Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmastime: Christmas Blues/Blue Christmas Edition

Bob Dylan: Christmas Blues


Heart: Blue Christmas


Screeching in under the wire once again, in an attempt to meet the midnight deadline - we're on the road for our annual family holiday trip to South Carolina and Georgia, with limited time and spotty internet here at the Knight's Inn in Aiken...

I empathized when Anne posted about having a hard time getting excited about Christmas this year... mine for a completely different, but equally valid, reason - this is my first time back to the Atlanta area since Mom's passing in mid-July, and I seem to be paralyzed... with sadness... and fear... and numbness. I really just want to stay home and hibernate until 2010, and am trying to find the proverbial silver lining - there will be so many triggers of grief, but there will be equal sparks of memory. We will uphold previous traditions and make new ones - Mom's spirit will give us the strength and the serenity to navigate this first major holiday without her... but, right now, the blues prevail... and the two songs above run through my heart and mind...

Much has been said about Bob Dylan's venture into Christmas music... and it is very hard to take seriously - however, the fact that "all of [his] U.S. royalties from sales of these recordings will be donated to Feeding America, guaranteeing that more than four million meals will be provided to more than 1.4 million people in need this year's holiday season" goes a long way toward lending credibility to the project (wonderful interview here)...

I've always loved the Very Special Christmas series and, no matter how many people cover Blue Christmas, my favorite will always be the one by Heart on Volume 2 - "won't be the same, dear, if you're not here with me" indeed...

Christmastime: Stocking Stuffer Edition

OK. I have a confession to make. There are a few songs that get played to death this time of year that I actually like. A lot. These are somewhat guilty pleasures for me. I share them in the hope that it isn’t just me.

The Waitresses: Christmas Wrapping


Here, The Waitresses blew their credibility. This great new wave band had burst on the seen with a great come-on song, I Know What Boys Like. And now, a Chistmas song? And a corny one at that. But, this one hits me in my soft spot. I get choked up every time I hear it. And I am really not sure why.

The Pretenders: 2000 Miles (It‘s Christmas Time)


Here is a character who is far from home as Christmas approaches. The theme of separation and longing is a Christmas song cliche from the time of the dinosaurs. But The Pretenders put it over beautifully here.

The Kinks: Father Christmas


And then there’s this one. The deceptively upbeat music frames a tale of kids who are desperate enough to rob a department stare Santa. Sadly, this song is old enough to be current again. On the plus side, The Kinks use this tale to call our attention to the needy, and implore us not to forget them at Christmas.

Christmastime: Christmas For Cowboys

John Denver: Christmas for Cowboys


We started our week with John Hartford on the silent river at Christmas Eve; we end it with John Denver on the lonesome prairie, that clear, high tenor ringing out his preference for the sky and the range, the saddle and the reins on Christmas Day.

The songs both come from and celebrate the opposite ends of the country, one with water and wheel, one with snow-covered plains; Hartford's Christmas is warm and damp with the deep South, while Denver's is cold, windy, and snow-covered. But stick 'em together, and there's something eminently paired about these two songs, something deeply akin about their songwriters.

Guess I've got a soft spot in my heart for songs - and men - that reject the trappings of crass overplayed commercial existence, to celebrate instead the beauty of a workingman's communion with nature, where the the work is sacred, the fire is sustenance, the wide-open horizon is the endless promise of another year, and the starlit sky is a Christmas tree lit from the heavens.

And who can resist one more coversong, for Christmas' sake?

Jars of Clay: Christmas For Cowboys


Christmastime: Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn

Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers: Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn


It's funny--we've posted a week's worth of songs about Christmas, and the closest we've gotten to the religious origin of the holiday is a song by Jethro Tull.

So let's get some religion with the Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers and their 1929 recording of "Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn". I got this on a wonderfully quirky CD called Where Will You Be Christmas Day? that includes a wide variety of pre-Beatles 20th century music split neatly into two parts: songs of a more holy nature (including this one), and songs that wouldn't be allowed anywhere near a church (sample song title: "Christmas in Jail--Ain't That a Pain"). It's a nice reminder of a time when regional music still existed and Christmas hadn't yet been commercialized beyond recognition.

Christmastime: Twas The Night Before Christmas

Wynton Marsalis: 'Twas The Night Before Christmas


It's a scientific fact that this song actually has the power to make you cooler. So if you're feeling a little pudgy around the waist; if you suffer from nostalgia for your more youthful years; if your idea of a good time is slumping into the couch and watching Grey's Anatomy, give this song a spin a few times. You just might find yourself wearing a beanie, reading Langston Hughes, and hanging out in downtown cafes until the sun comes up.

If you're not up for that kind of commitment, you may want to consider skipping down to the next song.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmastime: Holly Jolly Christmas

Martin Sexton: Holly Jolly Christmas


What have we here? This is Star Maker Machine, right? I know I didn’t come here for the Christmas songs that are playing at the mall!

Yes, I know. Holly Jolly Christmas certainly fits that category. And I must apologize to Anne, who must have heard the song a million times this year. But Martin Sexton takes this hoary old chestnut and makes it new. And he accompanies himself with just an acoustic guitar, but he makes this song swing. So if anyone knows a mall that it is playing this version, please let me know. I want to finish my shopping there.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmastime: Christmas Island

Leon Redbone: Christmas Island


Maybe visiting Star Maker Machine will help somebody win a trivia contest one day. Consider Lyle Moraine. Moraine was a film actor who appeared in over forty films from 1936 to 1975. But you don’t know his name. The vast majority of his appearances were uncredited. His best known film was probably Vertigo, but again, his appearance did not even warrant a listing in the titles. Moraine also wrote a song once, and that is possibly his best claim to fame. The song, Christmas Island, was a hit for The Andrews Sisters in 1946. There were a flurry of cover versions for about the next ten years, and then silence descended. In 1987, Leon Redbone rescued the song, and made it the title track of his holiday album. Since then, there has been another flurry of cover versions. Jimmy Buffet also made the song the title track of a holiday album. I can find no trace of any other song that Lyle Moraine may have written.

Thankfully, Leon Redbone, while not exactly a household name, is far better known. Redbone has made a career of rescuing old songs. He plays guitar in a style that shows a ragtime influence, and sings in what I would call a warm bass growl. His love of his material is obvious in everything he performs. His Christmas Island is no exception.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmastime: Christmas In New Orleans

Louis Armstrong: Christmas In New Orleans


Christmas In New Orleans celebrates the fact that, in spite of the images of picturesque snowscapes, hot chocolate, ice skating, and rudy cheeks that are thrust upon our senses from every major media outlet this time of year, Christmas in fact comes in many shapes and sizes depending on where you live. Having grown up in the central valley of California, I know that sometimes Christmas involves outdoor tennis matches. Later in life I spent a couple of years in South Africa, so I know that sometimes Christmas is a hot summer day and a braai at the beach. Now I live in the Midwestern US where Christmas is cold and white. Louis Armstrong reminds us that for people in the Crescent City, Christmas is barefoot choirs, Creole beats, and a Dixieland Santa Claus. What could be better?

In fact, with it being -5 degrees outside as I write this, I'm sort of wishing I was there right this minute!

Christmastime: Christmas in Suburbia

Martin Newell: Christmas in Suburbia


Martin Newell's The Greatest Living Englishman is a minor gem of eccentric pop. If it sounds a bit XTC-ish, your ears aren't deceiving you--it was produced by XTC mastermind Andy Partridge. It doesn't hurt that, like Partridge (and Robyn Hitchcock and Ray Davies), Newell excels at detailing the minutia of English life.

"Christmas in Suburbia" starts out describing a pretty normal Christmas, where folks "jingle jangle by electric candle light", but by the end of the song, Martin is waking up in someone else's home with "an angel in the bed". Merry Christmas!

Christmastime: Birthday Card At Christmas

Jethro Tull: Birthday Card At Christmas


The Jethro Tull Christmas Album has three songs on it with 'Christmas' in the title. Two of them are re-recordings: A Christmas Song and Another Christmas Song. What a dilemma. But at least it narrows it down because in my opinion the entire album is magnificent and post worthy. Besides the two old Tull favorites, a new one for the album was added, Birthday Card At Christmas. It's Jethro Tull at their best. If you like Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull and/or Christmas music, or all of the above, this album is a must. It's an absolute gem.

Christmastime: Christmas Face

Fisher: Christmas Face

[Free Christmas Download]

I am having a really difficult time giving two-hoots about Christmas this year. In fact, I am really looking forward to it being over with. One reason for that is because I am working retail over the holidays and the constant Christmas music and lines of demanding people without so much as a chance to take a drink of water can wear anyone down. The stress of decorating, finding gifts, hoping packages arrive on time, and holiday guests and baking is a lot as well. It makes a season that is supposed to be joyful, calm and loving, none of those things for me.

But the main reason is that it's a lonely Christmas, as my boyfriend will be a state away and my brother and his wife just welcomed their first child into the world in late October and were instructed by the pediatrician not to travel with him for at least 2 or 3 months, meaning they will have to remain in California and the rest of the family in Pennsylvania (and you can't get time off from retail this time of year) for the the holidays, making it a lonely one for both of us.

This song has always touched me in a personal way in that sense, since the song is about being away from your loved ones during the holidays and being unable to feel the cheer people expect from you for Christmas.

Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
It doesn't feel the same.
But it feels like California is a million miles away.
And I can't find my Christmas face.

Christmastime: Merry Christmas From the Family

Jill Sobule: Merry Christmas From the Family


Although I learned later that this song is a Robert Earl Keen composition, I fell in love first with Jill Sobule's version on the You Sleigh Me holiday compilation - I remember laughing, wondering what was up with this crazy song... until she got to the harmonized Noel, Noel, The First Noel lyric, when I felt the prick of tears behind my eyelids...

It still hits me that way - they're wacky... they're imperfect... they're family. We can all relate - pun intended...

P.S. Todd Snider has covered this as well, but the bootleg version I have is low volume and virtually unlistenable - would love it if someone has one of better quality to share... :-)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christmastime: On Christmas Eve

John Hartford: On Christmas Eve


Master songsmith John Hartford was notorious for preferring life on the river to anything else, even music. So it's no surprise to find him lonesome and soul-searching on a full moon Christmas Eve, staring into the muddy Mississippi, wondering why he prefers the sound of the steam, the sight of the Pitman arm coming around again, the spanish moss and a bonfire on the moonlit banks to family.

To be fair, though, Hartford's simple, loving celebration of the lyrical elements of the Louisiana river setting is its own answer.

It's true that there are many lonely souls this time of year, yearning to be taken in by the company of friends. But for all those who prefer the company of the self at the holidays, this song offers an unparalleled template for comfort and joy.