Highlights of last weekend's family Christmas tree-cutting, minus the tree-cutting this year for schedule and other reasons: multiple types of mac and cheese, multiple types of cornbread, multiple types of cookies, cousin Molly's boyfriend Matt giving piano accompaniment for the first time, Molly putting together songbooks of the big secular carols for the first time, the whole family as a result making it all the way Frosty the Snowman for the first time ever (instead of getting stuck as usual on the thumpity-thump-thumps), Lori taking dozens of relatives in stride, and, despite the lack of the tree-cutting trip outside, plenty of warmth.
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You may not know the name Bill Studwell, but if you've ever Googled a Christmas carol, you may know his work. Until dying this fall, Studwell was the nation's greatest expert on carols. On top of his day job at a Northern Illinois University library, he studied carols and examined one in depth every year at the holidays. Five years ago, my blogging about modern carol-writing's struggles inevitably ran into his good research.
Take some time to read the Chicago Tribune's story this month about Studwell. After his death from lymphoma complications, his family, a trusted friend and a supportive university are both concluding his 25-year holiday series and keeping their own holiday celebrations alive.
(The carol most often in my head this year? Let It Snow. Not because I want snow. After last winter, I could do without it anytime soon this winter. But I like the mix of sentiments in the lyrics, all one big wish.)
Local WASH switched to its all-Christmas format on Friday, beginning the period when I listen to the station even less than I did before.
Don't get me wrong. I love good Christmas music. My family and the cousins sing carols every year at the Christmas tree cutting (three weeks away), and my shelves have two Marah Christmas releases, one of the many Elvis Christmas albums (following a tape I had as a kid), the Shalitas Christmas EP, and the Springsteen Santa Claus Is Coming to Town CD single. But I'm not willing to give up my scruples and say an all-Christmas, all-the-time format is healthy. There are too many songs like The Christmas Shoes in the world. I need to fight.
Saw Love Actually the other night, which I hadn't seen in a couple years, and I'm not going to comment on my state at the movie's end. Let's go with manly and stoic. But it was good to get my first listen of the holiday season to — I've said it before in this blog, I'll sure say it again – by far the best Christmas song of the past several decades.
SonyBMG has done YouTube the humbug of uploading a pixelated version that you can't embed (way to protect 1994's free content!), so we're going with the Dailymotion video. All I Want for Christmas Is…
Where do you find sexy radio? If you've ever watched any channel formerly known as UHF in Washington for any length of time in recent years, you've seen commercials for 97.1 WASH-FM. It is not sexy radio. The station brings you soft rock for 11 months a year and Christmas music for one. The holidays bring frequent playings of Christmas Shoes, and that should tell you something about January-November.
So should the TV spots. Several 3-D, low-budget animated people sit in an office, bored and downtrodden. One surfs to a screen showing the call letters and somehow this action starts the radio. The glittering sound of Barry White's Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe cascades into the room, and the workers stand up at their desks to dance. It is "Washington's at-work station."
And the song there is important. With my itchy station trigger and my lack of love lost for soft rock, generally the only two songs that make me stop on WASH-FM are All I Want for Christmas Is You and White's You're the First, the Last, My Everything. The latter is overplayed in the world but not as much as Can't Get Enough is overplayed. Besides, heavy bass plus disco orchestra are a good thing. They're like a vitamin. They're not a whole meal, but a tiny dose is healthy.
But what should the station play today — what should it play, my friends — but a third Barry White song. It popped up in passing and there it was. The song was a deep soul groove, deeper and deeper, "deeper and deeper" as Barry's gut utters, an act of spinning musical hypnotism: I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little Bit More, Baby.
And it's a bedroom song. It's a certain kind of bedroom song. It's a late-nite jam, reserved for a time when you are beyond musical criticism. Hearing it on WASH-FM, it's the most unintentionally format-inappropriate song I've heard in five years. Barry doesn't sing too fast, he stops … to talk … at points … and the rise of the music waits for him all the way. Read the lyrics and listen. Oh my.
It's not a song you want to hear with your dentist, your orthodontist, your opthamologist, your cubicle mates, your accounting department, or anyone else with whom you might possibly share listening to "Washington's at-work station." You can't enjoy it. You don't want them to enjoy it. But Barry wants you all to enjoy it. At work.
And he is your colleague. He is with you now and until the end of time. He is your colleague in love, the Walrus of Love. He sits next to your desk, singing to you of his love, and hums when you must concentrate. He is a great supporter of you and your work. And while it might be hard to understand the depth of this love, if your office plays the song, baby … the Walrus approves.
Night of Silence? It skips my mind every year until it's sung at Christmas Eve Mass, but the atmosphere, simultaneously traditional and modern, is almost tangible.
"In fact, not since Mariah Carey's 1994 composition All I Want for Christmas Is You (written with Walter Afanasieff) has a new holiday hit entered the Christmas canon."
The Washingon Post's J. Freedom du Lac discusses the state of the holiday music catalog. My personal opinion? It's not so hot. This Mariah factoid means there's only been one hit holiday record (hers) since I entered high school. Turn on Christmas radio formats and you'll hear song after song from previous generations. So much for creating memories of our own, you know? (And The Christmas Shoes doesn't count.)
Did the previous generations have things the same way? When Gene Autry's Rudolph arrived in 1949, was everyone stuck listening to Merry Christmas, Everyone (Except for the Kaiser)? The song would've only been 30 years old then. Had the song existed.
But consider if it had. Thirty years old. This month, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers put out a list of the 25 most-performed holiday songs from the 21st century. Let's add some writing years (by publication date) to the list.
1. The Christmas Song. 1946.
2. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. 1934.
3. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. 1943.
4. Winter Wonderland. 1934.
5. White Christmas. 1942.
6. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! 1945.
7. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. 1939.
8. Jingle Bell Rock. 1957.
9. I'll Be Home For Christmas. 1943.
10. Little Drummer Boy. 1941.
11. Sleigh Ride. 1948.
12. It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. 1963.
13. Silver Bells. 1950.
14. Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree. 1958.
15. Feliz Navidad. 1970.
16. Blue Christmas.1948.
17. Frosty The Snowman. 1950.
18. A Holly Jolly Christmas. 1962.
19. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. 1952
20. Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane). 1946.
21. It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas. 1951.
22. (There's No Place Like) Home For The Holidays. 1954.
23. Carol Of The Bells. 1936.
24. Santa Baby. 1953.
25. Wonderful Christmastime. 1979.
That's four from the '30s, nine from the '40s, eight from the '50s, two from the '60s, and two from the '70s. Obviously this survey of the list does beyond radio and deep into holiday performances, commercials and mall music, so you expect the boomers to have their consumer influence. And — big disclaimer — I love just about all of these songs. I'm not anti-classic-carol by any means. Every year after the extend family goes Christmas tree hunting, we end the day singing carols.
But the writing! Not one song since 1979? An essay at the "Hymns and Carols of Christmas" site argues for the influence of Bing Crosby's Holiday Inn carolfest and a historically cyclical pattern of carol creation. As much may be true, but it's surprising that decades of speedy musical evolution haven't done much. Insert an essay on modernism and the holiday celebration here, maybe. Or blame boomer power, maybe. I just wonder what we're gonna be hearing when we're the age the boomers are now. If it's The Christmas Shoes, I retract this whole thing. Bring on the Kaiser.
Compare the new ASCAP list of 21st century performances to the 1998 ASCAP list on the "Hymns and Carols" site. The '98 list counts 85 years back, to when ASCAP was founded and apparently began collecting data.
Highlights include White Christmas dropping from No. 1 on the earlier list to No. 5 now, The Christmas Song jumping from No. 3 to No. 1, and a variety of additions and departures.
It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, Santa Baby, Wonderful Christmastime join the list. The Andy Williams' song rockets to No. 7, and I bet the Staples back-to-school commercial had some influence. We Need a Little Christmas, The Christmas Waltz, and The Chipmunk Song depart.
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If you still believe in The Chipmunk Song and aren't one of the masses who've apparently moved onto Kanye for their creatively sped musical effects, I'd again recommend the Shalitas' Christmas Single. That merch page lists the second track as The Christmas Song, the one with the chestnuts, and it's not. It's the Shalitas the Chipmunks and Marah's Dave Bielanko as … Dave. The single's other track, Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight), is my favorite, but the Chipmunk homage also brings me action and satisfaction.
Also worth buying, of course, is Marah's Christmas Kind of Town. Turn it on in the car and turn off The Christmas Shoes. Please.
Darlene Love's All Alone at Christmas.
Related past posts
-Dec. 10, 2004: Music plays all night in Little Italy
-Dec. 25, 2004: Christmas with Hemingway
-Nov. 25, 2004: Springsteen Christmas story
-Dec. 29, 2002: Figure eights in the parking lot
-Dec. 24, 2002: Christmas Eve in Atlanta
-March 4, 2002: My coat
Marah cohorts and a great playground/soul girl group in their own right, the Shalitas are back in action. Their site's revived and kicking. They'll be on the Bielankos' Christmas tour this month and will likely figure big (on the Marah scale).
Why? Because the girls seem to love the holidays as much as the boys. On last year's Christmas Single, the Shalitas' Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight Tonight) Ramones cover is the best new holiday song I've heard in years. (There's finally a clip on the Shalitas' MySpace, but it doesn't do the song justice.) This year they've contributed to many of the tracks on Marah's A Christmas Kind of Town.
They also promise T-shirts.
Was at the Container Store the other day and heard Darlene Love's All Alone on Christmas playing on the speakers. The song's got a great E Street Band sound to it, contributed to a good deal by the E Street Band actually playing on the record. Little Steven wrote the song for the Home Alone 2 soundtrack; Steve, Clarence, Max, Danny, and Garry did the instruments.
Every time I hear it, the sound makes me wonder about the nature of the band and its production. Some avid Springsteen fans complain about Bruce not varying the music enough in recent years, saying he should take more chances and not aim for a career-spanning "narrative." That's a key word with Springsteen, and one he raises repeatedly while putting together his Greatest Hits album in '95. As shown in the Blood Brothers documentary, he dumps a more orchestral version of Secret Garden for a sparser one — a lesser one according to other people in the studio. He takes a vote, then tosses the result. "Distracts from the narrative," he says. Choices Springsteen has made since — for one, closing nearly every show with the message-laden Land of Hope and Dreams — suggest he's still making many of his decisions with the long view in mind. If you think that's the wrong approach, and I do to some extent, then the lack of true departures in his sound is a more-than-momentary issue.
But I also think All Alone on Christmas is relevant in that discussion. Put on the Christmas on E Street CD, the song fits in right with the rest. If you give the same band to someone else and he produces the same sound, does the result suggest it's the band and not the Boss? Sure, Little Steven has been close with Springsteen and played with him for decades. And they like many of the same types of music. And they both love the Spector Wall of Sound. But you've got to think a set of blocks can only be arranged together in so many ways. The musical challenge, as usual, lies in combining the blocks when you can't see the edges.
The obituary of Donald Yetter Gardner tells how.
He wrote the song in 1947 while filling in for his wife as teacher of a grade-school class in Smithtown, N.Y., during the holiday season. He asked the class what they wanted for Christmas, and when they hissed and lisped their answers, he noticed that almost all of them had at least one front tooth missing.
Gardner then wrote All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, a song that once drove my extended family bonkers at the annual Christmas tree cutting — long story involved a poorly drawn awl — but has gained popularity nonetheless.
The song has been recorded dozens of times by artists as diverse as Spike Jones, George Strait and Mariah Carey. Mr. Gardner's favorite version was recorded by Nat King Cole.
Gardner died earlier this month at age 91.
In addition to reprinting the famous song's lyrics, the Los Angeles Times noted that he was 31 years old when he wrote the song. His local paper, the Wellesley Townsman, noted his sons' memories of him and how he once made a hole-in-one.