Songwriting 101: The Christmas Song

In Co-writing, Favorite Song, Life Around Me, Lyrics, Music, Music History, Singing, Songwriting on December 14, 2009 at 5:00 am

"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..."

The art of writing songs is one of the most captivating subjects for musical zealots.  When written in harmony with a touching melody, simple-everyday-words become lyrics.  Lyrics have the power to transcend generations and geographical boundaries to touch the heart, mind, and soul of the listener.  This is definitely the case for The Christmas Song.

Written in 1944 by vocalist Mel Tormé and Bob Wells, The Christmas Song is often subtitled, “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire.”  According to Tormé’s own account the song was written in the blistering days of summer.
“I saw a spiral pad on his piano with four lines written in pencil,” Tormé recalled.  “They started, ‘Chestnuts roasting… Jack Frost nipping… Yuletide carols… Folks dressed up like Eskimos.’  Bob (Wells, co-writer) didn’t think he was writing a song lyric.

"Jack Frost nipping at your nose..."

He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter he could cool off.  Forty minutes later that song was written.  I wrote all the music and some of the lyrics.”  You never know where songs come from.  Bob had no idea that he was writing the foundation for the most recorded and performed Christmas song of all time.

"Yuletide carols being sung by a choir..."

Typically, songs have distinct verses and choruses.  Each verse matches the next in length and meter.  Choruses tend to lift, making them significant and memorable.  Some sort of rhyme scheme ties the whole thing together.  In America, we are conditioned to recognize Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus – formats centered around a certain theme.  Songs can center around a specific story, moment in time, emotion, conversation, or theme.  Look at the lyrics to this song:

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yule-tide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos.

Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe
Help to make the season bright
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight.

They know that Santa’s on his way
He’s loaded lots of toys
and goodies on his sleigh
And every mother’s child is gonna spy
To see if reindeer
really know how to fly.

And so I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety-two
Although it’s been said
many times, many ways
Merry Christmas to you.

"And folks dressed up like Eskimos..."

Tormé and Wells wrote this song to capture everything about the Christmas season that they held dear.  The jazzy melody of The Christmas Song has been classically accepted and enjoyed due to its smooth peaks and valleys done so tenderly.  Coupled with a comfortably predictable rhyme scheme, the listener can sit back and enjoy the images and emotions this song pulls up in their own life.

The Nat King Cole Trio first recorded the song early in 1946.  Cole re-recorded the song in 1953, using the same arrangement with a full orchestra arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, and once more in 1961, in a stereophonic version with orchestra conducted by Ralph Carmichael.  The latter recording is generally regarded as definitive and continues to receive considerable radio airplay each holiday season, while Cole’s original 1946 recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1974.

In no way competing with the great Nat King Cole or the hundreds of published versions of this song – I have recorded my own version of this beloved classic.  It is available now until Christmas day for a free download.  “Although it’s been said many times, many ways – Merry Christmas to you!”


Watch a live version @ the Copper Kettle, Nashville, TN – December 2009

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