"Baby, It's Cold Outside" Was Originally An Invitation To Leave, Not To Stay

Nov 22, 2019

Songwriter Frank Loesser wrote "Baby, It's Cold Outside" in 1944, essentially for the amusement of himself and his party guests.

Decades later, there's been fierce debate about what's implied in the back and forth conversation that comprises the lyrics. Ironically, the song was originally written as an invitation for someone to leave, not to stay. 

Loesser was a successful composer and lyricist during the era of the Great American Songbook, which lasted roughly from the 1920s to the 1950s. Some songs that were originally written for Broadway musicals, for musical theatre productions, or for Hollywood films have become so well known that we now think of them as "standards."

When rock 'n' roll became the popular music of the day in the 1960s and 70s, the Great American Songbook was largely seen as a relic of the past, but some songs like "Baby" never really went away.

Despite the controversy over the track, or maybe because of it, it's getting recorded now more than ever by duos like Rufus Wainwright and Sharon Van Etten, and Fantasia and CeeLo Green just as written.

For many years, the fact that the song is about a man trying to persuade a woman to stay the night was just regarded as light entertainment. In the past decade or so, however, some have come to see the situation as more coercion than persuasion. Much is made of the woman asking "What's in this drink?"

Recently, John Legend and Kelly Clarkson have a new version that alters the call and response to create a balance of power between the two people and reimagines the question "What's in this drink?" for a post #MeToo era, reigniting the conversation about whether to change the lyrics or leave them alone.

The reignited conversation regarding the song got me wondering if the history of the track's original context is well known.  

Loesser Wrote The Song To Sing With His Wife 

Loesser wrote "Baby" to sing with his wife Lynn Garland for a party at their home in New York City. When they debuted the song, they sang it together at the very end of the evening as a way of telling folks to go home, the party's over!

Their guests loved the song with its call and response vocals, and soon the couple were invited to other parties with the expectation that they would sing it for the assembled guests. In 1948, Loesser sold the song to Hollywood, a few years before the premiere of the musical "Guys And Dolls," which he also wrote.

The track became a hit, and it eventually won the Academy Award for Best Original Song after being featured in the movie "Neptune's Daughter."

It helps the song's popularity that the alternating dialogue between two people is sung to such a compelling melody.  Also, it's unlike most other holiday songs in that the holidays aren't even mentioned, and cold and snowy weather is just a pretext for one person to talk the other one into staying. 

What's your take?

What do you think about the song?  Should we change the lyrics of old songs to reflect modern sensibilities, or leave the classics alone?

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" is not the only example of a holiday song where artists have taken the liberty of changing the original lyrics. 

Noted vegetarian Paul McCartney changed "a turkey and some mistletoe" to "some holly and some mistletoe" when he recorded "The Christmas Song." And just the other day, I heard a version of the edgy Pogues classic "Fairytale of New York" that substitutes "braggart" for a rhyming word that is considered a derogatory term for a gay person. 

Tell us what you think. Tweet @IowaPublicRadio #iprmusic.