Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Sounds of the season (both good and bad)

Christmas wouldn't be the same without Christmas music. Religious hymns, secular carols, bouncy kid's songs, fast tunes, slow tunes -- they all fill a role in enhancing our enjoyment of the season.

I know most people don't give a hoot what I think about Christmas music, but I'm going to tell you anyway. Below are my thoughts regarding my favorite versions of three of my favorite religious Christmas songs, and three of my favorite secular Christmas songs -- plus, my thoughts regarding three of my least favorite.

Fyi, I don't like using the word "secular" in this context because many people attach a negative connotation to it where Christmas is concerned. But in my opinion, it's possible to capture the spirit of the season without referencing God or the nativity. Anyway, here I go:


"O Holy Night," Nat King Cole
Though this song was not played very much when I was a kid, it has become ubiquitous over the last 20 years as one big-voiced singer after another, from Michael Crawford to Celine Dion to Josh Groban, has recorded it and received major air time on North American radio stations.

But none of their versions holds a candle to the one recorded by Nat King Cole in 1960. His subtly rich, expertly deployed voice gives you goosebumps as he performs the soaring lyrics and makes you feel like you really are a shepherd watching your flock on that night two millennia ago. The background of the song, combined with the fact that Cole was singing it at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, adds an extra layer of significance.

In the 1840's a French priest asked a local wine merchant named Placide Cappeau to pen a Christmas poem. Cappeau delivered with a poem that has been variously titled "Minuit, chretiens" and "Cantique de Noel." A few years later the composer Adolphe Charles Adams set it to music, creating the heart of the hymn we know today, and I think it's worth nothing that Adams was Jewish.

A few years after that, a little-known American writer and abolitionist named John Sullivan Dwight translated the Cappeau/Adams hymn to English and brought it to our shores as "O Holy Night." During the Civil War it became popular in Union states because of a particular verse that is sometimes excluded from modern renditions: "Truly He taught us to love one another / His law is love and His gospel is peace / chains shall He break / for the slave is our brother / and in His name all oppression shall cease."

"Do You Hear What I Hear?," The Carpenters
When it comes to Karen and Richard Carpenter, mock them all you want for the vein-clogging sappiness of their pop songs. They deserve it. But the fact of the matter is that Karen's voice was resonant and she owned the middle octaves, singing them better than anyone else who achieved pop stardom in the 1970's. My heart thumps when I listen to her arching vocals on their 1978 rendition of this song, complemented by Richard's wonderfully executed accompaniment. On a side note, this song is surprisingly recent, having been written during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," The Carpenters
I have written about this one before, and rather than recount the whole story behind it again, I will simply refer you to that post. If you don't want to go to the link, I don't blame you -- so I'll give you the abridged version by saying that the words were penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as a poem during the Civil War, and subsequently set to music by John Baptiste Calkin.

Sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it? So does this: The best singing of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" was done by Karen Carpenter in 1978.


"Happy Holidays," Andy Williams
It's not Christmas until you hear this on the radio. In fact, in almost every single year, it happens to be the very first Christmas song I hear on the radio... He'll have a big fat pack upon his back / and lots of goodies for you and for me / so leave a peppermint stick for old Saint Nick / hangin' on the Christmas tree... Rat Packer Andy Williams belts it out so good that I don't even known if anyone else has released a single of "Happy Holdiays" -- but I do know there's no point in anyone else doing so!

"Sleigh Ride," Freddy Martin and His Orchestra
It was 65 years ago that Freddy Martin made this recording and 30 years ago that I heard it for the first time -- on a cassette tape purchased from a RadioShack in Sylva, North Carolina. Bouncing with energy and buoyed by the big bandish optimism of postwar America, it makes me smile and snap my fingers and feel a yuletide chill in the air, even if it's a 75-degree day in Florida. In other words, it is ideal.

"The Christmas Song," Nat King Cole
Mel Torme and Bob Wells wrote it in 1945. Everybody knows it, but not everybody knows its title, so it is sometimes referred to as "Merry Christmas to You" and sometimes as "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire."

From its line about "Jack Frost nipping at your nose" to its one about "kids from one to ninety-two" to its one about "tiny tots with their eyes all aglow," I daresay that no other song has lyrics which do as good a job capturing the manifold feelings of the Christmas season.

And, I dare ask why anyone has even bothered to record "The Christmans Song" after Nat King Cole did so? His rendering 15 years after the song was written remains, in my opinion, hands-down the best Christmas song of all time.


"Baby It's Cold Outside"
Actually, I kind of like this duet. It's catchy and cheeky, and since I'm not a prude, I am not offended by the persistence of the male who is represented in its vocals.

But can somebody please explain why it is considered a Christmas song? It has nothing to do with Christmas. It never mentions the holiday; and other than using the word "cold," it never mentions anything that's even related to the holiday. Calling this a Christmas song is kind of like calling "Summertime Blues" a Fourth of July song because, well, July is in the summer.

Listen to the lyrics. They are solely about a guy trying to get into a girl's pants. No matter how much she insists she doesn't want to stay for the night, he constantly pressures her to do so because it's cold outside. She explicitly says "the answer is no," and he retorts that "you'll freeze out there" and "what's the sense of hurting my pride?" At one point she actually says "what's in this drink?" When she worries about what gossipers will say, his response is that it would cause him "lifelong sorrow if you caught pneumonia and died." She calls him "very pushy" and he replies "I like to think of it as opportunistic."

Again, I'm not a prude, but seriously, what does this song have to do with Christmas? How come we only hear it this time of year, and only on the stations that switch to a 24/7 Christmas format? There is something amiss.

"Happy Xmas (War is Over)"
I have mixed emotions about putting this on my "least favorites" list. John Lennon was a genuine pacifist who meant no harm to anyone. I have no doubt that when he and Yoko crafted this Christmas song using the melody of the old English ballad "Skewball," they did so with golden hearts. It was meant as a Vietnam War protest, and I have no doubt that they believed lying down military arms in that part of the world would be good for mankind.

My problem is this: The blinders they wore when crafting the song were shared by millions in the West, and those blinders caused real life disaster for people in the Third World of Southeast Asia. Without American military might, the impoverished villagers of South Vietnam were left stranded without freedom and at the mercy of Ho Chi Minh's murderous tyranny.

Generations of people on the Indochina Peninsula had their futures destroyed and hopes crushed when America went the route that John, Yoko, and the other Sixties peaceniks preferred. Had the peaceniks trumpeted any concen for the real life fates of those people, the song "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" might make me smile. Instead it makes me sad.

"Santa Baby"
This is far and away the most repulsive, alleged Christmas song of all time... In a season that's about selflessness, giving, and spiritual redemption, this song is all about self-absorption, materialism, and spiritual vacuity... Rather than seeking peace, love, and harmony, the narrator demands "a yacht," "the deed to a platinum mine," and "decorations bought at Tiffany's"... For evidence that she belongs on the nice list, the only things she mentions are "all the fun that I've missed" and "all the fellas that I haven't kissed"... Yes, this is exactly how we should teach our children about the virtues and principles of the season. I know it was written as a novelty song, but I cringe every time I hear it.

In any event, tomorrow is Christmas Eve and we are well under 36 hours from the clock turning to Christmas Day. Have a merry one!

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