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The Jews Who Wrote Christmas Songs (2009)

December 2009

This article is updated and revised annually. Other versions can be found here: 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Every year, in early December, the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) releases a list of the 25 most popular (copyrighted) holiday songs as determined by radio air play. The ASCAP list changes a bit from year-to-year. Every now and again, a new song makes the list. More often, a popular new version of an old Christmas favorite propels that old favorite onto the list and pushes another song off.

In 2009, ASCAP did something a little different. Instead of a issuing a list of the most popular holiday songs of 2009, it issued a list of the most popular holiday songs of the past decade. The songs on the list, with one exception, are the same as those which appeared in 2008, but the order is a little different.

ASCAP's title, "holiday songs," might be a better term than "Christmas songs," because a few of these "Christmas-time" favorite songs don't even mention Christmas. However, most people would probably refer to these all popular tunes (like "White Christmas" or "Let it Snow") as "Christmas songs."

The ASCAP list does not include traditional Christmas songs or carols (for example, "Silent Night"). These traditional songs, interpreted by scores of singers, get tremendous radio airplay. However, ASCAP does not monitor the airplay of any non-copyrighted songs, Christmas or otherwise. Virtually all traditional Christmas songs were written so long ago that they were never copyrighted or the copyright expired long ago. One of ASCAP's main jobs is to ensure that royalties are paid to their members (songwriters, publishers, etc.) when their song is played on the radio or elsewhere.

I do wish to thank everyone who has written me about my previous versions of this article ?and I really appreciate the kind and complimentary words in most of the e-mails I have received.

I also wish to thank songwriter Ervin Drake, the composer of such standards as "It Was A Very Good Year" and "Good Morning, Heartache." Drake, a friend of mine, shared memories of working with some of the songwriters, below. When he celebrated his 90th birthday this past year,  the occasion was marked by articles in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Take a look ?you'll see that Mr. Drake is now happily married to the woman who inspired "Good Morning Heartache." It's quite a tale.

Too Jewish? A Note from IFF Editor Ruth Abrams

In all the previous years that InterfaithFamily.com has published this article, the Jewishness of popular Christmas song writers was a curiosity, not much marked by serious media. This year, two op-ed pieces have directed attention back to Jewish writers of Christmas songs. First, Michael Feinstein, a singer and pianist who works to keep the songs of the Great American Songbook alive, wrote "Whose Christmas Is It?" for the New York Times. At a recent Christmas concert, the board of the orchestra with whom he was singing complained that Feinstein's program was "too Jewish," because the singer had mentioned the Jewish background of some of the songwriters. His reflective article contains more information about which Jewish songwriters did not write Christmas songs, and why.

If you think Feinstein's experience was an anomaly, check out Garrison Keilor's recent "Nonbelievers, please leave Christmas alone." In a spasm of curmudgeonly upset over a revised version of "Silent Night" he encountered in a Unitarian Universalist Church in Cambridge, Mass., Keilor took it on himself to insult Unitarian beliefs in a more comprehensive way, and while he was at it, to complain about:

...all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write "Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we'll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah"? No, we didn't. Christmas is a Christian holiday - if you're not in the club, then buzz off.

Not sure what this has to do with one church's rendition of "Silent Night," which, though rumors have floated around about it, was not written by a Jew. Perhaps the culture wars are not quite over. Happy holidays, Mr. Keillor. (IFF's editor is hoping for the loafers/shofar song to get wide airplay in September ?though with that kind of slant rhyme, Keillor is clearly no Irving Berlin.)

The List

Just below, I've reproduced the 2009 ASCAP list of the most popular holiday songs of the past decade. Second, I've followed it up with detailed information on the Jewish background of writers of the songs. As you will see, 12 out of the 25 most popular songs were written or co-written by "verified" Jewish composers. I've followed this with a brief essay offering my theory on why so many holiday songs are written by Jewish composers. 25 Most Popular Holidays Song of the Past Decade as Determined by Radio Airplay and Compiled by the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) Each song is followed by the writer and performer of the version that receives the most current radioplay.

1. Winter Wonderland
Written by: Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith
Performed by: Eurythmics
2. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
Written by: Mel Tormé, Robert Wells
Performed by: Nat "King" Cole
3. Sleigh Ride
Written by: Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish
Performed by: The Ronettes
4. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Written by: Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin
Performed by: The Pretenders
5. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
Written by: Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie
Performed by: Frank Sinatra
6. White Christmas
Written by: Irving Berlin
Performed by: Bing Crosby
7. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
Written by: Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne
Performed by: Michael Bublé
8. Jingle Bell Rock
Written by: Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe
Performed by: Bobby Helms
9. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer
Written by: Johnny Marks
Performed by: Gene Autry
10. Little Drummer Boy
Written by: Katherine K. Davis, Henry V. Onorati, Harry Simeone
Performed by: The Harry Simeone Chorale & Orchestra
11. It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
Written by: Edward Pola, George Wyle
Performed by: Andy Williams
12. I'll Be Home For Christmas
Written by: Walter Kent, Kim Gannon, Buck Ram
Performed by: Amy Grant
13. Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree
Written by: Johnny Marks
Performed by: Brenda Lee
14. Silver Bells
Written by: Jay Livingston, Ray Evans
Performed by: Kenny G
15. Feliz Navidad
Written by: José Feliciano
Performed by: José Feliciano
16. Frosty The Snowman
Written by: Steve Nelson, Walter E. Rollins
Performed by: The Ronettes
17. A Holly Jolly Christmas
Written by: Johnny Marks
Performed by: Burl Ives
18. Blue Christmas
Written by: Billy Hayes, Jay W. Johnson
Performed by: Elvis Presley
19. It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas
Written by: Meredith Willson
Performed by: Johnny Mathis
20. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
Written by: Tommie Connor
Performed by: John Mellencamp
21. Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)
Written by: Gene Autry, Oakley Haldeman
Performed by: Elvis Presley
22. (There's No Place Like) Home For The Holidays
Written by: Bob Allen, Al Stillman
Performed by: Perry Como
23. Carol Of The Bells
Written by: Peter J. Wilhousky, Mykola Leontovich
Performed by: David Foster (instrumental version)
24. Wonderful Christmastime
Written by: Paul McCartney
Performed by: Paul McCartney
25. Do They Know It's Christmas? (Feed the World)
Written by: Midge Ure (PRS), Bob Geldof
Performed by: Band Aid

 

"Winter Wonderland"

This is the second year in a row that "Winter Wonderland" has topped the list. While "Winter Wonderland" has appeared on the list since its inception, it owes its number one status to relatively new versions of the song by the Eurythmics, Air Supply and Jewel. 2007 was the first year "Winter Wonderland" headed the ASCAP list.

Richard B. Smith and Felix Bernard wrote "Winter Wonderland" in 1934 and it quickly became a hit for bandleader Guy Lombardo. In 1946, new versions by the Andrew Sisters and Perry Como helped make the song a perennial Christmastime favorite.

I know very little about lyricist Richard B. Smith (1901-1935) other than he was born in Pennsylvania, died young, and that "Winter Wonderland" was his only big hit.

Bernard (1897-1944) also died young, and there isn't that much biographical information available on him. However, last year I was able to verify that he was Jewish.

Bernard was born Felix Bernhardt in Brooklyn. In the 1920 census, Felix's father, Charles Bernhardt, lists his birthplace as Germany. Felix's mother, Anna, lists her birthplace as Russia (another government source says her maiden name was Zindel). Both his parents told the census taker that their mother tongue was Yiddish. Given that information one can safely assume that Felix Bernard was Jewish.

Charles Bernhardt was a professional violinist and Felix's early musical studies were with his father. Felix had a varied musical career. He toured as a pianist on the American vaudeville circuit and in Europe. He worked as a pianist for music publishers and eventually formed his own dance band. He also wrote special musical programs for leading singers of his day, including Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, and Nora Bayes (all of whom were Jewish).

In 1919, he had his first major hit as the co-composer of the music for "Dardanella." Some sources say that it was the first tune to sell a million copies on record. He wrote some other popular songs, but they are rarely played today.

Bernard is buried in a non-denominational cemetery in Los Angeles. His gravestone bears his original name (Felix Bernhardt) and the inscription on the stone simply describes him as a husband, son and brother.

A site visitor who declined to give his name posted the following comment on the 2007 version of this article. I've been dealing with the public via the web since 1999, and I've acquired a pretty good sense of when someone is making something up about being related to a famous person. This posting, repeated here, has the strong air of veracity. However, if the person who posted this info wishes to contact me at middleoftheroad1@aol.com, I would love to hear from you:

Felix Bernard (Bernhardt) was Jewish. He is my great-uncle (in-law) married to my great-aunt Lillian [nee Cooper (a German-Jewish last name)]. I frequently visited with her when in my early 20's. She told me about him. I also heard about him from my grandmother (Lillian Cooper Bernard's sister-in-law). In the early 1930's the Cooper family all lived together in a large apartment on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx?

"The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)"

This song was written in 1945 by Mel Tormé (1925-1999) and Robert "Bob" Wells (born (1922-1998) ?both of whom were Jewish.

Tormé, born Mel Torma, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, is most famous as a jazz vocalist, but he did write about 250 songs, mostly with Wells. Tormé wrote the music for "The Christmas Song" and Wells (born Robert Levinson) penned the lyrics.

The Songwriters Hall of Fame website has an informative web page devoted to the creation of this song.

"Sleigh Ride"

Composer Leroy Anderson wasn't Jewish, but lyricist Mitchell Parish (1900-1993) was.

Parish was born Michael Hyman Pashelinsky in Lithuania, but his family moved to Louisiana and settled in Shreveport when he was an infant. (I don't know if living in Louisiana inspired the name change to "parish" ?the term used for counties in Louisiana.)

An odd sidelight I stumbled upon: Jewish actress Kitty Carlisle Hart (1910-2007), who once dated George Gershwin, was the granddaughter of Louisiana native Ben Holtzman. Holtzman was the mayor of Shreveport, La., when Parish's family settled there in 1900. Holtzman, who was active in the Jewish community, was a Confederate veteran of the Civil War and was a gunner on the Merrimac, the first ironclad warship.

I wonder if Hart and Parish, who moved in the same New York show biz circles, ever realized their strange Southern connection?

Back to our story: Parish's family moved to New York City when he was about 6, and he went to college in New York. For decades he was a leading lyricist.

My friend, songwriter Ervin Drake, knew Mitchell Parish fairly well. He tells me he was a nice, very well-spoken man who had more intellectual erudition than most of the songwriters of his era. Parish's erudition is reflected in his lyrics for "Stardust," one of the most beautifully poetic of American popular songs.

According to ASCAP the most popular recording of this song is the version sung by the Ronettes, the famous '60s all-girl singing group. The Ronettes version of "Frosty the Snowman," the number 16 song on this list, is also the most popular version according to ASCAP. Ronnie Spector, the lead singer of the Ronettes, has identified herself as Jewish.

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"

I don't know if either of the late songwriters Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin were Jewish. My guess is no.

"Santa Claus is Coming to Town"

Back when I first wrote on the subject, I caught a newspaper reference to a university seminar in which one of the professors reportedly said that Fred Coots, co-writer of the song, was Jewish. I reported that Coots was Jewish. However, upon reflection, I am not sure that this newspaper source is unimpeachable and haven't been able to find a reliable independent source that confirms the newspaper's information.

"White Christmas"

Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" is the historical biggie of popular Christmas songs. Its incredible success inspired scores of other songwriters to try and write a Christmas song.

However, this tune has been gradually slipping down the ASCAP ranks over the last decade. I suspect that's because singer Bing Crosby, who did the original and still the most popular version of the song, has now been gone a long time.

Please see our special highlight page on Irving Berlin and "White Christmas" for further information.

"Let It Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!"

This song was written in 1945 by the Jewish songwriting team of lyricist Sammy Cahn (1913-1993) and composer Jule Styne (1905-1994).

In the '50s, probably half of all Americans would recognize the names of this songwriting duo. Previews of coming movies would sometimes say the film featured a Cahn/Styne tune ?and that tune would usually end up high on the "hit parade."

Cahn won the Oscar for best song four times: once with Styne, and three times with composer Jimmy Van Heusen, who wasn't Jewish.

Cahn was born Sammy Cohen on the Lower East Side of New York, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants. He changed his name from Cohen to Kahn to Cahn ?to avoid being confused with a popular entertainer of the day with a similar name and, then, a songwriter with a similar name.

Styne was born in London to Jewish parents from the Ukraine. His family moved to Chicago when he was 8. He is best known as a top Broadway and movie musical composer and the list of the great shows he wrote is staggering. Among them are Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Peter Pan, Bells are Ringing, Gypsy and Funny Girl.

Cahn and Styne also wrote "The Christmas Waltz." That tune has appeared in past years on the ASCAP top 25.

"Jingle Bell Rock"

I don't know much about co-writers Joseph Carleton Beal and James Ross Boothe beyond the place and dates of their births. This was the only hit for these songwriters.

"Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer"

Johnny Marks' (1909-1985) main claim to fame is writing three of the most popular Christmas songs of all-time. Several years ago, I found out from Ervin Drake that Johnny Marks, whom he personally knew, was Jewish. In previous versions of this article, I wrote that Drake got to know Marks when they both worked for ASCAP. I must have misunderstood Mr. Drake. He recently told me that he got to know Marks when they met right after WWII, at places frequented by young New York songwriters. This included the famous Lindy's restaurant. (Drake never worked for ASCAP and Marks was a made a director of ASCAP in the late '50s).

One of Mr. Drake's most vivid memories of Johnny Marks is Marks telling him, around 1948, that he just got singer Gene Autry to record his song about a red-nosed reindeer and he (Marks) was sure it was going to be a huge hit ?and, boy, oh boy ?was Marks right! As I've previously noted, the "Rudolph" song was based on a poem by Robert May, Johnny Marks' brother-in-law.

"Little Drummer Boy"

I know that Katherine K. Davis, writer of the original 1941 version, was not Jewish, but I don't know about Henry V. Onorati or Harry Simeone, who adapted the song for the Harry Simeone Chorale & Orchestra in 1958.

"It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year"

I don't know much about Edward Pola, who wrote the lyrics for this 1963 hit, but the Jewish composer, George Wyle (1917-2003), was born Bernard Weissman in New York City, got his start playing piano in the Catskills and moved to Los Angeles in 1946 to write and conduct music for the Alan Young Radio Show.

He is also famous for writing the music to the theme song for Gilligan's Island, the endlessly popular '60s TV show. The lyrics to that tune were by Sherwood Schwartz, the show's Jewish creator.

Wyle's grandson is Adam Levy, a very talented guitarist who is best known for playing guitar in singer Norah Jones' band. He is also a composer and recording artist in his own right. His grandfather, he says, was an important influence on him.

"I'll Be Home For Christmas"

Walter Kent, who wrote the music, and Buck Ram, who co-wrote the lyrics with Kim Gannon, were Jewish. "I'll Be Home," like "White Christmas," was first sung by Bing Crosby and released (1943) during World War II. Like "White Christmas," it hit a nerve among those separated from their loved ones and was an instant hit and holiday classic.

There is a legal dispute over this song. In short, Ram, who was born Samuel Ram, wrote a poem ?later a song ?with the title "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Maybe Kent and Gannon saw Ram's version before they wrote their song and maybe they didn't.

In any event Kent and Gannon wrote the song we all know ?which bears little relationship to the song Ram wrote, except for the title. But Ram felt he deserved a writing credit, sued and got a co-writing credit.

Kent (1911-1994) was born Walter Kauffman in New York. He was a practicing architect, an orchestra leader, and a composer. Most of his composing was for films. His other big hits were "The White Cliffs of Dover" and "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die." He is buried in a Los Angeles area Jewish cemetery.

Ram (1907-1991) was also born in New York. Very bright, he graduated from high school at 15 and eventually finished law school but did not practice.

His real fame came as a rock n' roll music writer and producer in the '50s, most notably with the Platters, a group he created. He is credited as the writer of such hits as "The Great Pretender," "Only You," "The Magic Touch" and "Twilight Time."

"Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree"

Johnny Marks wrote this in 1958. See "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

"Silver Bells"

This song was written in 1951 for The Lemon Drop Kid, a Bob Hope movie.

Jay Livingston, who wrote the music, and Ray Evans (1915-2007), who wrote the lyrics, were a famous Jewish songwriting team with many big hits to their credit. Livingston (1915-2001) was born Jacob Levinson in a small industrial suburb of Pittsburgh.

Evans was born in 1915 in Salamanca, a small city not that far from Buffalo, N.Y. He went to the University of Pennsylvania, as did Livingston, and the two met when they joined the university dance band.

They formed their songwriting partnership in 1937 and it endured until Livingston's death. (By all accounts, these two guys were like brothers and Evans was absolutely devastated by Livingston's death.)

Ervin Drake tells me that he once discussed "Silver Bells" with Livingston and Evans. They told him that they were shocked by its huge success. There was a Christmas scene in The Lemon Drop Kid, so they wrote, as asked, a Christmas song. They didn't have any idea that it would become a hit of any sort.

According to ASCAP the most popular version of "Silver Bells" is the one by saxophonist Kenny G, who is Jewish.

"Feliz Navidad"

Written in 1970, this is one of the few "newer" songs to break into the top 25. Its writer, José Feliciano is not Jewish.

"Frosty The Snowman"

I couldn't find any useful biographical material on writers Steve Nelson and Walter E. Rollins. However, there are articles that say following the success of "Rudolph," the duo figured they could also invent a new Christmas folkloric figure ?and they did.

"A Holly Jolly Christmas"

Written in 1962 by Johnny Marks. See "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer."

"Blue Christmas"

This semi-rock tune was made famous by Elvis Presley. I really couldn't find out much about the writers of the tune, Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson.

"It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas"

This song was written in 1951 by Meredith Willson, who is best known as the creator of "The Music Man." He wasn't Jewish.

"I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"

Songwriter Tommie Connor was not Jewish.

"Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)"

Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy, wasn't Jewish. There's not much available information on co-writer Oakley Haldeman.

"There's No Place Like Home For The Holidays"

I am still researching Bob Allen, a talented songwriter who is now deceased. This 1954 song's lyricist, Al Stillman (1906-c.1986), was Jewish.

Composer Elvin Drake confirmed that Stillman was Jewish. They were co-writers on the lovely song, "I Believe."

Stillman was born in New York and was a writer for Radio City Music Hall for 40 years. He had several other big hits. Mr. Drake tells me that he was not a practicing Jew.

"Carol Of The Bells

This is a fairly new entry in the top 25, propelled by the popularity of versions by John Tesh and David Foster. Both the composer and lyricist (Peter J. Wilhousky and Mykola Leontovich) were not Jewish.

Wonderful Christmastime

Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney is not Jewish. His late wife and the mother of his children, Linda Eastman McCartney, was Jewish, but not religious. This song has bounced around the bottom of the ASCAP list this decade and, in some years, has not been on the list.

"Do They Know It's Christmas? (Feed the World)"

Written by Midge Ure and Bob Geldof, this is the newest song on the list. It was composed in 1984 for the "Live Aid" concert.

Co-writer Bob Geldof, who is now more famous as a humanitarian than a musician, was raised a Roman Catholic.

While I wouldn't call Geldof a "Jewish songwriter," he has some Jewish ancestry ?apparently a Jewish grandparent. He told Hello magazine in 2002, "I'm Irish. My grandparents were Belgian, German, English and Irish. They were Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. I married a Welsh woman. We had English children. I live with a French girl. I luckily have flats in London, Paris and Rome."

Bonus Tracks!

In my regular column, I've mentioned legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, who wasn't Jewish, and the fact that he moved to Brooklyn in '40s and married a Jewish woman, Marjorie (Greenblatt) Mazia. Their children, Nora Guthrie and famous folk singer Arlo Guthrie, were raised in their mother's faith.

A few years ago, Nora discovered the lyrics to a bunch of Jewish-themed songs that Woody composed and sometimes sang back in the '40s. She turned them over to the Klezmatics, an American Klezmer band, and they've turned out two albums of Woody's Jewish songs. For the most part, the band has had to compose music to go along with Woody's lyrics, since his original music was not notated anywhere.

As far as we know, Woody Guthrie only recorded two Hanukkah songs during his lifetime: a children's song, "Hanukkah Dance," and a song for grown-ups called "The Many and the Few."

By the way, earlier this year, the ASCAP Foundation honored Arlo Guthrie with its The ASCAP Foundation Champion Award for music in the service of vital causes.

Finally, this year's Hanukkah song sensation was commissioned by Tablet, a Jewish web magazine, which also published the story of how Senator Orrin Hatch came to write a Hanukkah song. On the same page, there are links to a video of the Senator and others performing the song.

One comment ?-the author of the article, the usually erudite Jeffrey Goldberg, partially blames the lack of good Hanukkah songs on the fact that Jewish songwriters were "too busy" writing Christmas songs. I think this comment reflects Goldberg's annoyance at the dearth of good Hanukkah songs and does not reflect the truth of a much, much more complicated story. A story I may convey in a future revision of this article.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) Simple musical instrument made from a ram's horn that is blown in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as each morning after daily services during the Hebrew month of Elul (the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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