Photo credit: © 2011 Michel Denis Pouradier, all rights reserved
Tonight, I’ll be celebrating Christmas Eve with my French family and, even though I’ll see my parents on Skype, I’ll be missing them terribly. It’s not easy to be 4,000 miles away from them on a day like today, but that’s how it is for the moment. Last year, Michel and I spent Christmas in South Carolina, so this year it’s my turn to celebrate in France. Since I won’t be contemplating the meaning of the day in the soft glow of the lights of their Christmas tree, listening to Bing Crosby on my father’s old record player, and waiting with anticipation for some decadent dessert from my mom’s kitchen, I’d like to dedicate this song — one of my favorites — to my dear, sweet parents.
Mama and Daddy, I wish you a Merry Christmas with all my heart,
and I want you to know that I’ll be home as soon as I can, even if it won’t be this Christmas Eve.
(the Carrie Underwood version)
(the Glee version, which — as lovely as it is — unfortunately lacks the final verse)
And now, the story of that beautiful song …
Although you might think that it has a much longer history, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is a relatively new Christmas carol, celebrating its 50th birthday this season. It was written by French composer and lyricist Noël Regney and his American wife, composer and lyricist Gloria Shayne, in October 1962 — at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A Christmas song that so poetically evokes the Nativity of Jesus, it was actually written as a plea for peace during that tense moment, when the United States and the Soviet Union were on the brink of war.
Regney, it seems, had been asked by a record producer to write a Christmas song earlier in 1962, but he had found himself at a total loss for inspiration as world events that October drove everyone into a constant state of fear and uncertainty about the future. Then, on the way home one evening, Regney passed two mothers with their babies in strollers. There on a Manhattan sidewalk, Regney finally discovered his two little muses: “The little angels were looking at each other and smiling. All of a sudden, my mood was extraordinary,” Regney recalled in a later interview. Inspired by this vision of “newborn lambs,” he hurried home to pen the lyrics that were swirling in his head. When he had finished, he gave them to Shayne so she could find just the right melody — a reversal of their usual roles. “Noel wrote a beautiful song,” she later recounted, “and I wrote the music. We couldn’t sing it, through; it broke us up. We cried. Our little song broke us up. You must realize there was a threat of nuclear war at that time.”
Regney knew firsthand the horrors of war. Born Léon Schlienger in 1922 in Strasbourg, France, Regney came of age during the Second World War. After the Nazis invaded France in 1940, he was drafted into the German army because of his Alsatian German background. He was one of about 130,000 such young men from Alsace and Moselle who came to be known as the “Malgré-nous” (“despite ourselves”), because they were conscripted against their will — often under threat to their families. Regney joined the French Resistance but remained in the Wehrmacht as part of a “fifth column.” He was so emotionally scarred by one assignment that required him to lead his own platoon into an ambush by French partisans, however, that he soon deserted the Wehrmacht, spending the remainder of the war operating exclusively within the Resistance.
Before the war, Regney had studied at conservatories in Strasbourg, Salzburg, and Paris, and he returned to the music world when it was over. He served as musical director of the Indochinese Service of Radio France from 1948 to 1950 and subsequently worked as director of the Lido, one of Paris’s most famous cabaret nightclubs. In 1951, he finally settled in New York, where he met his future wife and writing partner. Gloria Shayne had a musical career in her own right, having started out with her sisters in a singing trio. After moving to New York in the ’40s, she became a pianist, arranger, and background vocalist for composers including Irving Berlin. It was at a Manhattan restaurant, in fact, that Regney first noticed her playing piano. He came over and struck up a conversation; the two were married a month later. Over the course of their two-decade relationship, the couple wrote several hit songs together, including “Rain, Rain, Go Away” performed by Bobbie Vinton, “Sweet Little Darlin'” performed by Jo Stafford, and — of course — “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Initially recorded by the Harry Simeone Chorale and released just after Thanksgiving 1962, more than 120 versions have since been recorded by such legendary artists as Bing Crosby, Pat Boone, Mahalia Jackson, Glen Campbell, Robert Goulet, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Perry Como, Bob Dylan, Johnny Mathis, and Whitney Houston.
In an interview in 1985, Regney remarked, ”I am amazed that people can think they know the song — and not know it is a prayer for peace.” Indeed, it is a prayer for peace, and one that is — unfortunately — as timely today as it was in 1962. As Regney wrote on that October night 50 years ago …
Said the king to the people everywhere,
“Listen to what I say!
Pray for peace, people, everywhere.
Listen to what I say!”
© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved
P.S. — An interesting anecdote: Gloria Shayne grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, right next door to the little boy who would be grow up to be President of the United States during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy.