The Other McCain

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Have a Holly Jolly (Commie) Christmas

Posted on | December 25, 2022 | Comments Off on Have a Holly Jolly (Commie) Christmas

“Are you now, or have you ever been …?”

Perhaps some of you kids you don’t recognize this dangerous subversive, because Burl Ives died in 1995, and even if you’re old enough to remember him, the only time he crosses your mind is when you hear “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” playing in the background music at the shopping mall or wherever. And our tale begins three weeks ago, when John Hoge and I were out to dinner at Cracker Barrel after doing another episode of The Other Podcast. Because it’s December, the background music at Cracker Barrel was a series of Christmas songs and among them was a version of “Holly Jolly Christmas” by some singer who was not Burl Ives, which triggered me to go off on a rant.

“Who is this singer? Why aren’t they playing the Burl Ives version? That Commie bastard had exactly one great achievement in his career, and it’s ‘Holly Jolly Christmas.’ Why rob him of that?”

At this point, Hoge interrupted to inform me that Burl Ives had a few career achievements that may have been more important than this silly Christmas song, including playing “Big Daddy” Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1958, the same year he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as Rufus Hannassey in The Big Country. Well, OK, but as usual, Hoge’s interruption didn’t address my point, which in this case is that certain Christmas songs have a definitive version, which deserve a permanent place on the holiday playlist for the sake of cultural continuity.

To be a conservative is to believe in the value of tradition, and among other things, that means when I hear about chestnuts roasting on an open fire, it had damned well better be Nat King Cole singing it.

Let us stipulate that many other artists have recorded versions of “The Christmas Song” that have some musical merit. But while I have no personal beef against, e.g., Michael Bublé, when it’s chestnut-roasting time, only Nat King Cole can get the job done right.

Having a hit Christmas song guarantees a performer a sort of musical immortality. A singer’s entire catalog of recordings may be forgotten, but if he had a big Christmas song, kids will still be listening to it long after he’s dead. Like, Nat King Cole was one of the most successful singers of his time, with a long string of hit records, but does any kid ever listen to “Mona Lisa” anymore? No, but every Christmas, those chestnuts are still roasting, baby, and it’s the same with Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”

Bing Crosby was quite simply the biggest singing star of the 1930s and it was not until Frank Sinatra burst on the scene in the 1940s that Crosby had any rival at all. Crosby was also a major motion picture star, famously teaming up with Bob Hope in Road to Singapore (1940), Road to Zanzibar (1941), Road to Morocco (1942), etc. Bing was an entertainer of world-historic proportions, with a lengthy catalog of hit records, but nowadays the only time anybody hears his voice is in December, when “White Christmas” gets played on the Muzak for a few weeks.

It’s fine by me if other singers want to record their own versions of “White Christmas,” but I don’t want to hear those other versions piped into the grocery store. Give me Bing, thank you very much.

There are other Christmas songs which have their own definitive versions. Like, I’m sure every pop singer wants to put “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” on their Christmas album, and that’s fine with me, but the only version I want to hear is Brenda Lee’s. And when it comes to “Rudolph the Red Nosed Raindeer,” it’s got to be Gene Autry. How many people nowadays even know who Gene Autry was? He was the most famous example of a genre, “the singing cowboy,” which lasted about 20 years beginning in the mid-1930s but has long since been forgotten. Gene Autry’s only rival for the crown as King of the Singing Cowboys was Roy Rogers, but unlike Gene, Roy never had the luck of recording a popular Christmas song, and so every December we get the Gene Autry resurrection, thanks to Rudolph and his “nose so bright.”

You see the point I was making, before Hoge interrupted me with that trivia about Burl Ives, was about the evanescence of popular culture. Most of the “hits” of our youth — whether in music, movies or TV shows — will only be widely remembered during our lifetimes. Nostalgia for a bygone past requires us to have some familiarity with whatever it is we’re nostalgic for, and popular entertainment is one of those “here today, gone tomorrow” things that doesn’t translate well across generations.

Born in 1959, my memories of various TV shows, movies and songs that were popular in the 1960s and ’70s are shared by a large cohort of Baby Boomers, so that there is nowadays a certain market demand for nostalgia about that era. Because of the way the era has sometimes been depicted in more recent entertainment — “That ’70s Show” or Dazed and Confused — there are younger people, born much later than me, who think fondly of those years. In the same way, movies like The Godfather gave my generation a fondness for the era of gangsters in wide-lapel suits riding around in Packard sedans. The Godfather was set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, less than 30 years before the film came out — 1972 was almost as close to VJ Day as 2022 is to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But where is the boom of nostalgia movies about the 1980s and ’90s to parallel the 1970s nostalgia boom about Depression-era America?

Anyway, as I get older and my kids have grown up, the subject of cultural continuity sometimes strikes me in different ways, such as hearing “Holly Jolly Christmas” and getting ticked off because they’re not playing the Burl Ives version which is, of course, they only version that should be played. And did I mention he was a Commie?

Beginning in the late 1930s, Burl Ives was associated with a number of Communist “front” groups, which is why his name turned up among those entertainers listed in the 1950 publication Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. This publication is infamous to soi-disant “progressives” who think of the anti-Communist “Hollywood blacklist” as one of the great injustices of American history. These progressives want us to forgot that America was, at the time, locked into an eyeball-to-eyeball nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, which had just exploded its first hydrogen bomb with the help of U.S. military secrets stolen by Soviet spies like the Rosenbergs and their associates. Soviet agents in high places (e.g., Alger Hiss) had been exposed, Mao’s Communists had just taken over China and in June 1950, the Communists in North Korea had invaded South Korea.

Those who describe anti-Communism in the 1950s with words like “paranoid” and “hysteria” expect us to ignore the reality of the Red Menace that faced America at that time. When they use phrases like “witch hunt,” I insist on pointing out that these particular witches were quite real — there were actual Communists, who actually were agents of Soviet influence, and exposing these subversives was a very urgent national security priority at the time. If it seems crazy to suggest that Burl Ives was ever a national security threat, I’d suggest reading Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley’s book Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s. Billingsley (whose mom played June Cleaver on Leave It Beaver) chronicles the conflict that erupted in Hollywood in 1945, culminating in “a bloody riot at the gates of Warner Bros.’ studios in Burbank, California.” What had happened was that Communists — not imaginary “witches,” but real-life, self-avowed, card-carrying members of the Communist Party USA — had gained control of a number of craft unions in the movie business and had fomented a conflict to try to force the industry to recognize these unions, rather than other (non-Communist-controlled) unions, as representing the workers in those trades. It was in this conflict that Ronald Reagan, as president of the Screen Actors Guild, came face-to-face with how Communists operated, a confrontation that forever altered Reagan’s point of view and, in doing so, ultimately changed history.

Ronald Reagan testifies to Congress, 1947

What was the effect of Communist influence in Hollywood? I asked that question of Billingsley when I interviewed him years ago and he said that while Communists didn’t succeed in getting much pro-Communist propaganda into movies, they were more successful in keeping anti-Communist messages out of movies. If you think about this a bit, you realize that there is a reason why, to most Americans, totalitarianism is always associated with Hitler and the Nazis, rather than with Lenin, Stalin and the Communists. There have been very few movies and TV shows that accurately portrayed Communism as a deadly menace, and certainly the pro-Communist attitude of many people in Hollywood had some influence in this tendency of popular entertainment to downplay the danger of Communism. Or, for example, think of Ronald Reagan’s career. He had been a very successful actor and popular among his peers, which is why he was elected SAG president. But once he emerged as an outspoken opponent of Communism, his movie career evaporated and it became common for the media to label him a “B-movie actor” (which is a damned lie, because he had previously starred in plenty of A-list movies).

Rather ironically, Reagan himself had been associated with a few Communist front groups in the 1930s and early 40s. The Communists were very clever at organizing such groups on an ad hoc basis, for example the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee (JAFRC), whose stated purpose originally was to aid those fleeing France. The JAFRC was a successor to other Communist front groups that had solicited aid for refugees from the Spanish Civil War. Exactly how much assistance was ever delivered to refugees is unknown, but the idea was that by organizing groups dedicated to currently popular causes, the Communists could expand their influence by getting help from liberals who didn’t realize that such groups (and the money they raised) were controlled by the Communist Party. So the fact that Reagan’s name turned up as sponsor of a JAFRC event in Los Angeles could not be construed as proof that he ever was a Communist or even sympathetic to Communism, but he was asked about this particular group when he was called to testify in 1947 to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), by which time he was already a well-known opponent of Communism.

This background helps understand how it was that Burl Ives got called to testify to Congress in 1950, disavowed Communism and “named names,” as they say, when asked about his past Communist involvement. Ives had been much more active in Communist-influenced groups than Reagan ever was. For example, Ives had supported the Communist-backed presidential campaign of “progressive” Henry Wallace in 1948, and some of Ives’ former associates included actual Soviet spies, one of whom informed the FBI that Ives was “100% left.” His subsequent disavowal of Communism caused one former comrade, Pete Seeger, to denounce Ives as a “stool pigeon.” But this is an insult to Ives only if you consider loyalty to Communism a good thing. At any rate, by cooperating with the congressional investigation, Ives avoided being blacklisted and, within a few years, was a beloved avuncular figure with a wholesome reputation.

The tale of post-Communist redemption explains why, in 1964, the producers of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer chose Burl Ives to narrate the tale as the character “Sam the Snowman.” And because Johnny Marks, the guy who wrote the titular song, was also the writer of “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” Ives got to sing that one, too:


In subsequent years, the Burl Ives version of “A Holly Jolly Christmas” has ensconced itself among the top five songs of the holiday season. And as I say, it is the definitive version of this holiday classic, so that I don’t want to hear any other version of it on the piped-in music at stores. Burl Ives may not be remembered for anything else, but he deserves to be remembered for this, even if he was a Commie.

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers!



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