Of al-Qaeda & Grammys: ‘Baby, it’s cold outside’

’Tis still the season for “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” — at least until the chill of winter finally leaves us. And in the American songbook classics, it’d be hard to find a song whose backstory goes as far afield as this one. Its Grammy Awards nomination — for the Willie Nelson-Norah Jones version as Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals — put it back in music news a while ago, but it has a connection of sorts to the defining news events of the decade — at least here in the United States.

Composer-lyricist Frank Loesser introduced the duet as an informal party item in 1944 — or so Wikipedia reports, citing a Loesser biography. And with its two voices dancing around their intentions — she’s half-heartedly trying to leave while he slowly reveals why he really wants her to stay — it’s easy to see how much fun it could be with a game couple at the piano and listeners gathered around.

It wasn’t released commercially until it showed up in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter. In the film, it’s performed by two sets of duet partners: Ricardo Montalbán and Esther Williams, and Red Skelton and Betty Garrett. An Oscar for Best Original Song followed, as have seemingly endless interpretations. Homer and Jethro with June Carter, Sammy Davis Jr. and Carmen McRae, Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, Ray Charles and Betty Carter

down through the years to the Nelson-Jones version.

But it’s also a song with the distinction of being cited as an example of American decadence by a spiritual godfather of al-Qaeda. In The Looming Towers, his masterful examination of the roots of al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attack, Lawrence Wright of The New Yorker goes back to saga of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian writer, a mid-level bureaucrat, an anti-colonialist and a proponent of what was not yet called Islamic fundamentalism.

Years later, Qutb would be executed for his views and allegiance to the cause, but from 1948 to 1950, when he was in his early 40s, Qutb traveled and studied in the United States, finding offense in the wantonness and materialism he saw everywhere. Americans were “a reckless, deluded herd that only knows lust and money,” wrote Qutb.

Studying at what was then Colorado State College of Education in Greeley, Qutb sometimes attended Sunday church services and after-service dances, one of which he wrote about in some detail. “The room convulsed with the feverish music from the gramophone. Dancing naked legs filled the hall, arms draped around waists, chests met chests, lips met lips, and the atmosphere was full of love,” Wright quotes from Qutb.

And after putting on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” — whose rendition is apparently not noted — Qutb wrote: “The minister paused to watch his young charges swaying to the rhythms of this seductive song, then he left them to enjoy this pleasant, innocent night.” Wright underscores the sarcasm in the innocent.

Radicalized rather than liberalized by his time abroad, Qutb returned to join the Muslim Brotherhood faction of the anti-colonial movement that helped bring Gamal Abdul Nasser (a secular nationalist) to power in Egypt. The factions quickly fell out and, after the Brotherhood’s failed bid to assassinate Nasser, Qutb was jailed. He was later freed, then jailed again and executed, in 1966, in connection with another alleged plot. He became a martyr and his austere book, Milestones, in particular, an inspiration to the founders of al-Qaeda, among others.

We might wonder whether al-Q follower Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, our would-be underwear bomber, heard “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” during his time in London.

It is cold out there. Colder than Frank Loesser ever imagined.

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