Monday, December 9, 2019

Sleigh Ride

It's another wonderful deep-dive of a Mark Steyn music post—one from which I will shock and horrify one and all by offering a firmly dissenting opinion. I never thought I'd see the day, but...well, somehow, here we all are.

The familiar Christmas classic was originally penned by Leroy Anderson, already an accomplished composer and arranger by the time his most well-known work came along. First recorded by the Boston Pops in 1949, there have been many other versions of the tune since, both with vocals and without.

It was a hot one, that summer of '46. A heat wave. And on one of the hottest days of a hot year the composer came up with the idea for what would prove his most popular composition. "It was just a pictorial thing," he said. "It wasn't necessarily Christmas music. And it was written during the heat wave." That's part of a time-honored tradition, of course: That same summer, out in Los Angeles, on the very hottest day, Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn wrote "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" But they were quicker at the game, and got their song out in time for that year's Christmas season. As a composer rather than a hit tunesmith, Anderson took longer to get his composition finished, arranged and orchestrated to his satisfaction. But, when he did, he dated the event precisely: "Sleigh Ride" was completed on February 10th 1948, and premiered by the Boston Pops three months later.

In 1950, Leroy Anderson went into the studio to conduct what would become his own hit single of the piece, a record that still sounds great almost 60 years later, full of sleigh bells and clip-clops:

And now, alas, we come to the bit where I must regretfully part ways with the esteemed Mr Steyn:
The whip cracks were rimshots from the drummer, and the memorable horse whinny at the end is a trumpet half-valve glissando. (It's traditional in concert performances for the lead trumpet to stand up to deliver his whinny, thereby signaling the end of the ride.) I've played Anderson's record on the radio many times and I love it. I wouldn't change a thing, except toward the end when he restates the main "Just hear those sleigh bells jing-a-ling" theme in a syncopated fashion that sounds like it escaped from some western rodeo thing by Aaron Copland. Other than that, it's a perfect record.
Seriously? To me the syncopated passage enlivens the song quite nicely, swinging out with an unexpected, jazzy bounce that adds far more than it detracts. Personally, it doesn't grate on me at all, nor does it sound jarring or out of place; it feels right at home with the rest of the piece, and is brief enough that it doesn't outstay its welcome. What the heck, that's just me, I guess. But having heard and preferred Anderson's version since childhood, Sleigh Ride just never feels quite right to me without the perky swagger of the very aside Steyn laments tucked in there, and I miss it when it's gone. Now for the rest of the tale:
But not yet a song. Two years after its premiere by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, "Sleigh Ride" was still an instrumental. When it was finally decided to add lyrics, Anderson turned to Mitchell Parish, a solid professional Tin Pan Alley man with a quarter-century of hits behind him, among them "Stardust", "Sweet Lorraine", "Sophisticated Lady", "Stars Fell On Alabama", just to cite the "S" section of the Parish index. Putting words to a piece of music whose character is already fully formed in the public imagination is not like writing a song from scratch. "He's written many lyrics to instrumental numbers," said Anderson, "and this is quite a knack because you see when you write a song, the lyric writer has free rein; he's usually the one who contributes the title and other things. But here, he was stuck with the title, he had the title already, and that was not only the subject, but he had to get the word 'Sleigh Ride' in somewhere, he had to fit that word in and he had to build the lyrics around it."

In this instance, Parish had another problem. What makes "Sleigh Ride" such an effective musical evocation of its subject matter also makes it a fiendish tune to put words to. "The point of a number like 'Sleigh Ride' that you could call a descriptive piece, or pictorial," explained Anderson, "is that you have to start with the idea of the rhythm... In this case it's the rhythm of the sleigh bells, and these sleigh bells go chink, chink, chink - that's the regular rhythm of sleigh bells. So having done that, it's necessary to build the music around that rhythm and, of course, sleigh bells are repetitious - just bump, bump, bump. And having done that, it was very natural then to write a melody that was not only in the same rhythm, but it had the same repeated notes,..." Indeed:

Pom-pom-pom-pom-pom-poddle-pom pom-pom-poddle-pom pom

On another hot summer's day many decades later, over lunch in a swanky restaurant, Sammy Cahn, lyricist of "Let It Snow!" and "Come Fly With Me", "Call Me Irresponsible", "Three Coins In The Fountain" and much else, startled me and the other diners by suddenly bursting into "Sleigh Ride". "That's one of the greatest lyrics ever," he told me. "You know why? Imagine you're given those notes. They're all the same. They're sleigh bells. What are you gonna write? Mitchell Parish decided to say just what the sound says: 'jing-a-ling, ring-ting-ting-a-ling...' That's brilliant."

Every Christmas single has sleigh bells in it, but only Parish's song is about the very sound they make.

Steyn goes on from there to wax even more rhapsodic, to include an explainer of the place "Currier & Ives" holds in the lyric. As always with Steynmusic posts, it's sterling stuff for sure, and not to be missed.

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