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White Christmas 2020 - I’ll Be Seeing You

I’d like to say that it was the Bing Crosby version of this heart-tugging song that inspired me during the writing of THE DAWN. It was not. I first heard this World-War-II musical and poetic promise sung by Dean Martin, sometime during the late 1980s.

His was a lovely, lilting sound, the kind of song that Dean did so well; but Dean initially sought to emulate Bing, as did just about every male singer worth his salt in the 1940s and 1950s. The Crosby cut is the most definitive and beautiful rendering of this composition with music by Sammy Fain and lyrics by Irving Kahal, published in 1939. The song was used in a Broadway musical that became quickly forgettable, Right This Way, which closed after 15 performances. This song nonetheless lives on.

The earliest recorded version was performed by Dick Todd in 1940 on the Bluebird label, but it is the Crosby take that makes all the difference in the world of the sublime singing of a sublime song.

I did not hear the Crosby version until after Dear Husband included it at the tail end of the Virtual Book Reading. I work that way, in complete and resolute isolation from the most powerful parts of whatever art by someone else might influence my own work. The Crosby rendition of this war tune brought many tears to my eyes the first time I listened to it, as I previewed the Book Reading. I can still shed a tear whenever I hear it.

And that, Dear Listener, Dear Reader, Dear Customer, is the only mark of success that any singer and his song needs. The recording of “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Bing Crosby soared to the top of the charts in 1944, the fateful year of the Normandy Invasion. It stayed at #1 for just one week in July, but it has stayed in the hearts of millions ever since.

During the Christmas season of 2012, while I was trimming the tree, I was listening to one of several Christmas CDs of Bing that are part of my holiday tradition. I somewhat plaintively asked Dear Husband:

“Where are all of the people in America who listen to Bing?”

During that Christmas of 2012, I felt so out of touch with my own country, so out of touch with so much of what I deem to be truly America, and American, and so awfully alienated by what I was seeing and hearing as the New America, with its transformative “leadership”.

It turns out that there are millions and millions and millions of THOSE Americans, in America, who listen to Bing. They are the decent, hard-working, God-fearing patriotic souls whose voices were silenced, and whose ears were stoppered up — by their own choice — during who knows how many years, even decades. The silent majority usually prefers their own silence to the noisily vulgar pestilence of the stupid angry mob that does not, in fact, outnumber them — but their shrill, in-your-face loudness can make life an unholy noxious hell on earth in this land of freedom.

I’ve a feeling Bing knew exactly how I felt during that Christmas of 2012. “I’ll Be Seeing You” became more than a sentimental, tears-choking-the-throat song for me once THE DAWN was e-published on Labor Day 2012. It became the inspiration for me that I’d not permitted it to be, before that momentous moment of my life.

And so, I humbly thank you, Der Bingle!

Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby Jr. was born on 3 May 1903 in Tacoma, Washington, the fourth of seven children of Irish, Scottish, and English descent. It’s the Irish in him that sang so naturally, with a voice that did not mature young, but once it hit its prime, that voice was golden.

A couple of summers ago, I listened to an entire box-set of a vast recording catalogue of the Bing Crosby tunes that charted: The Legendary Years, 1931-1957. Those 4 CDs presented to me an astonishingly informative timeline of the development of not only his vocal talents, but the horribly limiting melodies that Bing had to sing during the early-mid 1930s. He was a determined fellow, though, and he did not let inferior music limit him, in any way.

He much preferred to sing his own way. He tossed out the belting vaudeville approach to vocalizing, and trained his voice to follow a melodic, well-enunciated path that fused lyrics with melody. To hear a Crosby tune is to experience the majesty of the mastery of “the words of the song”, just a bit more than of the musical notes. “Crooning” might not have been his ultimate goal; a clear dulcet vocal line was. That style superbly and smoothly got him to that finish line of every song — of even commercial jingles.

His tenor moved gracefully into a baritone range and, stunningly, easily, broadened down into the bass register that did not sound like the voice had fallen into the basement, and couldn’t get up or out! The deep timbre is still Bing, resonant and warm, better than that of many bass opera singers. His best vocal range, or tessitura, the place where the voice likes to be to sing its best — was a mellow baritone.

During the 1930s, Bing grew into his voice, an instrument that was so fluid it could do pretty much whatever he wanted to do with it. And what he wanted to do with the voice was to express the heart-felt emotions that his heart did not quite know how to express in any other way.

That magic is the making of a singer, who does not reproduce audible notes, but sings them from the heart. The register of his speaking voice effortlessly shifted into a singing voice; this formative process must occur early on for the singer to convincingly “put across” a melodic air to the audience. In that sense, the singer IS the actor of the text, the lyrics that he must make “real” to the listener.

The personal tragedies and problems of the man were kept private, in a way that permitted him to use his passions in a musical delivery that was immediate and powerful and — intimate.

Crosby created the sound of singing into the microphone as it if he were imparting his innermost feelings to the listener in the room. It’s akin to the actress who can transcend the camera, and directly touch the audience. The microphone loved Bing Crosby in the way that the movie camera loved certain actresses of the Golden Era of Hollywood.

The textures and tones of 1930s music were off-putting, to put it kindly. They had to be taken in small doses, if at all. I continue to cringe-mute the auditory aspects of films of that era. They drive me up a wall. The original mockumentary film, Singing In The Rain, portrays the skin-crawling tones to impeccable effect. Crosby waited out the Jazz Age until the songs that would make him famous came along. It’s as if that Voice was destined for those songs, or the other way around. Either way, Bing couldn’t lose. Maybe the luck of the Irish, for Bing, really was lucky.

In the way that the jukebox in the lowly honky-tonk of the 1950s required a voice with a weird hillbilly squillo that could, with the assistance of the steel guitar, cut through the din of the clanging bar crowd, the recording microphone of the 1940s demanded a flowing resonant voice that infused, to the max, the “empty” space of the recording studio. The auditory galaxy of that epoch was transitioning from the squeaky-high kinetic energy of the Flappers to the more mellow and contemplative sensibility of the War Years. Bing filled the bill, abundantly, with the rich, warm tones of a singing Stradivarius.

A pioneer in the innovation of sound recording, Crosby invested heavily, monetary and voice-wise, in Ampex, the magnetic audio tape recording. He put his money where his mouth was! Bing also financed the initial development of video tape. Crosby was so much more than a vocal artist and actor. He was always looking to the future, displaying a keen interest in the nascent technologies of the performing arts, not merely the artistry of performing them. Convenience and practicality were admittedly huge drivers for his capital investments. He could pre-record and tape his shows and thereby play golf more and more often!

The award-winning film career of Bing the Singer was a logical outgrowth of his prowess of lyrical melody; the movies were nonetheless subordinate to his musical talents. He was a gifted natural actor, in the way that he was a gifted natural singer: entertaining, sincere and generous with a sense of immediacy that became a compelling force to — and from — the audience. Crosby did not need a promotion machine whirling around him 24/7 to manufacture image and interest and buzz; his talents did that work. He did not attempt to manipulate the music industry; the industry needed him, and so their marriage was an equitable trade-off.

That enduring union was perhaps the most serene one that Crosby was able to experience. It is difficult to determine if Crosby instinctively sang out of heart-ache, or if the heart-ache came to him because of enormous talents that had to be harnessed, honed, and realized — or, more likely, if both dynamics simultaneously were at work, and play, in his intimate sphere. His personal life was torn asunder by forces he could not fully comprehend. His career was a series of master strokes that rarely went awry. The world changed very quickly around him as he became an old man. His final televised performance with a David Bowie wearing more makeup than Bing ever did in all of his films, combined, is more a statement about the weirdness of the 1970s than of the aging of a somewhat humble guy with an immortal voice.

During World War II, “I’ll Be Seeing You” was a divinely melodic promise that countless men and women sang in their hearts. Mr. Crosby did more than his part to uplift the hearts, souls and minds of Americans during that era, and beyond. He personally and professionally journeyed to France during the end of that war, and nearly got caught behind enemy lines. I’m more than thankful he made it home, safe and sound and singing. So are millions of other Americans, especially during this miracle called Christmas.

His death on 14 October 1977, after having played a round of golf at a course near Madrid, Spain, was pretty much the way that Bing was gonna go — from this earth, to the heaven he tried to make on this all-too-mortal sphere for anyone who, in some way, was also going his way.

Going my way, I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, and living it too.