A Christmas Memory

For a good number of Christmases I have thought about getting these thoughts down in writing. I’ve made some less than successful attempts in the past, but this year I gave it another try. This version seems about as close as I will get to expressing why I think we need one particular Christmas song to be the song it was when it first appeared, and not the version that is most commonly heard today. 

I was 24 years old and a captain in the Army. It was 1968, and I was home on leave after finishing Vietnamese language school in Texas. When my leave ended, I would fly to San Francisco and board a military transport to Saigon.

I would arrive in that sad country about 10 days before Christmas. With luck, I would return a year hence, also at Christmas.

I was ambivalent about heading for the war zone. I would be in a relatively safe job. I would be doing something related to radio broadcasting, which I had pulled some strings to make happen when it became evident when I was in Germany that my number was coming up for reassignment to Vietnam soon.

Of course the prospect of going to Vietnam did come with at least a modicum of anxiety, but I had known many military colleagues who had come and gone without serious repercussions, so I was pretty much taking it all in stride.

And what I expected to happen there turned out to be pretty much the case. It wasn’t without unpleasantness, but as with my colleagues, my life as a “Saigon Warrior” was not particularly dangerous, and all of us assigned this duty realized that there were many others in country who were having far worse experiences than we were. We were grateful for our relative comfort and safety while constantly mindful of the greater sacrifice others were making nearby.

Interestingly my most lasting memory of that long-ago time relates to the time just before I left for Vietnam. It was just before Christmas 1968.

I wasn’t fearful or particularly stressed out, but I was experiencing a kind of ennui, a vague discontent at the prospect of going to war, not really knowing what would be entailed.

And there were some things that gnawed at me. I never expressed openly any misgivings about our nation’s involvement in the war in Southeast Asia, but if asked, I would have registered disagreement with our presence there in a general sort of way. And I felt like my compatriots who had not been corralled into military service were getting a jump on me in beginning their adult lives and careers. All things being equal, I’d have just as soon been doing almost anything else.

That was more or less my state of mind as I waited out the time before I was to leave. Still unmarried and unattached, I was spared the intense pain of pending separation from wife and children that some of my friends had to endure. To pass the days I decided I would join in pre-Christmas festivities until I left. There were parties to attend, decorating to do, and Christmas shopping to do.

Amid this low-key holiday hubbub before departing for Saigon, one simple, at-random little experience has stayed with me, and I think about it without fail every year at this time. I treasure this experience even though at the time it amplified my misgivings about going off to the war zone.

I was driving home from a nearby mall after doing some shopping when I began to pay attention to the lyrics of one version of a particular Christmas song that was playing on the car radio. It was Judy Garland’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

It was she who introduced the song in the film “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

I had never noticed that the lyrics as sung in the film and in the familiar recording I was listening to conveyed such a melancholy sentiment:

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas; Let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”

Next year? Troubles?

Then the lines:

“Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow.”

“Someday?” “If?” How tentative that sounds.

“Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”

“Muddle through?”

The words bring to mind the “stiff upper lip” mentality displayed by the British at Christmas as German bombs rained on them during the build-up to World War II.

I am about to go off to war, and it’s Christmas. I guess I’ll be “muddling through somehow” until next year when those “troubles will be far away.”

I sat for some time reflecting on those seemingly prescient lyrics that somehow seemed to fit my circumstances. I thought about how many others were in far worse circumstances than I faced. Most were younger than even my tender age. Would they be able to muddle through?

What did the songwriter have in mind when he chose to express this particular set of emotions in this particular song? It was easy to guess given the sense of the scene in the film where the song appears. It’s about dislocation, and Judy Garland’s character is singing it to comfort her little sister, Tutti. (Rent the film; it’s worth seeing.)

Every year since then I listen for this gentle little song during the annual heavy radio play of Christmas music. Strangely, somewhere along the line since the Garland version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” first became a Christmas standard in 1943, the lyrics were changed. I don’t know why, and I don’t want to know. But if you listen to nearly any modern version of the song you will notice the difference. It’s not plaintive; the longing is gone. It’s happy and sometimes bouncy. I hate that, but so be it. You can still find the original lyrics in a handful of versions if you look, and I hope you will.

I always pause for a brief moment of wistful reflection when I hear the Garland version of this song at holiday time. Perhaps there is a small element of maudlin false self-pity in this—probably so—but I know that there is also a sense of my connection to our common humanity.

Through the years since I first noticed the words to this poignant little song I have come to learn that there will always be circumstances that spread around more than enough negative experience to give everyone her or his own version of what it feels like to know disruption and separation from “faithful friends that are dear to us.” For a host of possible reasons, they won’t always be with us at this time of year when we especially value their presence. Other “troubles” will loom from time to time as well.

And so we need that little reminder each year that “Once again as in olden days, happy golden days of yore” there is the hope that “we all will be together”—perhaps next year. Hearing this song each year awakens that assurance in me, just as it did long ago when it seemingly was speaking directly to me.

All we have to do is “muddle through somehow” until that time comes.

So we must have hope for better times despite whatever comes our way. That hope is seemingly more available to all of us at Christmas.

So “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Now.”


Vocal Characterization

In the world of audiobook production, narrating a work of fiction entails skills that differ from those required to narrate nonfiction. Good narrators may be excellent readers of fiction and pretty much just as good at interpreting nonfiction. It is less common, however, that that a competent narrator of nonfiction is also adept at fiction.

The reasons for the failure of very good nonfiction narrators to be adept in the fiction genre can be several. It may be that a voice that works well for history or  philosophy—the kind that might be associated with movie trailers, for example—draws too much attention to itself to work in fiction, where the narrator’s presence must give way to multi-faceted characters of various ages, genders, personalities, and dispositions.

Another reason may be that the fiction narrator always needs to make use of at least a modicum of acting skills. These are not easy to acquire and develop.

There is a distinction though between being a good stage actor where characters are fully drawn personae, and a book in which characters are more often suggested using subtle clues to differentiate one from another. And the narration must successfully blend the tasks of providing explication of action and setting one minute, and then making a segue to portraying an Indian warrior brandishing a tomahawk the next. The term storyteller may be a more appropriate designation for audiobook narrators than actor per se.

After working on non-fiction projects for three or four months, I decided that I’d like see if I could also get fiction projects. My first auditions were not successful. One author, whose book was told in the first person by the main character, told me that she liked my voice, but that it did not fit her visualization of the character she had created. Other rights holders just passed me over without comment.

I kept auditioning, however, and finally received an offer to narrate a western. There were two by the same author, and the rights holder said he thought my voice and reading style would suit both of them. (It is fairly common for authors with a series of books to try to get the same narrator for all of the books in a series.)

As I undertook the projects one at a time, I found the task of being a storyteller to be somewhat challenging. Listening to other westerns, I noticed that a rich baritone is often the vocal choice for westerns, so at least I had that going for me. Learning how to “suggest” the characters, was a steeper learning curve.

I sought advice from my fellow narrator, Carl Hausman, who had in fact done some westerns, and went to Audible to find westerns by seasoned narrators to see if I could discern their techniques.

I got some ideas, but putting them into practice goes beyond just understanding what others were doing.

Two things, in my opinion, make the process of defining characters particularly difficult: doing the voices of women and children, and differentiating characters of the same gender one from the other, especially in scenes where two or more characters engage in dialogue.

I had the most difficulty with women. (Not a new thing with me, by the way.) I had to suggest feminine vocal patterns and intonations (if there is any such thing) without resorting to the falsetto used by Eric Idle, for example, while wearing a dress in classic Monty Python skits. That doesn’t work when Indians are kidnapping the young wife of a pioneer settler.

I played around until I came up with a style that simply lightens the speech in an overall sense without overdoing the increase in pitch. Overall the baritone remains, though ideally the reader is not overly aware of it.

For male characters in dialog, I had two basic voices. One was what I called the Gabby Hayes effect, which is a toned down version of the grizzled 50s TV host for reruns of Hollywood B-level western films. The other was a standard male character with no obvious vocal quirks, but a kind of Lone Ranger type of authority that exudes common sense and a logical approach to problem solving.

Emotions are rendered as variations on some of these techniques. Anger is increased volume and some raising of pitch. Love is softer and often lowered pitch. Exasperation is rapid fire delivery in a lowered pitch, which is also a component of anger.

All this has to be toned down enough so as not to become caricature. And there are variations. For children, for example, I often add a bit of a plaintive tone that suggests innocence and vulnerability.

I don’t try to create foreign accents. For a French trapper, for example, I use a deep pitched bellicose baritone delivered with high energy and volume rather than ending up with a hackneyed version of a poorly rendered dialect.

In practice, developing and maintaining characters takes more prep time than nonfiction. It’s pretty hard to get through even short passages with out substantial rehearsal. Another problem arises when a character drops out of the action for a while and then reappears several chapters later. Now did I use Gabby Hayes for this guy? Was the young pioneer wife soft spoken and fragile, or was she a take-charge, no nonsense mother bear?

So how did my initial attempt at western fiction turn out? Not too bad, I’d have to say. After granting approval to put it up for sale, the publisher sent me a note to say he liked it very much and offered me four more projects. That’s a much better result than I expected.

Much obliged for the kind words, pardner. Reckon I’ll keep at it a mite longer.