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My New Book!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

November 29, 2012: American Winter, Part Four

[This week’s series will focus on interesting and telling images of winter in American culture. Please share your wintry ideas and nominations for the chilly weekend post!]
On the two different perspectives at the heart of two of our most famous wintry tunes.
In one of my silliest posts, a Christmas Day special from my first year on the blog, I dissected the hidden and troubling meanings behind a few of our favorite holiday songs. The post was largely tongue-in-cheek, although I do wish that Rudolph could gain fame and friends without having to prove his usefulness to his boss first (a theme that connects the red-nosed little fella to one Thomas the Tank Engine). But the idea that even the most innocuous holiday tunes (like all popular art and media, however seemingly simple or uncontroversial) can carry and convey much more complex and significant themes and perspectives—well, about that I was and am dead serious.
Take the example of two of the most enduring and popular wintry tunes, “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas.” Originally composed in 1934 and 1942, respectively, these two classics have stood the test of time and remain among the season’s most popular melodies (search YouTube for both and notice how many contemporary artists have recorded versions), and one key reason would seem to be just how universal and uncontroversial they are. Who doesn’t enjoy a nice walk in a winter wonderland, followed by some canoodling by the fire? Who doesn’t dream of a picturesque holiday season, one that can carry them back to fond childhood memories? (Or, if they live in the deep south or southwest or somewhere else where it doesn’t snow, to fond memories of songs and TV specials about snow at the holidays.) These are just some of our most deep-seated pleasures, and I’m not gonna argue the point because I most definitely share them.
Yet just because these songs offer such shared pleasures doesn’t mean that we can’t also consider and analyze some of their more subtle, and in this case competing, themes and perspectives. For example, “Winter Wonderland” provides a consistent thread of optimistic emphasis on the future, seen most explicitly in the lines “Later on, we’ll conspire / As we dream, by the fire / To face unafraid / The plans that we’ve made / Walking in a winter wonderland.” “White Christmas” isn’t necessarily pessimistic, but its dreams focus in the opposite direction, on the past: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know.” I would argue that these two moments represent two distinct kinds of American hope—the latter focused on a desire to recapture nostalgic ideals about where we’ve been, the former more on a hope that we can move into a better and stronger future. While I tend to side more with the future focus—nostalgia, while entirely human and inevitable, has its downsides—I would say that the most enduring hope probably entails a combination of both of these perspectives. So let’s keep singing both!
November recap tomorrow, then wintry crowd-sourcing this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Takes on these songs? Cultural images of winter you’d highlight?
11/29 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two members of one of America’s most impressive families and father-daughter combos, Bronson Alcott and Louisa May Alcott.

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