(Holiday encore. This story first appeared in 2020.)
The United States entered World War II starting with the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor—78 years ago today. By the autumn of 1944, there was cause for optimism the war’s end might actually be in sight. D-Day forces had landed in Normandy, Paris had been liberated, and the Allies were making slow progress in the Pacific.
As a result, songwriters, who had been creating music that balanced patriotic duty with a yearning for home, were feeling like Christmas might be a little less somber this year. It was the start of a golden age for Christmas music. Songs of nostalgia, geared toward soldiers overseas, such as “White Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” would see a new outlook with the new releases, more upbeat in tone and rhythm. Songs like “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” would reflect this new outlook in a post-war world. And the songs remain popular—the 1940s and 1950s account for nearly two-thirds of ASCAP’s most popular holiday songs.
And in the middle of this transition from war to peace, Haverhill-born composer Louis Alter made his own contribution to the optimism of the transitional 1944 Christmas. Alter was born in Haverhill on June 18, 1902. At the age of 13, he began playing the piano in the local movie houses, accompanying silent pictures. He enrolled at the New England Conservatory before touring as the accompanist for vaudevillian Nora Bayes, who had a 1917 hit recording of George M. Cohan’s “Over There.” Alter moved to Hollywood in 1929 continued to accompany various chanteuses, but he was already writing music for Broadway shows and scoring films.
In 1941, Alter enlisted in the US Air Force, entertaining troops on US airbases, so he was well aware of the growing change in morale on the frontlines. As he traveled between air bases, he began jotting down a Christmas tune, based on the colloquial slang of the servicemen.
“(There’ll be a) Yankee Christmas” was released after Thanksgiving. Two versions of the sheet music were released. One version was for voice and piano with Alter’s music and words by Paul Francis Webster, a prominent lyricist (He would go on to win three Oscars for Best Original Song). And the vernacular of the lyrics is right out of the troops, as is the growing optimism that the American forces across the globe would be going home.
There’ll be a Yankee Christmas ev’rywhere;
There’ll be a Yankee Christmas ev’rywhere;
from New Guinea to Nome,
from China to Rome.
A Yankee Christmas ev’rywhere…
Eddie Cantor adopted the song for his performances on radio and on stage. He did not record the song, correctly assessing the song was fun, but without the staying power or universal appeal of a “White Christmas.”
Also released was an arrangement for a dance orchestra (vocals optional). This was a foxtrot that Guy Lombardo performed. But the debut the song on the radio was this arrangement, and vocals were not optional. On Dec. 9, 1944, the NBC Blue Network presented the weekly program “Meet Your Navy.” That week’s episode featured an a cappella choir of 200 bluejackets and the Ship Concert orchestra playing “A Yankee Christmas.” Hildegarde presented the song on her NBC radio show around Christmas in 1944 and 1945.
The optimism was well-founded and by the end of 1945, the war was over. “A Yankee Christmas” would only be performed sporadically. Americans were no longer “from China to Rome.” Eddie Cantor did the song a few more times, but the song slipped quietly into obscurity as songs often did in Tin Pan Alley. The sheet music is an obscure collectible, and only scratchy transcription copies of the radio performances exist. But for the 1944 Christmas season, Haverhill native Louis Alter was Santa’s musical elf.
Alter, who died in 1980, was inducted into the Haverhill Citizens Hall of Fame.
David Goudsward, raised on the summit of Scotland Hill, Haverhill, brings his New England sensibilities and respect for historical perspective his work. Although living in Florida, his bibliography consists primarily of New England topics. His latest book, “Sun, Sand, and Sea Serpents.” The book, his 17th published title, covers sea serpent reports from Florida, the lower eastern seaboard, and the Caribbean. “Sun, Sand, and Sea Serpents,” as well as Goudsward’s earlier titles, may be ordered from local bookstores or on Amazon.