Soundtrack Of A Photograph, The Christmas Editions, Part 18

Song-Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

Artist-Ella Fitzgerald

For much of my childhood we had neighbors in the little town of Demarest, New Jersey whose property bore a striking resemblance to that of a junkyard. There were trailers and tools of all kinds strewn about. There were several cars which due to lack of space were often parked on the lawn. There were tall weeds in the summer, and ice encrusted birdbaths in the winter. The father also had an interest in ham radio, so as a result there was a massive antenna propped up with cinder blocks stretched out over nearly half of the backyard. But they meant well in their own way, and did their neighborly duties often enough, and I remember a few electronic gadgets the father kindly bequeathed me over the years. The other thing I remember is at this time of year, the father would put lights on a tree on their front lawn right next to our driveway. Now our driveway was only partially separated from their yard by a row of shrubs, so as a result there was an unobstructed view of their front yard while standing in our front yard. So it was on more than one occasion that I witnessed first hand the annual decoration of that tree. I can recall that it was a small, fairly young tree, so once the leaves all dropped, it looked pretty sparse, and not at all majestic, the way an old mature tree does throughout the year. There was no delicate placing of lights on the branches for our neighbor however. No wrapping the trunk in a spiral of lights. There was no thought given to symmetry or aesthetics. Instead what he did was drag a long orange extension cord from somewhere in that pile of junk, plug a set of twinkle lights in that were coiled together like a lasso, and suddenly, and with a shocking burst of energy, hurl them on to the tree in one mighty thrust letting the lights fall where they lay. Even if that meant they were barely attached to the tree. No matter, the lights are done, you could almost hear him saying. Or for my British readers-SORTED!

Fast forward to years later when I moved to Manhattan. One block away from our apartment is a street where lights are placed on every tree on the block. They arc over the street itself, making a dazzling display, and many is the camera or camera phone that comes out from passers by to capture it for themselves. Twice a day now I walk that street on my way to work. Since it is still only getting light out when I leave for work usually, the lights have a warming feel to them (since they are left on all day and night), and when I come home they feel festive. The funny thing is though, that though they were not quite placed on the trees in exactly the same fashion as that of my old neighbor, they are not precisely placed the way more formal light displays are either. They drape down like garland one moment, then swoop to the left or right, then plummet down before draping down once more. They are also up year round, which has caused a certain degree of attrition to them year after year and in between the draping, and swooping and plummeting, certain segments of the lights are burned out, further contributing to the randomness of the light placement. They are random, yet at the same time, feel oddly connected, and when seen as a whole, the assortment becomes somehow unified together.

All of which in the musical context makes me think of jazz. As I mentioned in Part 8 of these Christmas blogs about Vince Guaraldi, I am not such a great jazz fan. I understand its importance, I like certain things very much, certain other things not very much. But something about these light arrangements from my old neighbor, and the way they look on that street reminds me of the core element of jazz-improvisation. So today’s song is in tribute to that idea of improvisation. To playing or singing a song with feeling and changing it to your tastes, rather than falling in line and doing it the same way everyone else does it. The incomparable Ella Fitzgerald singing Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas illustrates this quite nicely and is a fitting choice to this photograph of those randomly placed lights. On second thought, maybe my old neighbor and the people who decorate that street were adding their own form of jazz improvisation to the holidays. Regardless whether they are precisely or randomly placed, it still counts as being a festive part of the season to me and I enjoy that they are there.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas-Written By Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane

All photographs by Robert P Doyle All images in this blog are available in limited supply for purchase as unframed prints. Sizes may vary. Contact via for details.

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