By Molly Walsh in the Burlington Free Press, Wednesday, January 12, 2011
The singer who popularized the tune “Moonlight in Vermont” and in the process helped craft the image of the state as a rustic haven illuminated by a silvery glow is dead.
Margaret Whiting died Tuesday at age 86 at the Lillian Booth Actors’ Home in Englewood, N.J., after a long career that began in the 1940s and included hits such as “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” sung with her godfather and mentor, songwriter Johnny Mercer.
Whiting was a young Hollywood singer who had never been to Vermont when she first recorded “Moonlight” in the midst of World War II. The bittersweet ballad was broadcast on Armed Forces Radio and brought images of a quietly beautiful Vermont to people around the globe.
It wasn’t until Feb. 5, 1985, however, that Whiting first visited Vermont to sing to legislators and be recognized on Moonlight in Vermont Day.
The song contributed to the Vermont brand, starting with the impact it had on World War II soldiers, said Harry Orth of Shelburne, professor emeritus at the University of Vermont and co-author of the Vermont Encyclopedia.
The lyrics “presented an idealized picture of what many of the soldiers had left behind,” Orth said. “Even the ones that were from the big cities could associate with that song because after all they saw pictures, they went places.”
The song is beautiful yet reflective, said Orth, who wrote the entry about “Moonlight in Vermont” in the Vermont Encyclopedia.
“It’s a very contemplative song,” he said. “You could really see some soldier leaning back in a bunk or in a foxhole and just wishing he could be in such a wonderful place.”
The song was written by Karl Seussdorf and John Blackburn. Neither one was a Vermonter — which might explain why sycamore trees appear in the “Moonlight” lyrics but make so few appearances in the Vermont woods.