In Defense of Christmas Music – Hidden Language
“Winter Walk” by Podington Bear plays
Jay: It’s been fourteen years since my buddy Patrick Culliton and I launched a music blog called 77 Santas. We took a slant-angle view on Christmas and holiday-themed music, magnifying the overlooked, polishing rare gems, and recontextualizing songs that we’ve heard all of our lives but have maybe never explicitly connected with the season.
By and large, the music we shared on 77 Santas was secular. We weren’t theologians, merely audiophiles engaged in that perpetual attempt to define exactly what makes a song good or, at the very least, worth listening to. Sometimes that included religious songs–”O Holy Night” is a beautiful piece of music, it’s just that we would highlight weirdo guitar virtuoso John Fahey’s version over something antiseptic like Josh Groban.
We loved to celebrate esoteric oddities. Our blog’s name came from the Gayla Peevey song “77 Santas.” It’s lesser known than her 1953 classic “I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas,” a bouncy novelty tune where little Gayla lobbies for a real, live hippo to “play with and enjoy” on Christmas morning.
Peevey was 12 years old in 1955, the year she recorded “77 Santas.” We loved how the song captured that bittersweet moment when a child starts piecing together the inconsistencies in those stories about Santa Claus and reindeer and chimneys and letters to the North Pole…
JAY: Do all of these Santas have sleighs? Can they all come down the chimney at the same time? What happens if all 77 leave muddy boot prints around the tree?
None of it dents her faith in Christmas–in fact, it’s the opposite. How could the apparent multiplication of Santa be anything short of a miracle? Her mom and dad had only one Santa when they were young. Little Gayla saw 77 Santas in a single day. Something about that always made me smile.
“Ice Skating” by Borrtex plays
At its peak, 77 Santas drew nearly 10,000 unique international visitors a day. We somehow gained enough traction to catch the interest of a Financial Times reporter who interviewed us for a story about Christmas music collectors and archivists.
Outside of our internet bubble, it was a different story. Occasionally we’d find someone who sincerely dug the music. Many of our friends, however, looked at us with skepticism and curiosity, uncertain if this love of Christmas music was serious or ironic or just weird.
Of course, there were plenty of people who instinctively proclaimed how much they truly hated the genre. And, look, from a certain musical viewpoint, I get why. I do. We all have our list of “Can’t Stand to Ever Hear It Again” holiday songs. I’m no different. If I hear “Wonderful Christmas Time” ever again, I may grab the closest metal implement and start looking for an electrical outlet. And the trite, saccharine excess of “Christmas Shoes” spikes my sugar and blood pressure to dangerous levels. And you haven’t lived until you’re stuck in a long line at some big box store on Christmas Eve while the radio plays anything by the uniformly terrible Mannheim Steamroller.
It’s fun to dunk on the truly bad holiday music but this is also the season of love, generosity, joy, and light. And so, I now present, a defense of Christmas music.
INTRO MUSIC begins
JAY: You’re listening to “Hidden Language,” a podcast about tuning into place, bodies, and time and discovering the unexpected ways their stories can be told. I’m Jay Varner.
SCOTT: And I’m Scott Lunsford. Today, Jay presents an argument in defense of Christmas music that just might make you reconsider how you view the genre.
JAY: As we begin our case, I want to give you a helpful framework from music producer Mark Ronson. In his 2014 TEDtalk, Ronson argues that the practice of sampling has forever transformed our musical landscape.
“We live in the post-sampling era. We take the things that we love and we build on them. That’s just how it goes. And when we really add something significant and original and we merge our musical journey with this, then we have a chance to be a part of the evolution of that music that we love and be linked with it once it becomes something new again.”
Music is literature, and there is often a centuries-long dialogue swirling about some of our favorite songs. Different forms, styles, and genres converse with each other, creating something unique. So, let’s examine our first song with this lens.
The hopeful, beautifully melodic “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is one of the oldest holiday tunes in existence. This traditional English carol likely originated sometime in the sixteenth century in response to 15th century church music, which was characteristically dark and gloomy and probably in Latin. Maybe that is what makes it one of the most malleable of all carols? By examining the song’s adaptability, we get a sense of that evolution Ronson talks about. I love how each of these versions evokes a distinct time and place. We recognize the vibe each of these songs gives, we’ve just never heard it in a Christmas hymn before.
Let’s start with the Los Angeles-based band The Jigsaw Seen. Their 1989 version answers that age-old question of what would happen if The Rolling Stones had performed “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” as the B-side to “Paint It Black.” (NOTE: The episode mistakenly credited the song as dating from 2004).
Sitar, driving tempo, crunchy guitar. By all accounts, these things should not exist within the confines of a deeply religious Christmas song—but that they do exist makes this one of the most propulsive and surprising versions that you’re likely to hear.
If rock and/or roll aren’t your things, there’s The Torero Band, a group of British musicians who aped 1960’s favorites Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. They spice up their version with horns, xylophone, and a swinging groove.
The next version asks us to imagine Santa riding the waves on the California coast. Los Straitjackets delivers a surf-rock take that steals the iconic bass riff from The Chantays instrumental 60’s classic “Pipeline.”
Finally, Hoax Funeral might provide us with the most traditionally-minded version, but the production is drenched in a gloomy minor-key reverb. Tidings of comfort and joy have never sounded so foreboding.
Something about that driving but simple drumbeat reminds that lurking on the horizon is another year of pushing through daily life amidst a myriad of global crises. I know, I know–let nothing you dismay. Well, let’s call this section of the episode “In the Bleak Midwinter” because one of the things I seek out most in Christmas music is misery. For as joyful as Christmas songs can be, I have always been drawn to those that seek to capture the enduring sadness of the holiday season.
I realize this sounds bizarre, maybe even antithetical to a season of goodwill. But many people struggle mightily this time of the year. Music can serve as a commiseration with or as a balm to fit against our seasonal heartache.
It doesn’t get more “feel bad” than The Everly Brothers warning that “Christmas Eve Can Kill You.” A steel-guitar wails as we meet our narrator, a drifter half-remembering past Christmases while he hitchhikes along a cold wintry highway. Sure, there’s a laundry-list of winter imagery that gets checked off throughout the song, but there’s also a glorious melodrama that swells down the homestretch.
This song was included on the pair’s 1972 album Stories We Could Tell and is noteworthy as the only holiday track. The Everly’s had released a true-blue, uber-traditional Christmas album with the Boys Town Choir back in 1962. It’s, you know, what you’d expect–and I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just rooted in the sunny-eyed innocence of the early 60s.
Nearly everything had changed ten years later. The world had experienced seismic shifts during that time: political assassinations, the Vietnam War, race riots. No wonder there’s no hope to be found on “Christmas Eve Can Kill You.” Cars speed past the narrator–their drivers are so indifferent that they don’t even bother to slow down. And maybe, the narrator suggests, that’s the saddest part of all: if the tables were turned and he were the one driving a car, he’d blithely speed past a staggering stranger on Christmas Eve as well.
It was by the recommendation of a 77 Santas reader that first turned me on to Del McCoury’s “Call Collect On Christmas.” Before our narrator leaves his mountain home, his mother tells him one thing: “Don’t forget to call collect on Christmas.” His mother almost surely holds little wealth but is willing to pay for the call if it means hearing her son’s voice on Christmas Day.
Listen closely and you’ll hear a story about class, about the ways telephones lines connected rural America, and about the grief of forsaking your home. That’s an old Appalachian motif: don’t get above your raisin’. In America, we’re fed a myth that each one of us can ascend our birthplace and live a life better than our parents. However, there’s a rub—living out that story can be perceived as insolence. After all, aren’t family, commonality, roots, and community more important than the drive for success?
It seems perfectly fitting that Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s song “Cold White Christmas” begins with our protagonist at her anticlimactic college graduation in December. She signs a lease and braces for what promises to be a cold, white Christmas in St. Paul. The keen-eyed details create a richly lived-in world, so vivid and specific, that aches with earned sincerity.
The online music publication Pitchfork described the songs of Owen Ashworth, the singer/songwriter/instrumentalist behind the now defunct project, as “tired, morose, frustrated, sick of waiting.” Doesn’t that also describe so many of us at some point in the holiday season? There’s a weathered acceptance by the end of the song, an unsettling realization that the world is cold and indifferent. But, at the same time, we get to figure out a way to make that world work out for us. Or at least to try.
So many of the saddest holiday songs focus on people who can’t return home for one reason or another: a wandering hitchhiker, a country boy who left for the big city life, a recent college grad too proud and scared. Our next narrator resides in prison, metaphorically at least.
John Prine, the song’s writer and singer, told The Telegraph as much: “It’s about a person being in a situation they didn’t want to be in but I used all the imagery as if it were a prison. And being a sentimental guy, I put it at Christmas.”
There’s no denying that so many holiday songs are sickenly sentimental. By and large, most of the songs I’ve highlighted have avoided sappiness. That’s the needle good holiday music must thread–evoking sincerity while avoiding the sugary feel-goodery. Prine’s wry humor shines in this song, as does a melancholic yearn.
Mary Gauthier’s “Christmas In Paradise” mixes genuine moments of beauty with stark, harsh reality. The song begins with the theft of a K-Mart Christmas tree. Davey, the friend of our narrator, ties the tree to a bridge rail, does a little dance, and then smiles down at his best friend below. Davey and our narrator both live under the Cow Key Bridge in Key West, Florida.
I guess the point I’m making with these last few songs is that truly great songwriting has taken place within the Christmas genre, it’s just that you’re unlikely to have heard it, at least on terrestrial radio.
Our final bummer is one you’re likely to know, either Judy Garland’s original version or one of the myriad others.
JAY: Composer Hugh Martin and lyricist Ralph Blaine, contracted to write songs for the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis, originally began the song this way:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
It’s even darker when you situate the song within the film–Judy Garland’s character delivers the song to a five-year old girl. In a 2006 Fresh Air interview, Hugh Martin said that Garland found the song too “lugubrious” and asked for a rewrite. Garland said audiences would believe she’s a monster if she delivered lines like:
No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.
Martin reluctantly agreed to the rewrite and nearly all of the lyrics were changed, with an obvious exception for the titular line. One other section survived from the original version as well:
Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow
That line, “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” is wonderfully bleak. And Garland did indeed sing it to the child in the film. Perhaps it’s one of those tough love lessons–hey kid, we have no control over the world, we don’t know whether things will turn out good or bad, and don’t forget that life is struggle.
Frank Sinatra first recorded the song in 1947 with that line about muddling through. However, when he released 1963’s holiday album A Jolly Christmas, he asked Hugh Martin to jolly things up. That’s how we ended up with watered-down final line about hanging a shining star upon the highest bough. Unfortunately, it’s the cheered up version that most of us have heard.
Classifying these songs as merely sad or depressing would overlook how well these songs capture the viewpoint of the marginalized and the forgotten. There’s no pretense about pessimism or optimism here, merely honest attempts by some fine songwriters to capture pain.
For our final case study, let me paraphrase the great Detroit punk band MC5: It’s time to kick out the jams, Santa Clauses. What better place to start than “Jingle Bells, Part 2”?
JAY: What’s not to love here? Pastor T.L. Barrett leads a church choir overtop of that funky bass. Through that call and response, jingle bells becomes a kind of mantra that symbolizes love, peace, and acceptance. We need jingle bells, Barrett says, and not just at Christmastime but all year long. “You mean treat me wrong,” Barrett cries out, “but I wish you well.” With a minute left, Barrett shouts out to those in Vietnam and those in the ghetto and begs for love and peace to rain down upon them.
Detroit Junior’s “Christmas Day” was featured on one of the legendary underground mixtapes that comedy writer Eddie Gorodetsky had made for friends for nearly seven years before one wound up in the hands of a record producer. That producer asked Eddie to curate a compilation that eventually became 1991’s Christmas Party with Eddie G., one of the all-time great commercially released Christmas music collections.
JAY: Before we get to the final song, one last barnburner that challenges tradition. Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns transform “Silent Night” into a rollicking New Orleans R&B stomp. It’s easy to forget that this song is about the birth of baby Jesus and not closing time at the corner bar. Smith was one of the pioneers of rhythm and blues and I imagine this rendition struck some listeners as scandalous in 1962.
JAY: My closing argument isn’t just my favorite holiday song, it’s a play this this at my funeral song. I have smiled, cried, sang, and danced to this song, sometimes together. It has been an enduring part of my holiday memories since before I was a teenager.
JAY: Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is the best Christmas song ever recorded. Love’s annual performance of the song on David Letterman, both on NBC and later CBS, was can’t miss television. For her final performance on the Late Show, Paul Shaeffer, as usual, directed a band and an orchestra, and Love stands atop his piano. They build toward a crescending finale with Love’s pleading, soaring, virtuoso delivery.
JAY: It’s a decidedly simple song: Darlene and her man were together last Christmas, they’ve recently broken-up, and she begs for him to return on Christmas Day. I first read music writer Herb Bowie’s description of this song years ago and still think about his write-up about the song. So I submit this as my final expert testimony:
“Merfolk Music Box” by Komiku plays
JAY: Christmas music is one of the most diverse of all musical genres. We heard rock, folk, instrumental, R&B, and country. We heard songs that rocked, songs that mourned, and songs that danced. We heard versions that transcended the typical constraints of how we might view the genre. And hopefully you heard some songs that were new to you.
Because isn’t that one of the joys of the season? To share? To give? So, tell you what: head over to hiddenlanguagepodcast.com and leave a comment. What are some of your favorite unheard, unknown, or obscure holiday songs? Because that’s the great thing about music: There’s always something out there that we haven’t heard yet.
OUTRO MUSIC plays
JAY: You have been listening to Hidden Language. For a list of episodes, transcripts, and show notes, be sure to visit hiddenlanguagepodcast.com. You can also find a Spotify playlist featuring songs played in this episode along with YouTube links to performances.
Music was provided by the following artists through Freemusicarchive.org, with the respective Creative Commons licenses.
“Winter Walk” by Podington Bear. CC BY 3.0
“Ice Skating” by Borrtex. CC BY 4.0
“Merfolk Music Box” by Komiku. CC BY 1.0
Pitchfork’s review of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s Etiquette
The Telegraph: John Prine: His 10 Best Songs
NPR’s Fresh Air: The Story Behind “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”