Case in Point

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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Hugh Martin,composer (1914-2011): Broadway luminary and the Christian boy next door

It’s that time of year again when I take out those Christmas songs and bang away on my piano. For the last 70 years, one of the top ten favorite Christmas songs in America is, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” written during the dark days of World War II. As a Christian, my heart belongs to the Trinity Hymnal, but my rhythm belongs to Hugh Martin. Hugh who?

The lyrics of his life

The Hugh Martin that causes me to tap my toes is not the 19th century Scotsman who helps me understand Jonah. No, this Hugh Martin died in March this year (2011) at the age of 97. He is arguably the last of the golden composers of the American songbook of the ‘30s – ‘60s. In a field dominated by the great Jewish composers and lyricists (e.g., Berlin, Gershwins, Arlen, Hart, Rogers, Kern, Hammerstein, Harburg, Loesser, Styne, Lerner, Loewe, etc.) there is a handful of Gentiles (e.g., Cohan, Porter, Youmans, Carmichael, Warren, Mercer Van Heusen, McHugh, Brown, Burke), and stuck in this group of Gentiles is the solo church-going incomparable, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.

But Hugh Martin has a late-blooming Christian testimony. Martin grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, attending Independent Presbyterian Church which was pastored by the apostate preacher, Henry Edmonds. It is no wonder that by his own admission, his “theological education was zilch,” and his knowledge of the Bible was non-existent. Off to New York he went after college (Birmingham Southern), and beginning in l937, the urbane, elegant and talented Martin scored hit after hit on Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley working with the greats of his generation. My favorite Martin song is his standard, “Boy Next Door” (title of his autobiography), composed for Judy Garland in l944 for the movie Meet Me in St. Louis. A somewhat odd song for a popular ballad, it is, nevertheless hauntingly beautiful and appropriate to the lyrics.

Hugh Martin began to eat grass like a cow (Dan. 4:32) in l960 when he was 46 after a history of drugs and several nervous breakdowns. He was being given drugs by the celebrity drug-pushing New York physician, Max Jacobson, who was supplying amphetamines to America’s cultural and political elite. Martin writes, “Things were going great. I thought I was pretty successful and I thought I was pretty good, too. I really had an inflated idea of my virtue.” After checking into St. Vincent’s Hospital (in Birmingham), in 1974 for some general tests, a black Seventh Day Adventist pastor who was his roommate witnessed the gospel to him in actions and words. Reflecting on those days, he wrote, “God had to bring it to my attention that I was not all I thought I was. I was suddenly overwhelmed with what a wretch I was. I threw myself on my face and begged the Lord to heal me.”

My favorite Martin songs: “The Boy Next Door,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

Personal observations

Interestingly, after his decisive conversion to Christianity in l974, Martin did not produce any lasting work of popular merit. His last Broadway production was as the vocal arranger for the stage production of Sugar Babies in l979 with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller. After that he began working with the Adventist gospel singer, Del Delker, as a composer, arranger and accompanist. In 2010, he is quoted as saying, “It was always my pleasure to talk about Jesus. There’s nothing I’d rather do.”

Not surprisingly, in all the major obituaries in March, only two (Time and the New York Times) make glancing reference to Martin’s religious convictions which dominated the last 30 years of his life. Martin, who once wrote that he tended to be his own press agent, doesn’t have to worry about notices any longer. He is now a chorus boy in the only long-running musical that matters.

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