I am not sure if anyone at Babalu has covered this before, but I had no idea. I admit to being one of those who simply took for granted one of my all time favorite Christmas carols had been written a century or more ago in some chilly New England loft or a dusty European music room illuminated by candles. However, thanks to a very devout Catholic friend of mine I have been made aware of this stirring song’s origins written right here in the USA during the Cold War…
ALTHOUGH the names of Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne may not be familiar, they composed many popular songs together, including “Rain, Rain, Go Away,” recorded by Bobby Vinton.
Their masterpiece, however, is “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Many people mistakenly assume this Christmas classic has been around for years and that it is of European origin. But it was written in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis as a powerful plea for peace by a man who had experienced the horrors of war.
The song’s message of peace is as desperately needed today as it was then.
Of all their works, that simple Christmas song is the one that will continue to be treasured. Here is how it came to be:
In October 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States were involved in a crisis centered on missiles the Russians had installed in Cuba. The United States threatened military action if the missiles were not removed. The world trembled and prayed as these two nuclear powers stood eyeball-to-eyeball.
That October, as Noel Regney walked through the streets of New York, a sense of despair was in the air. No one smiled.
Regney had endured the horrors of war. He knew the fear and terror of being close to death. The safe and secure life he had built for himself in the United States was on the verge of ending.
Christmas, which was supposed to be a time of peace and goodwill, was approaching. Noel Regney had been asked by a record producer to write a holiday song.
“I had thought I’d never write a Christmas song,” he recalled. “Christmas had become so commercial. But this was the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the studio, the producer was listening to the radio to see if we had been obliterated.
“En route to my home, I saw two mothers with their babies in strollers. The little angels were looking at each other and smiling. All of a sudden, my mood was extraordinary.”
A glimpse of these babies filled Noel Regney’s heart with poetry. The little ones reminded him of newborn lambs. Thus, the song begins, “Said the night wind to the little lamb….”
As soon as Noel arrived home, he jotted down the lyrics. Then he asked Gloria to write the music to accompany his words. “While walking down the street in New York, my mother heard trumpets playing the melody in her head,” explains Gabrielle Regney.
“Noel wrote a beautiful song,” Gloria said later, “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.”
There have been over 100 versions of “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” including early recordings by Perry Como and the Harry Simeone Chorale. Gladys Knight and the Pips, Destiny’s Child and Vanessa Williams are among the artists who have made more recent recordings. Noel Regney’s personal favorite was a recording by Robert Goulet, who nearly shouted out the line, “Pray for peace, people, everywhere.”
But it was the Bing Crosby 1963 recording that brought Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne’s song of peace to the nation’s attention. In those days, Crosby’s recordings were often instant hits; his version sold more than a million copies.
“Do You Hear What I Hear?” carried a beautiful message close to people in all walks of life. It became a popular Christmas carol, “a song high above the tree, with a voice as big as the sea.” But the message of peace was lost on many people.
“I am amazed that people can think they know the song and not know it is a prayer for peace,” Noel Regney once told an interviewer. “But we are so bombarded by sounds and our attention spans are so short.”
Please read the whole article to understand the writers’ backgrounds and experiences, especially Noel Regney’s life in Europe during WWII.
Not only does it give the song more depth for me, but from now on when I hear “Do You Hear What I Hear” I will be reminded of my beloved Uncle/Godfather who, as a very young man, was serving with the U.S Army and sleeping in full gear on the tarmac under the massive plane with his 82nd AB paratrooper brothers awaiting the “Go” order from then Pres. Kennedy to board the planes and drop into Cuba during the missile crisis. I will be reminded of my very last conversation with Uncle Jack just a couple years ago, as he was aware he was lying in his death bed, and our conversations (if not centered on movies) consisted of me prompting him to recall his Army paratrooper stories. (You see, days after finishing his commitment with the Army, and still very young, my Uncle Jack came home to foolishly be involved in a drunk driving accident that set him in a wheel chair for the rest of his adult life.) In my last conversation with Jack we talked about the Cuban Missile Crisis. And even though it counters the “Do You Hear What I Hear” message/sentiment of peace, I will now recall my Uncle’s last words on that event …
“We should have gone.”
Reading the look in his fading blue eyes in that moment I wondered (his useless but treasured legs now gone over the course of the months of fighting the sepsis that would take him) if he was pondering that all he had successfully accomplished in his adult life, in spite of his paraplegic obsticales, he would have traded it all to have made that jump into Cuba decades ago as a paratrooper, and not much more than a boy, and kick Castro’s and the Soviet’s asses.