Otis Redding, “White Christmas” (1968)
My favorite performance of Irving Berlin’s song, which has a really fascinating history, so fascinating in fact that NPR has done at least two stories on it: one in 2000 and one in 2002. Both very much worth listening to.
In January 1940, Irving Berlin, the most popular songwriter in America, raced into his office and asked his musical secretary to take down a new song. “Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote,” he said. His “White Christmas” was a seasonal, secular hymn that has lasted over half a century.
The composer of one of our most beloved Christmas songs, Berlin was Jewish, born in Russia, and his first language was Yiddish. This really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. When I was reading The Book of Gossage, Howard Gossage wrote that the best creative folks are “extra-environmental”—they are your immigrants, your outsiders, the folks who are able to notice what’s already there because it’s not “natural” to them.
Jody Rosen, author of White Christmas: The Story of An American Song, says that there might be a darker side to the song:
Berlin’s own feelings about the holiday were certainly ambivalent. He suffered a tragedy on Christmas Day in 1928 when his 3-week-old son, Irving Berlin Jr., died. Every Christmas thereafter, he and his wife visited his son’s grave. “The kind of deep secret of the song may be that it was Berlin responding in some way to his melancholy about the death of his son.”
“In spirit, if not in form, it’s a blues song.” (Enter Otis.)