I'll Be Home for Christmas" is arguably one of the most popular tunes trolled over the airwaves this time of year, but few local people know the song has a connection to upstate New York.

The holiday standard, made famous by crooner Bing Crosby in 1943 and re-recorded by many artists in almost every imaginable genre since, actually was co-written by a late Greenwich resident.

James Kimball "Kim" Gannon, famous for penning not only the perennial Christmas favorite but also 100 other songs, some of which were featured in Hollywood films, spent different periods of his life in the Washington County village.

Elizabeth Cockey, author of "Upstate New York: Towns that We Love," grew up on Prospect Street near Gannon and recalled the gum drops and nickels he would give out at Halloween.

"Back then you could buy a Mounds bar with it. That was a big deal to kids who were relatively poor. He seemed like the wealthiest, coolest guy in town," Cockey said. "He just seemed to have a generous spirit."

Culver Tefft, who was born and grew up in Greenwich but now living in Kentucky, has done extensive research on Gannon and once wrote an article on the musician for the Greenwich Journal and Salem Press.

Tefft, 63, also is distantly related by marriage to the composer, and Tefft's parents belonged to the Battenkill Country Club with Gannon and his wife, Norma. Their paths frequently crossed around Christmas during "huge" family get-togethers.

"When I was a kid, he would sit down at a piano and play something he had been dabbling with. He just had a lot of fun writing the lyrics," Tefft recalled.

Gannon, who died in 1974, was born in Brooklyn in 1900 but spent part of his childhood in Greenwich, playing ice hockey on the frozen Battenkill River, and then in Ballston Spa while going to Albany Law School.

He is credited with writing the school song for his alma mater, St. Lawrence University, in 1924. As a testament to Gannon's loyalty, his will states the school receive a third of the royalties from all of his songs, including "I'll Be Home for Christmas." (The clause went in effect after Gannon's wife's death in 2000.) It is estimated that for 2009, the college will receive more than $34,000.

While working for a Saratoga Springs judge, Gannon enjoyed a stint on the Schenectady radio station, WGY, hosting an evening program singing and playing the piano, using the pseudonym of Johnny Albright.

Realizing that his first love was really music, he took a job as a lyric writer with Warner Brothers and was transferred to the Los Angeles office. It was there he had written the words to "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and collaborated with a friend, Walter Kent.

"In many cases (Gannon) would have the tune and the words and he'd give it to Walter. It was my understanding that Kim Gannon had the tune running through his head and how that should sound. He suggested the tune and the composer filled in the harmony," Tefft said.

After Crosby heard the song, the baritone singer recorded it during the height of World War II. The lyrics resonated with soldiers longing to be home, "if only in my dreams."

"It came out of a time when we had servicemen fighting a war in Europe and the Pacific Islands, and one day a year, maybe, the serviceman got a breather from fighting and had a chance to reflect on the happy times and the things they would like to get back to."

Of course, it's not only veterans who have become fond of the song. Generations since have come to associate "I'll Be Home for Christmas" with their own holiday memories.

"Christmas is a season of happiness, joy, celebration, of sharing. The song evokes all of that," Tefft said.

 

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