This is part 20 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
Right up front I want to say, this may be my favorite Christmas carol story. And, it comes from a pretty unlikely pair. Who would have ever thought a former Nazi draftee from France would team up with a Jew from Massachusetts to write a Christmas carol, but that is exactly what happened.
Noel Regney found himself drafted into the Nazi army, but he didn’t stay there long. He deserted and found his way to the French Underground where he joined in with the Resistance to fight off the Nazis. Regney became a double agent and even leading the Germans into an ambush where he was shot in the arm, but recovered.
What Regney wanted to do more than anything else was to write classical music. He wasn’t interested in music that might make its way to the top of the Hit Parade and then fall back down to oblivion. He wanted to write music that would last.
Following the war, in an effort to make such music, Regney immigrated to the United States. One day in the late 1950s he wandered into New York’s Beverly Hotel. In the dining room he saw and heard a beautiful woman playing popular music on the piano. He was so taken with the woman, even though he spoke little English, he went up and introduced himself. Within a month, even though he had limited speaking skills in English and she spoke no French, the two were married. Her name was Gloria Shayne.
Even musically, the two seemed an unlikely pair. He was interested in classical music and she wanted to write and play rock and roll. Her preference was well founded as she wrote an early hit in “Goodbye Cruel World,” recorded by James Darrin. The couple did produce some material together with the songs, “Rain, Rain Go Away,” “Sweet Little Darlin'” and “Another Go Round.”
Regney was haunted by what he saw and experienced in World War II. He truly hoped the devastation was such that it would be the war to end all wars. When in a matter of a few short years he saw much of the world plunged into battle again in Korea and then Vietnam, Regney was deeply troubled by what he saw on the evening news.
In 1962, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the very real threat of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, Regney found a quiet moment, away from all he experienced in the past and what he saw in the presence. During that quiet, he wrote a poem. It was his plea for peace in the chaos of a world seemingly gone crazy. Regney said he was inspired to write the words, “Pray for peace people everywhere” as he watched mothers pushing their babies in strollers along New York streets.
Regney gave the poem to his wife and asked her to write the music for it. That was an unusual thing between these two. When they collaborated, it was almost always the other way around. But Regney told his wife he wanted her to write the music because he didn’t want it to be classical.
She left and went shopping. She said that on her way to Bloomingdale’s she had the beginning of the song in her mind. When she returned home and played it for Regney, she had inadvertently added a beat in the first line. Regney made a slight change to the poem as he feared the loss of one of the most beautiful tunes he had ever heard. The change took the first line from, “Said the wind to the…” to “Said the night wind to the…”
Shayne also wanted Regney to change one other line. She argued that people in the United States wouldn’t get the line, “…with a tail as big as a kite.” Regney stood by his writing and refused to change it. He was right on this one. People loved the line.
Once completed the couple to the song to a New York music agent and the Harry Simone Chorale, famous at the time for their recording of “The Little Drummer Boy” four years earlier, recorded the song in October of 1962. It was released in time for the 1962 Christmas season. It was an instant hit.
A year later, the song became a Christmas standard when Bing Crosby made his recording. Since that time, a long and varied list of performers has recorded “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
Years later Regney and Shayne both said their favorite version of the song was by Robert Goulet. In his version of the song, when he came to the line, “Pray for peace, people everywhere,” he almost shouted the lyrics. Both Regney and Shayne also said, they could hardly sing the song all the way through because of the power the song had over their emotions.
Regney had not had a great deal of commercial success prior to the release of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” He had always said he wanted to write something meaningful, significant, enduring and beautiful. Mission accomplished.
Here is the thing, God brought together two people from different walks in life, different parts of the world and different faith traditions. God even switched their usual roles. Some might say the result was magical. I would say the result was Divine. God made the unlikely beautiful.
Where have you seen God do the unlikely and change the world in a significant way?
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.