Black Music Sunday: Let it snow—and let's find some music to keep you warm!

Though much of the music associated with winter and snow here in the United States tends to be linked to the December holiday season, winter sets in in earnest in January in most places across the country that face snowstorms. So though the weather this time of year may include blizzards and bomb cyclones, we’ve got music that celebrates the season, the snow, and snuggling up to keep warm as we head toward spring. 

Black Music Sunday is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music. With over 140 stories (and counting) covering performers, genres, history, and more, each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack, I hope you’ll find some familiar tunes and perhaps an introduction to something new.

As an Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong fan, this wonderful animated version of “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm,” from the Irving Berlin songbook, is a favorite.

Just don’t call it a Christmas song!

“I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” (1937) isn’t technically a Christmas song, but is often played during the holidays. It was written by Irving Berlin for “On The Avenue,” a film starring Dick Powell & Alice Faye. pic.twitter.com/MTyDUbWzkL

— DrPopCultureBGSU (@DrPopCultureBG) December 21, 2022

In the same vein, here’s a duet which has been recorded by a long list of artists: Frank Loesser’s 1944 “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” My top pick from the list is the duet between Ray Charles and Betty Carter.  

Controversy has swirled around the song in recent years, decades after it had become a standard, which resulted in it being yanked off of radio stations across the country. In 2021, Kenneth Partridge explored the discourse for Mental Floss in “The Complicated, Controversial History of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

Once a piece of art is released into the world, people are free to debate its meaning and merits until the end of time. This is especially true if the work in question is a holiday song that pops back into the public consciousness each December. If the song is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”—a ’40s-era American standard that some modern listeners hear as a misogynistic depiction of sexual misconduct—it’s cause for an annual barrage of controversies, radio bans, and think pieces.

In recent years, arguing about the intention behind “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has become nearly as popular as listening to the song itself. And actually, the two activities are connected. In December 2018, as debates about the lyrics in the context of the #MeToo movement reached a crescendo, the song cracked the Top 10 on Billboard’s Digital Song Sales chart for the first time ever.

For a song that provokes such strong feelings, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” began fairly innocently. Broadway legend Frank Loesser wrote the ditty in 1944 and performed it with his wife, Lynn Garland, at a housewarming party in New York City that same year. It was meant to amuse guests and send them on their way at the end of night, and by all accounts, people loved it.

“We had to do it over and over again, and we became instant parlor room stars,” Garland remembered. “We got invited to all the best parties for years on the basis of ‘Baby.’”

I admit I missed the entire back and forth around this—probably because most of my music listening hasn’t involved a radio in at least 10 years.

In 2018, Cady Lang talked to the songwriter’s daughter for TIME; she noted the “date rape” interpretation wasn’t necessarily new, even if the sheer volume of people agreeing with it was.

In an interview with NBC News, Susan Loesser, the 74-year-old daughter of the famed composer, defended the song, calling for people to think about it in context of the time.

“I think my father would be furious at that,” Loesser said. “People used to say ‘what’s in this drink’ as a joke. You know, ‘this drink is going straight to my head so what’s in this drink?’ Back then it didn’t mean you drugged me.”

[…]

Loesser went on to address how the song’s lyrics could be interpreted in the #MeToo era.

“Bill Cosby ruined it for everybody,” she said. “Way before #Me Too, I would hear from time to time people call it a date rape song. I would get annoyed because it’s a song my father wrote for him and my mother to sing at parties. But ever since Cosby was accused of drugging women, I hear the date rape thing all the time.”

In 2019, John Legend and Kelly Clarkson recorded a version with lyrics updated in response to the critiques. It’s not my cuppa tea, but here’s a link.

I went back and listened to more early versions, like this one from Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan released by Decca Records.

I’m curious to hear what readers think about the discourse over the song. 

Meanwhile, I’ll close with another standard, written in 1934 by Felix Bernard and lyricist Richard Bernhard Smith, and sung by Ella. “Winter Wonderland” gets a lot of airplay around the holiday season, but has nothing to do with Christmas—if anything, it’s a wintry love song. 

As YouTuber ChristmasTimeTV notes:

“Winter Wonderland” is a winter song, popularly treated as a Christmas time pop standard, written in 1934 by Felix Bernard (composer) and Richard B. Smith (lyricist).  Richard was reportedly inspired to write the song after seeing Honesdale’s Central Park covered in snow. Mr. Smith had written the lyrics while in the West Mountain Sanitarium, being treated for tuberculosis.  The original recording was by Richard Himber and his Hotel Ritz-Carlton Orchestra on RCA Bluebird in 1934.

Lyrics for Ella’s version:

Sleigh bells ring, are you listenin’
In the lane, snow is glistening
A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight
Walking in a winter wonderland

Gone away is the blue bird
Here to stay is a new bird
He sings a love song, as we go along
Walking in a winter wonderland

In the meadow we can build a snowman
Then pretend that he is Parson Brown
He’ll say, “Are you married ?” We’ll say, “No man
But you can do the job when you’re in town”

Later on, we’ll conspire
As we dream by the fire
To face unafraid, the plans that we made
Walking in a winter wonderland

Are you listenin’, snow is glistening
A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight
Walking in a winter wonderland

In the meadow we can build a snowman
Then pretend that he is Parson Brown
He’ll say, “Are you married ?” We’ll say, “No man
You can do the job when you’re in town”

Later on, we’ll conspire
As we dream by the fire
To face unafraid, the plans that we made
Walking in a winter wonder, wonderland

Join me in the comments to share your favorite songs about winter and snow!