Meredith Willson laying in bed working on compositions

Producer Notes: The Making of Meredith Willson

Tyler Brinegar, producer of Meredith Willson, talks about the process of unfolding the story of America's music man, highlighting three significant musical compositions Willson wrote as part of his storied career. Learn more about Willson's life in the upcoming Meredith Willson: America's Music Man, premiering Feb. 28 at 6:30 p.m. and on the PBS App on demand. 

"The Symphony of San Francisco" 

Meredith Willson led a productive and varied career. He played flute in the John Philip Sousa Band and the New York Philharmonic, but would quickly transition into conducting and composing. He wrote his first symphony in the 1930s in San Francisco.

Willson was working as music director at NBC and CBS affiliates in San Francisco when he started composing his “Symphony No. 1 in F Minor.” He later recalled how he could see the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge from his office window and felt as if he were racing the builders note for rivet.

Willson subtitled his work “The Symphony of San Francisco” and dedicated it to the “spiritual personality that is San Francisco.” He was a programmatic composer, which meant his music revolved around a program or narrative. In this case, it was the industrial uprising of San Francisco in the 1930s which inspired his lively and melodic first symphony.

Willson became the youngest ever conductor of the San Francisco Symphony at the age of thirty three when he premiered his Symphony No. 1 on a live radio broadcast. He would go on to write a second symphony but his focus would shift from symphonic music as he found increased success with radio and popular songs.



Over the course of his career, Meredith Willson relied more and more on his personal biography to reach audiences. "The Music Man" is a good example of this but another is his 1944 popular song "Iowa.” 

At first I struggled to see how “Iowa” would fit into the narrative of Willson’s career. But when I learned the context surrounding the song’s debut I realized it would be essential to our story.

During World War II Willson served as music director for the Armed Forces Radio Service. He wrote “Iowa” and debuted it in 1944 on the “Mail Call” program. With lyrics like "it's a robin in the willow, it's the postmaster's friendly hello," Willson used his own childhood memories to inspire nostalgia and good cheer in soldiers stationed overseas.

What initially seemed like a song meant just for Iowans would instead become a pivotal transition in the film’s narrative, as Meredith moved from a symphony player and conductor to a personal songwriter capable of reaching audiences using his own point of view.


“It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas”

I was shocked to discover Meredith Willson wrote “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas.” This is a song I’ve known all my life and one that is still played everywhere each December.

Debuted in 1951, the melody features the bouncy triplets he would utilize in “76 Trombones” and which are also present in the “Iowa Fight Song.” In fact, the “Iowa Fight Song” is said to be a contrafact arrangement of the Christmas number. Try singing them together and the similarities become clear.

Meredith’s sentiment really comes through in the lyrics. 

“A pair of hop-a-long boots and a pistol that shoots is the wish of Barney and Ben. Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk is the hope of Janice and Jen. And mom and dad can hardly wait for school to start again.” 

The specificity in the list of toys and children’s names heightens the excitable anticipation of youth. He follows it immediately with the jaded exhaustion of parents. Willson relied on nostalgia in his work, but he also used humor and wit to express relatable truths. His final message - that the carol we sing in our hearts is what causes Christmas bells to ring - is interfaith and it articulates a secret every adult knows:  the holiday season is what we bring to it.