There’s no place like home for the holidays…
I’m sipping hot spiced cider as I write this, and I see snow on the tops of the mountains in the distance, but when the sun comes out, it’ll be gone. Christmas is a funny thing; so much depends on where you are when it rolls around. We took a big event in a desert a couple of thousand years ago and turned it into a snowy New England scene by Currier & Ives. Now that I’m back in a desert, Christmas seems almost out of place. No snow. No sleigh with bells. No Currier and no Ives. Go figure.
But I’m game for the Christmas mood and just to prove it, I watched “White Christmas” a couple of nights ago. This is a tradition at my house, and my girls were raised to expect Bing and Danny and the gang as much as they expected jolly old St. Nick. We couldn’t have Christmas until we had all followed the old man…and I can’t watch the movie without shedding a tear at the big reunion. Dean Jagger is the perfect old soldier.
Moving on to music, I have ears and I know the airwaves have been full of fine old Christmas and other holiday songs for weeks now. Seems like every performer you know has made a Christmas album, some better and some not so great. While listening to a lot of these tunes, I’ve come to the conclusion that instrumentalists really would do better to stick to their own game rather than try to play Christmas songs like any other person could play them. If you’re a jazzman, play like a jazzman. Otherwise, the sound gets pretty smarmy and ordinary.
With all that Christmas music in our ears I decided to bring you some things you are not likely to hear on the radio and certainly not in an elevator, tunes that are not your standard holiday playlist. Some are funny, some irreverent, some beautiful and at least one is a little bit naughty (Santa knows what to expect from me)…A mix of fun and jazz and gorgeous sound.
Leading off, I’ll start with Alan Sherman who was a parodist with a string of hits like “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” back in the early 1960s. This first song was high on the Billboard Christmas list in 1963 as Sherman recounted some of the kinds of presents nobody wants but everybody gets in his “Twelve Gifts of Christmas.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcJu2OFFdP8
Tom Lehrer is retired now, but in his day he was a mathematician, political scientist and general man about campus including Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his spare time he wrote ingenious and often hilarious songs about all kinds of things including chemistry. You didn’t know chemistry was fun, did you? But for the holidays, he wrote his own “tribute” so to speak about how Christmas is celebrated in a world of advertising. Tom Lehrer’s “Christmas Carol.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtZR3lJobjw
A change of pace now with a nice holiday tune from those forever young Beach Boys. I guess the beach continues to be on my mind and every song these guys did has the sound of surf in my ears. It’s a nice one from their 1964 Christmas album. “Christmas Day.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TDmWvRVJUo
Sunday, the 21st is the winter Solstice, a day that means as much to me as Christmas. In fact, the Solstice is my personal New Year’s Day with the light returning for another year. And to help celebrate, I give you Claude Thornhill with a 1941 recording of “Snowfall.” There’s no snow in this desert so far, but maybe you’ll look out your window and see the white stuff coming down as you listen to Mr. Thornhill and friends. I’ll imagine myself back in a cottage in Maine where I happened to be one starlit Solstice night. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTOLwVB8d6U
The next number is funny, but serious too. When this one came out in 1958, a number of radio stations refused to play it and when you listen, you’ll know why. Stan Freberg was a master satirist, poking fun at everything and everyone from Ed Sullivan to McCarthyism to the Soviet Union to Lawrence Welk – the list is long and the songs very funny. In “Green Christmas,” Freberg took on the advertising world. I still have my original 45 rpm copy of this one. The message is a good one with a great ending (cash registers as percussion). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5IXlfJSEi4
Now for the slightly naughty part of this holiday post. Bob Rivers is a recently retired DJ from the Seattle area who, like Freberg, irreverently spoofed all kinds of subjects over his years on the air and in recordings. Back in the early 90s – last century, you know – he came out with his “Twisted Christmas” album that included parodies like “Manger 6,” “Didn’t I Get This Last Year,” and this goofy number, “Walkin’ ‘Round in Women’s Underwear.” If you’re offended just skip this one, but it’s short and it is pretty funny and only rated PG-13. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9URPvejWHk
Even though I’m going for the nontraditional tunes here, I just couldn’t leave out Mel Torme and his lovely “Christmas Song.” Word on the street (or on the web) is that Mel wrote this song with Bob Wells on a simmering summer day in 1944 when Mel was just nineteen years old. They claimed they weren’t writing a Christmas song, just trying to cool off. This would do it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wap-4v5CZLM
Elvis Presley made a video of his famous Christmas song, “Blue Christmas.” I looked at it and found it difficult because the young girls in the audience – a small live performance – are shrieking as young Elvis fans were wont to do. But then I found this nice tape of the song re-recorded in 2008 through the wonders of technology with Martina McBride and Elvis in a “duet.” Most of the shrieks have been edited out and Elvis just looks his darned, sexy best. No wonder girls everywhere shrieked over this American icon. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3KK6sMo8NBYBlue
Now we come to the serious part of the program.
In 1872, poet Christina Rossetti wrote the beautiful, “In the Bleak Midwinter” as a Christmas poem for “Scribner’s Monthly.” Composer Gustav Holst set it to music much later, and here it is done by James Taylor, my favorite version of this lovely Christmas anthem. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qmtO6cebcU
We need a little more jazz and here’s the wonderful Oscar Peterson on this tune written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. The song was written for Frank Sinatra as a B-side tune for his recording of “White Christmas.” Those B-sides can surprise a person. Give a listen to Oscar and friends with “Christmas Waltz.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGWVbfEXG4g
The final song is one that might surprise you…or at least the group performing it might. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” was written in 1943 and recorded by Bing Crosby to reflect the homesick holiday thoughts of men serving in World War II. Of course, it’s become a standard now for anybody separated from loved ones during the holidays, and there are a jillion recordings of it. While listening for the one I wanted to include here, I came across this music video reflecting lives of other men away from home for the holidays – not soldiers, but musicians on the road. This group is known for great country tunes and lively instrumentals. But this is neither. This is Rascal Flatts with a stunning a capella performance that brought me to my knees. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=igScPXNahf0&index=1&list=RDigScPXNahf0
And that’s a wrap, JazzBabies. I’ll be back next week after the big event with jazz, jazz, jazz. I hope Santa Baby is good to you and yours, and that the spirit of the season warms your heart. Most of all, I hope you find yourselves home for Christmas, if only in your dreams.