Ralph Blane, left, with long time songwriting partner Hugh Martin
Ralph Blane is probably one of the few members of the Songwriters Hall of Fame that few people are familiar with, yet he wrote the lyrics for one of the most compelling musicals in movie history. Working with composer Hugh Martin, the two created the music for Meet Me in St. Louis, and for a time the team of Martin & Blane was as well known as Rodgers & Hart, Lerner & Loewe, or George & Ira.
Throughout his career Blane created a vast catalog of show tunes, only a handful of which remain well known to this day. But that’s not a reflection on the quality of the songs he developed; it’s mostly a case of good music created for forgotten shows, or good music that might be just a bit too lyrically complex for everyday consumption.
Martin’s scores were lively and melodic, although generally not always as memorable as the songs of a Richard Rogers or an Alan Jay Lerner composition. Blane’s lyrics required a little more thought, a little more intelligence to “get” the song.
For example the classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” from Meet Me In St. Louis was clearly a melancholy piece with a message that was simply too strong for most listeners:
Faithful friends who were dear to us…Will be near to us no more
Legend has it that live wartime performances of this song by Judy Garland would routinely bring a roomful of hardened soldiers to tears. In the years since, of course, that line has been softened to the more hopeful near to us once more. And that’s just one example; the entire song has been altered to give it a positive spin. It’s a shame that it’s been changed, because in the context of the times the original lyrics captured the feelings of wartime on the homefront. The battles raged overseas, but the pain was felt in the heartland. Seldom has a song lyric cut so close to the bone.
The change, incidentally, was prompted by none less than Frank Sinatra, who was working on a Christmas record in the early 1950s. It’s said that Sinatra called Blane and asked if he could change the lyrics to something “jolly.” Most Americans today are blissfully unaware of the original lyrics. [Sadly, most Americans today are unaware of the sacrifices made during that time, let alone the song lyrics. –editor]
The other key piece from Meet Me in St. Louis is “The Trolley Song.” This catchy tune is often cited on lists of “top tunes from the Great American Songbook” and “top songs of the 20th Century” and that sort of thing. Deservedly so! Blane’s lyrics are captivating, but really just one part of a perfect triangle.
First, Martin’s composition captures the feeling of a trolley, the onrush of love and excitement, and the feeling that it’s almost out of control. Secondly, Blane’s lyrics add to the melody, and give the trolley a voice. They’re also perfectly written for the third part of this trifecta: Garland. Seldom has a movie song been performed with such building toward a crescendo — Judy gives the viewer the sense that she’s barely able to keep her emotions in check. In every way, the song is perfect: music, lyrics, and performance. “That’s how it feels…when the universe reels!”
Blane and Martin wound up working on the film after finding their way to Hollywood a couple years earlier. They had success on Broadway in 1941 with the show Best Foot Forward which featured the songs “Buckle Down, Winsocki” and “Ev’ry Time”. After arriving in Tinseltown to score the film, they lingered to work on a few other MGM projects. Following the success of Meet Me in St. Louis in 1944 both men were solidly established in Hollywood, and continued to work there together and separately. For his part, Ralph Blane collaborated with greats like Harold Arlen. Although he made further contributions to the Great American Songbook, none would come close to the importance of “The Trolley Song” and “Merry LIttle Christmas.”
A little bit of trivia: Despite all the excitement of Judy Garland’s on-screen performance, a 1944 recording of “The Trolley Song” by The Pied Pipers outsold her original soundtrack recording. The Pipers’ version was excellent of course, still led in 1944 by the skilled vocals of Jo Stafford. Their version was on Capitol Records, which had better distribution than the MGM label. Because it was more widely available, it sold better, and thus charted better.