Those city streets are CROWDED these days!

"Silver Bells", by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, was frequently referred to by Livingston as "our annuity." It is sung here by Colbie Callait:

Video posted by Rita Spencer

And here is the same song as sung by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell in the movie for which the song was written, The Lemon Drop Kid:

Video posted by TCBNS.*

The title, by the way, was originally "Tinkle Bells."

[I pause while you take that in.]

Then Livingston went home and told his wife about their new song and she said (presumably after she finished laughing), "Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the word 'tinkle' means to most people?" They changed the title (and lyrics) to "Silver Bells" forthwith.


Jay Livingston (born Jacob Levison) and Ray Evans were both born in 1915 and both were Jewish. They met in the University of Pennsylvania and, in the words of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, "began a lifelong collaboration that would become one of the legendary songwriting partnerships in the history of American popular music."

Together they won three Oscars for Best Original Song--for "Buttons and Bows," "Mona Lisa," and "Que Sera, Sera"--and were nominated for four more. They wrote the songs and scores for dozens of films and the theme and title songs for many TV shows, including Bonanza and Mr. Ed. The Mr. Ed theme was sung by Livingston himself (wait for it) of course.

According to their
official website, the two of them "have had twenty-six songs that have sold...a million records or more, and the total record sales of their songs has exceeded 400 million." (NOTE: You can find a far more extensive joint bio on their website, plus songs and award lists and so on, so if your interest has been piqued, check it out.)


* The Lemon Drop Kid clip comes complete with visual "jokes" based on ethnic stereotypes, none of which, it should be noted, are in the lyrics; the movie came out in 1951, which is no sort of an excuse but is an explanation of sorts, alas.

** The notes on some videos of the Bonanza theme say that the song was written by someone else and only performed by Livingston and Evans, but that is incorrect.

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A couple more for Chanukah!

Have another very traditional song: "Al Hanisim"; words from an extra paragraph inserted into the daily prayers on Chanukah (and Purim), melody by Dov Frimer, sung by Shira Kline:

Video by ShiraKline

Well. The lyrics for "Al Hanisim" are very traditional, anyway--as I said above, the words for this song are those of the introductory phrases of paragraphs inserted into daily prayers on Chanukah and Purim, and it is an expression of thanksgiving for the salvations those two Rabbinic holidays celebrate:

And (we thank You) for the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our forefathers in those days, at this time.

(Note that miracles and salvation come before victories and battles--in order of importance.)

As such, we date it back to the Gaonic period, possibly the 8th or 9th century.

The melody, by Dov Frimer, dates back only to 1974, when it debuted at the Chassidic Song Festival (which makes it traditional if *ahem* you were in high school at that time), but it's among the most popular melodies for those words, being very danceable. (Of course, as always, there are other melodies for the same words moving up on it.)

And here's a considerably newer Chanukah song: "Light One Candle," by Peter Yarrow, sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary:

Video from the PBS Holiday Concert, posted by Loren Newsom

(The top comment on this particular YouTube is by the producer and director of the PBS show, very cool.)

Peter, Paul, and Mary debuted "Light One Candle" during their 1982 Holiday Concert at Carnegie Hall. If you keep count, you will see that the lyrics "light one candle" repeat exactly eight times--and if you watch carefully, you can see that the children light one candle each time that phrase is repeated, making them a human menorah.

Being a Chanukah song is enough, of course, but we can do a little better. The songwriter, Peter Yarrow, is Jewish, the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. As part of the folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, Yarrow wrote or co-wrote some of the group's best known songs (including "Puff, the Magic Dragon" and "Day is Done"); during the trio's 48 years together they picked up five Grammys (plus another 10 Grammy nominations) and 2 Emmy nominations (for Peter, Paul and Mommy, Too and for Lifelines LIVE).

The group was known for its activism in addition to its music--they sang at the 1969 March on Washington and were involved in the anti-Vietnam protests--and they have continued that activism throughout their lives and careers. Yarrow himself was prominent in the campaign to free Soviet Jews in the 1980s, and performed with his son and daughter during the Occupy Wall Street protests. As evidenced by the lyrics of "Light One Candle," Yarrow's Jewish roots serve as a wellspring for his political beliefs.

So Happy Chanukah! Go light a candle, even--or especially--figuratively.


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One songwriter, many Christmas songs

Johnny Marks made something of a speciality of Christmas songs--Wikipedia lists 26 Christmas and Christmas-show songs by Marks, and he named his music publishing company St. Nicholas Music. Here are some particularly well-known examples:

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," by Johnny Marks, based on a poem by Robert L. May, as sung by Destiny's Child (you heard me):

Video posted by DestinysChildVEVO

"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," by Johnny Marks, sung by Cyndi Lauper:

Video posted by Mr Subtitled Videos

"A Holly Jolly Christmas," by Johnny Marks, sung by Sufjan Stevens:

Sufjan Stevens - Holly Jolly Christmas from Asthmatic Kitty Records on Vimeo.

His affinity for Christmas songs notwithstanding, Johnny Marks was indeed Jewish. In addition to producing a substantial catalogue of much-loved holiday (and some non-holiday!) songs, Marks had a distinguished military career, earning a Bronze Star and four Battle Stars as a captain in WWII. He also served on ASCAP's Board of Directors from 1957 through 1961, and was inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1981.

There is a very interesting story behind the writing of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Robert May (who was of Jewish ancestry, although he did not self-identify as Jewish and indeed hid his Jewish background) was an in-house copywriter for Montgomery Ward, and in 1939, as his wife was dying of cancer, they asked him to write a Christmas story

(seriously, Montgomery Ward? RIGHT THEN?!?)

that they could give away to shoppers to spur holiday sales. A little booklet titled "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was the result. Sometime in 1939, Johnny Marks became aware of the story and made a note in his idea notebook that it might make a good song. In 1947, Marks married May's sister, and in 1949 he wrote the song based on his new brother-in-law's poem. Gene Autry recorded the song as a B side in 1949 because his wife liked it (Autry didn't), and it went on to sell 15 million copies.*


*For a much more detailed account of the Rudolph story, see "Shining a Light on the Largely Untold Story of the Origins of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Nate Bloom. It's an amazing story, and well worth reading about.

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It's the first night of Chanukah!

In honor of which, I bring you two--yes, two!--Chanukah songs.

The first is "Candlelight," sung by the Maccabeats (in their first viral video):

Video by Uri Westrich

The melody is by Taio Cruz (although he thought it was for a song titled "Dynamite"), and he is not, to the best of my knowledge, Jewish. The parody lyrics, however, are by two members of the Maccabeats (an a cappella group formed of current and past Yeshiva University students), David Block and Immanuel Shalev, and if they (and the singers) are not all Jewish, someone made a serious mistake in their university application.

And in case you were wondering about the lines in "Candlelight" that runs:

We say "Ma'oz Tzur"
Oh, yeah, for all eight nights,

that is my second song, a very traditional Chanukah song--"Ma'oz Tzur," sung here by students of Israel's Technion*:

Video by Technion

This traditional melody for "Ma'oz Tzur" has been identified as mostly likely having been adapted from an old German folk song, possibly sometime in the 15th century.

(Okay, yes, there's a lot of "maybe" and "perhaps" about that. But hey, there isn't going to be a whole lot of certainty about 15th century folk song melodies, seeing as the song predates the invention of recording equipment by teensy bit. And while there was a sort of musical notation in Europe back then, that was for Church music; there weren't a whole lot of folk songs being notated. If any.)

The lyrics go back even farther--they are thought to have been written in the 13th century and we even know the poet's first name, as he wrote it into the hymn as an acrostic: The first letters of the first five stanzas spell out מרדכי (Mordechai) in Hebrew. The first stanza expresses a hope that the Temple will once more be restored, and the sixth and last stanza (which opens with another acrostic: חזק (chazak, which is Hebrew for "be strong") again returns to the hope for salvation and return. Each of the four stanzas in between refers to a time when Jews have been saved in the past: From slavery in Egypt; from captivity in Babylonia; from slaughter in the Purim story; and from the Hellenized Syrians in the Chanukah story.

The song is generally sung right after lighting the menorah--or, more exactly, the chanukiah, which has eight branches plus an extra, rather than the seven branches of the great menorah in the Temple. Part of the mitzvah of lighting the menorah is to enjoy the light of the menorah, and standing around it while singing makes sure we don't run off and ignore it.

Now go have some latkes or sufganiyot! Chag sameach (happy holiday)!

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* In case you are unfamiliar with the institution, Technion can be described as the MIT of Israel. These students certainly sing Ma'oz Tzur way, WAY better than I can, and they are appropriately ingenious with their instruments. And just look at how they light their Chanukah menorah!:

By the way (I say carelessly), one of my nieces is a student at Technion now. Chanukah Sameach, Rivka... :)

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So yesterday we had a Phil Spector-influenced song...

How about an actual Phil Spector song? "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector, sung by (a quite young) U2:

Video posted by Justin Duarte

And sung by the original singer, Darlene Love (with Patti LaBelle), just a year ago:

Video posted by The View

According to Rolling Stone (2010), if you're looking for the best rock 'n' roll Christmas song of all time look no farther because you've just heard it. And if it reminds you of "Be My Baby" or "Da Doo Ron Ron" you have a good ear, because those were written by the same three songwriters.


Phil Spector (who is Jewish) was born in the Bronx and grew up in California. He formed a music group, The Teddy Bears, with three high school friends, and one of their songs reached #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. That was pretty much it for them, though, so they disbanded in 1959, at which point Spector started working as an apprentice for Leiber and Stoller and his music career took off. Of course, Spector is primarily famous for his impressive and enormously influential career as record producer and musical "architect"--he developed the "Wall of Sound" and produced more than 25 Top 40 hits in the 1960s (can you say "Girl Groups"?). He is, alas, secondarily famous for his 2009 murder conviction, which is not Christmas-y at all, so let's turn to his collaborators on this song.

Ellie Greenwich (also Jewish) got into music by playing accordion as a child, and was composing songs by her teens. By her own telling, she met Archie Bleyer (owner of Cadence Records) when she was 14, and he liked her songs but told her to continue her education before trying to crack the music world. In high school she joined a couple of friends in a singing group, and by age 17 she had released a self-written single. When in college, she met Jeff Barry--they were distantly related, but only met formally then. Barry (originally Joel Adelberg, and Jewish as well) had served in the army after graduating high school, and on his return to New York started college only to leave to pursue his dreams of a music career. He recorded a number of singles and had some success as a songwriter. After meeting with Greenwich, the two of them began writing songs together as well as with other songwriting partners (which for Greenwich included Phil Spector). When Barry and Greenwich got married a few years later, they decided to write only together.

It was during their marriage that Greenwich and Barry wrote "Christmas"--and a great many other hit songs, both with and without Spector--and helped create the "Girl Group" sound. Although the marriage didn't last, and both were successful as songwriters both before and after their marriage, as a team they were extraordinary, co-writing 25 songs that went gold or platinum. They received the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ahmet Ertegun Award in 2010 for helping define the Brill Building sound.

[Note of interest to me personally: I worked in the Brill Building for a while, although not, alas, in the music industry.]

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This isn't only about old holiday songs, you know!

Here's a relatively new one--the Phil Spector-influenced "Underneath the Tree," by Kelly Clarkson and Greg Kurstin, sung by Kelly Clarkson:

Video from KellyClarksonVEVO

[I]n December, 2013, Clarkson told Jay Leno that she waited to do a Christmas album until [Kurstin] was available.

She added, "He's Jewish, so he didn't know any of the songs. We were in the studio and I was like 'Rudolph'? No. 'White Christmas'? No. But he's so talented."

"I say: 'Mr. Kurstin, aren't you ashamed to not know the songs of your landsmen?'"

(Source: Nate Bloom, Jewish World Review)


Kelly Clarkson is not Jewish, but songwriter/musician/record producer Greg Kurstin is. Kurstin started out as a jazz pianist, is a founding member of both Geggy Tah and The Bird and the Bee, and has worked in various capacities with, among others, Beck, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pink, Kylie Minogue, Lily Allen, Sia, and Adele. The list of his written and produced songs is frankly intimidating, and he's been nominated for Grammys as Producer of the Year (three times), Song of the Year (songwriter, twice), Record of the Year (producer, three times), Best Engineered Album (once), and Album of the Year (producer, twice)--and won one for Taylor Swift's 1989 (for producing the Album of the Year).

Ah, well, he's only 48--it's a good start, anyway!


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If it's December

Well. I AM doing my usual December holiday music series, only I've moved it:

Because, well, LJ. And also, I'm thinking I'll make it a separate whole year thing about Jewish-created music! So if that sounds good to you, you can bookmark it, and if I did it right you should be able to comment there, too. I look forward to seeing you over there!