Martin and Blaine’s other hits and their amazing triumph with Meet Me in St. Louis place them in the top songwriting teams of the 20th century.

In my work as a book consultant in 2009, I was pitched on a biography of Hugh Martin by an agent. The publisher I was working for passed on the project, a disappointment considering Martin’s unique experiences and perspective as a composer who had not only written for Judy Garland but also accompanied her on later projects, and was one of the few remaining witnesses to so much show business history. However, Martin’s book was published by Trolley Press last fall. It’s one of the last remaining glimpses into the world of the Hollywood musical by someone who not only was there, but also reached its zenith.

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Author: Rusty Cutchin

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