Last week at a holiday party in a colleague’s home, I eventually wound up at the piano (often my de facto destination at such events) and found myself rummaging through a holiday music fakebook. Believe it or not, I was eager to do so in the hopes that I could disprove what I wrote here last week and find a holiday song that everyone instantly knew which had been written less than 30 years ago. I did not.
Instead I found myself angered that while all the 20th-century songs were thankfully accredited to the composers and lyricists who penned them, and also the right to reproduce them from their respective publishers was acknowledged, the earlier songs (which are in the public domain and can be reproduced freely) contained no such information. The folks who put out the book—not being legally obliged to properly identify Felix Mendelssohn and Charles Wesley as the composer and lyricist of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”—simply chose not to. So much for unprotected, freely flowing intellectual property being the best way to spread the word about a composer.
The first time I ever saw the name Mendelssohn, as well as the name Handel (to whom the song “Joy to the World” is usually attributed, not 100% correctly), was by seeing their names attached to yuletide tunes collected in a similar book. It’s how I learned who they were, although admittedly at the time I was convinced that Franz Gruber, who wrote “Silent Night,” was a more important composer than either of them, since “Silent Night” seemed to be the most frequently performed song in the book.
But getting back to the fakebook I looked through last week, I kept noticing the name Johnny Marks (1909-1985). He is the composer and lyricist of at least five holiday songs that still get trotted out once a year: “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Silver and Gold,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year.” By the Gruber-conflating standards of my youth, Marks must be the most successful composer of all time. Yet though he actively wrote all kinds of songs for decades, Marks is pretty much only remembered for his holiday fare. But thanks to the makers of the book being forced to give him proper credit, at least I know who he is and so does everybody else who chances upon his songs—at least until the year 2059, which is when the copyright expires on the most recent of the songs I cited above. But maybe by then we’ll have some more contemporary holiday music to get excited about.