Remembering Birmingham songwriter Hugh Martin and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Photo of Birmingham native Hugh Martin playing the piano. Martin wrote Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Photo from HughMartin.com

Did you know, one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time was written in the Magic City by Birmingham native Hugh Martin?

The song?  Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Featured in the Christmas classic movie, Meet Me in St. Louis, staring Judy Garland, the original version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas    debuted on the big screen nearly 75 years ago in 1944.

Behind the music: The story of Hugh Martin and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Two days before Christmas, Bham Now caught up with Hugh Martin’s nephew, Gordon Martin, to give us a “Behind the Music” story about his uncle’s life in Birmingham, show business, and the origin of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

A Birmingham native himself, and executive at Alabama Power, Gordon Martin graciously  provided us with the story behind the iconic Christmas song.

Birmingham roots

The home Hugh Martin grew up in on 15th Avenue South between St. Mary’s on the Highlands and Vulcan. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

“My father, his brother, Hugh, and sister grew up on Birmingham’s Southside, below Vulcan, a few blocks from St. Mary’s on the Highlands Church,” said Martin.

Front entrance to Phillips High School, which is now Phillips Academy. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Uncle Hugh went to Phillips High School. My grandmother (Hugh’s mother) loved theater and musicals.  She instilled that in him.  He was a pianist, and in fact, won a contest at Phillips High School playing Rhapsody in Blue.  After graduating from high school, he went to Birmingham-Southern College for about a year and half. He caught “the bug” and went to New York to seek his fame and fortune.”

“Making it” in New York

Gordon went on to describe how his Uncle Hugh succeeded in New York

“When he got to New York, he established a singing group called the Martin’s,” Gordon chuckled at the name of the band.

“He met a women named Kay Thompson, an entertainer, best known now as the creator of Eloise, the children’s book, based on Liza Minnelli (Thompson’s goddaughter and daughter of Judy Garland) at the Plaza Hotel in New York. She was his mentor.  He started writing songs at that time.  He became an arranger of songs first.”

Hugh Martin’s first big break was Best Foot Forward in 1941, which was later revived off Broadway in the 60s. He then worked for MGM Studios, living between in New York and California. That led to Meet Me in St. Louis.

According to Gordon, much of the music his uncle wrote for Meet Me in St. Louis  was done in Birmingham, for a different project that had been set  aside.

Writing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas was a struggle

Writing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas  was difficult.

This is how Hugh Martin described his struggle with Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas in his memoir  Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door:

“One morning Ralph left his workroom and came into the living room to ask me a question. “I couldn’t help hearing what you’ve been playing,” he said, “and I fell in love with a very sweet melody you were developing yesterday and the day before. Today I was listening for it and you didn’t play it. How come?”

“How come,” I said to Ralph, “is simply that I tried dozens of ways to resolve the darn thing and never found one I liked.”

“Will you do me a favor, Hugh? Will you try another dozen times? I have a funny feeling about that little tune. It sounds like a madrigal.”

After he went back to the dining room and closed the door, one word he stuck in my mind. Madrigal. I picked up the script and leafed to the end and read the Christmas scenes. The phrase “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” popped into my head and it fit my melody. Maybe Ralph was right. I went back to the piano and started struggling to make it work.”

On top of that, the scene in the movie was not helpful.  It was a very sad moment in the movie.

“He tried a couple of times and about quit, but his writing partner Ralph Blaine encouraged him to keep going,” said Gordon. “The words were very maudlin, the scene was very sad, so it made the lyrics very sad.  Probably too sad.”

Here is how Hugh Martin told the story about how Judy Garland refused to sing the lyrics.

Fortunately for all of us, Martin made it work for Garland and the movie Meet Me in St. Louis.  The rest is history.

Years later, Frank Sinatra asked Martin to change the lyrics for him, which he did. That is the current version most people know today.

A Christmas Legacy

Asked about his uncle’s legacy, Gordon beams with pride.

“It’s fun to have that connection. You get to re-live it every year at this time of year. It reminds you of your family, in my case both my uncle and my father, who loved it all, who was 11 years junior of his brother. It’s a fun connection for the family, Birmingham and Alabama.”

Author: Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.