Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Nilsson, “Remember (Christmas)”

Long ago…far away…

Probably 1968; my parents weren’t the best about putting dates on pictures.

Remember, is a place from long ago...

My earliest Christmas memories are from when I’m five or six. In the first, I’m at my maternal grandparents’ house. There’s a pretty big crowd, so I imagine my mother’s sisters are there with their families. I’m carrying around a Kenner SSP Racer, complete with rip cord; I imagine it’s a present I received there, either from Gran and Papaw or one of my aunts’ families.

Remember, filled with everything you know...

The second one is likely from a year later. This time my grandparents are at our house, along with Aunt Nancy and her family, who are down from Ohio. My gift from the latter is Battleship, and I get to play a game with my grandfather.

Remember, life is never as it seems...

I had those hideous bangs in my 6th grade photo, so that pegs this as 1975. Maybe that’s the tree Dad and I chopped down ourselves…

We always had live trees growing up, even though I can’t say now how often Amy and I were taken along to help pick them out. One year–it’s either 1975 or 1976–Dad and I trek out to the farm his parents had owned (they were both gone by this point; Dad would sell it in 1983) to find and cut down our tree. I’m wearing a Cincinnati Reds sweatshirt under my coat on a cold and cloudy December Saturday morning. We tromp around quite a bit before identifying the one we deem most suitable. My role in all this is uncertain, as Dad’s not interested in a pre-teen wielding an axe. After some struggle, the cedar is taken down and we manage to get it home. (In the trunk? We don’t have a truck.) My suspicion is that my father doesn’t enjoy the experience much, as we never do this again.

Clues abound that this is 1978. That robe is way small on me now! Can you identify the LP on the floor by my sister (perhaps it’s playing on the stereo in the background as this was taken)? And what music magazine am I perusing?

Remember, when you’re sad and feeling down...

My only Christmas as an only child.
Mom, styling in the very early 70s (I’m guessing 1971). Those are Amy’s and my stockings on the ends of the mantle; mine is still used as a decoration here in our house.

Remember, turn around…

I’m frequently up before dawn these days, checking in on our restless senior dog. Looking out the window over the kitchen sink and across the way, between the bare branches of our maple tree, I can see through the French doors on the rear of the house behind us. They’re keeping their Christmas tree lit all the time, and I make note as the lights quickly go yellow-to-green-to-blue-to purple-to-red-to-yellow… (they must all sleep with their bedroom doors closed). I consider the kids in that house, wondering if they’ll carry anything from this Christmas around in their heads for decades. And then my mind goes to the parents…

Remember, think of all that life can be...

Throughout the second half of the Aughts, we host Christmas for our families: Martha’s sister and mother, and my parents (my sister is living in Florida by this point). Ruth and my mother-in-law stay in our third bedroom, while my folks take over the master. Martha and I blow up an air mattress and “sleep” on the floor in our amped-up boy’s room. One of the last things Ben does before heading up to bed is to strew the contents of a bag of “reindeer food” across our front yard.

Life was clear…close your eyes…

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Pop Diva Originals

Between SiriusXM’s Holly and my modern Christmas hits Pandora playlist, I can’t help but learn about what the kids of the last two decades (or more) have been serving up for holiday music. I’ll go on the record to say it’s a good thing that these efforts almost always include at least one new song–I’d much rather have that than yet another version of “Holly Jolly Christmas.”

So I’m gonna step out of my lane today and rank a few of these original tunes, focusing on big female pop stars. It’s subjective in multiple dimensions, I’ll admit, but for the most part, I’m not here to gripe and snipe. (As fine a voice as Christina Aguilera has, I’m glad I can’t think of what original Christmas tune she’s done, as I’d have to dock her for her unwillingness to stay on any one pitch for more than a hemidemisemiquaver in her take on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” I find that one unlistenable.)

Here are the six under consideration today:

6. Katy Perry, “Cozy Little Christmas”
She’s been huge for well over a decade, but I still can’t say, “Oh, that’s Katy Perry” when one of her songs comes on whenever I’m at Culver’s–I guess her voice just isn’t that distinctive to me. That goes for this piece, too.

5. Taylor Swift, “Christmas Tree Farm”
As formidable a talent as TSwift is, I find this effort pretty unremarkable–it could use a much stronger melody.

4. Ariana Grande, “Santa Tell Me”
Now we’re starting to get somewhere. The theme is similar to that of “Last Christmas” (which I’m on record as not really liking), but I can get more behind Grande’s upbeat, pro-active approach to avoiding pain.

3. Mariah Carey, “All I Want for Christmas Is You”
Maybe should be higher–it’s become a go-to song for other artists to cover already–but I’d be alright with about 33% less airplay. Carey came on the scene just as I was turning away from pop, so I’ve never attempted to fully appreciate her talent. She gets full marks for this one, though.

2. Leona Lewis, “One More Sleep”
It’s the peppier music being favored as we move forward. But I’m also noticing a progression in relationship status as we go through the top four:
Grande: Do I trust you?
Carey: Sure hope you show up!
Lewis: You’ll be here soon!

Based on “One More Sleep” and “Winter Wonderland,” I need to put Lewis’s Christmas, With Love near the top of my wish list. She sounds so buoyant, so happy.

1. Kelly Clarkson, “Underneath the Tree”
Clarkson: You’re here to stay…

I live too much in the past to know a lot of Clarkson’s body of work, but I do really like what I’ve heard. And I hope “Underneath the Tree” makes the Christmas canon someday; the energy, that sax solo, the chimes…it all works. Programmers could maybe take 10% of Carey’s spins and donate them here?

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Jean Redpath, “Gift o’ Gowd”

While Martha and I were putting lights on our tree Sunday morning, I pulled out a couple of CDs to play. One was Still the Night, by the late Scottish folksinger Jean Redpath. My wife was a fan prior to meeting me, probably discovering her via appearances on A Prairie Home Companion*. Still the Night came out in 1999, at the very end of Redpath’s career. It was released on her own label, and it’s apparently so obscure that Wikipedia** doesn’t even list it in her discography.

Martha ripped the CD long ago and added it to the Christmas playlist on the iPod she keeps in her car. In normal years, we’d be out and about much more right now and would be hearing Redpath’s clear, lilting voice now and again as the tunes shuffled on. In particular, it seems like every year I would hear opening track “2000 Years Ago,” written by fellow Scot Alan Bell. I had planned on sharing that one with you today; however, this disk is apparently so obscure that essentially none of it appears on YouTube, either.

One of Redpath’s primary contributions over her lengthy career was a seven-disk set of recordings of songs written/collected by the great Scottish poet Robert Burns. You get a sense of how she might have approached that project by listening to the one track from Still the Night I can find out there, “Gift o’ Gowd” (gowd being Gaelic for gold–it’s a song about the Magi).

*Redpath comes across as quite earnest in her approach to the craft, but check out this duet with Garrison Keillor from one of her Prairie Home appearances.

**My favorite line in Redpath’s Wikipedia entry is, “She was awarded the MBE in 1977 as well as being named a Kentucky colonel by the governor of Kentucky.” If you’re wondering what it means to be named a Kentucky Colonel, well, you can check that out here. One group of grad school friends gave me grief over and again after I told them I had been made a Colonel twice before I turned twenty.

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Cocteau Twins, “Frosty the Snowman”

The teaching part of my job is over for a while, as just a bit ago I submitted grades for the fall term. This past semester was both a sprint and a marathon, as we upended our calendar to finish classes prior to Thanksgiving. (I described the plan here.) My prediction that the college would have to transition to fully remote learning at some point was entirely incorrect–we were able to stay in-person the whole time. I’m still in need of decompression, but I’d like to write up some of the highs and lows of the fall at some point–perhaps reflection will help me avoid some traps next time. We’re delaying the start of the spring term to late January; now we wait and see if conditions on the ground will allow us to feasibly return then.

It’s not going to be a vacation for eight weeks, though. In addition to planning spring classes (including the possibility of having to deliver them online), there’s a lot of departmental work to do, including dealing with parts of our every-five-year self-study and getting started on a search for a new colleague. Nonetheless, I’m hoping that December and January will be months with somewhat more frequent posting here than the last four have been…

Toward that end, here’s a song of the season from Cocteau Twins, a band we’ve seen fit to mention a couple of times already this year. This is one-half of their 1993 two-song EP Snow, released shortly after the disappointing Four-Calendar Café. It’s impressive how they’re able to remain true to both the song and their sound.

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: This Year’s Missing

Last year I won “Whamageddon,” the game whose only rule is to avoid hearing the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” during the month of December (there won’t be a repeat victory for me this year). I’ve been listening to plenty of Christmas music in the car these last couple of weeks, generally tuned in to SiriusXM’s Holly. Like so many SiriusXM stations, the playlist is far too short, and any number of songs get played every four hours or so (the surprisingly bland “Christmas Tree Farm” has been notable in this regard). But I’m also noticing what I’m not hearing so far. Yes, this is only one person listening to one station at selected moments, but I am wondering if most of the following songs are not on Holly‘s 2019 playlist (not that I’m complaining in some instances):

Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “Christmas Canon” and “Wizards of Winter”
Biggest surprise on this list–these seemed inescapable just a year ago. In addition, I’ve only heard Mannheim Steamroller once.

Percy Faith, “We Need a Little Christmas”
Greg Lake, “Father Christmas”

Holly doesn’t just focus on stuff released from the last quarter-century–I’ve heard Ray Conniff, Dean Martin, and Nat ‘King’ Cole, among others–but these two older pieces haven’t hit my ears yet.

Bob Seger, “Little Drummer Boy”
Eurythmics, “Winter Wonderland”
Barenaked Ladies/Sarah McLachlan, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings”
Rod Stewart, “My Favorite Things”
Wilson Phillips, “Hey Santa”

Gloria Estefan, “Christmas Through Your Eyes”
On the other hand, I think that maybe there is a generation gap opening in a number of cases…

Kelly Clarkson, “Underneath the Tree” and “My Grownup Christmas List”
This could just be bad luck on my part, as Holly is playing other Clarkson tunes. But the first of these is one I wouldn’t mind hearing.

Whitney Houston, “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
A couple of points about this one: 1) My wife has observed that Holly doesn’t play all that many religious Christmas songs; 2) I actually have heard it once this year. Last Friday night I happened upon the end of a rebroadcast of the Casey-hosted American Top 10: The Top 60 Christmas Songs, from 2005. I was plenty surprised to hear Houston at #2, but it also underscored to me how tastes can shift suddenly–has Whitney’s untimely death meant she is already going down the memory hole a bit?

I’m going out for what I hope is a final round of shopping today. I think I’ll put up with the ten-minute long commercial breaks and switch over to the Lexington station that’s been playing holiday favorites since November 1. I’m guessing I’ll run into a few of the above there; perhaps there’ll be an update…

Christmas Day update: Spent time since this was posted listening to stations from Lexington (in the car) and Madison, WI (streaming at home). Heard “Christmas Canon” and a few other T-SO pieces, “Father Christmas,” the Barenaked Ladies/McLachlan, and “Underneath the Tree.” Those last three were about the only ones I wanted for Christmas, anyway…

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: The Roches, We Three Kings

Today it’s a Christmas CD that came along for the ride when Martha and I got together. The Roches released We Three Kings in 90, on the not very long-lived Paradox subsidiary of MCA Records (I think the only other Paradox release in our collection is Marshall Crenshaw’s Life’s Too Short). It’s got a robust twenty-four tracks, though several clock in at under two minutes. We Three Kings is very much in our house; we haven’t broken it out yet this year, but I’m thinking that’s about to change.

Maggie, Suzzy, and Terre offer up a choice mix of religious and secular tunes. The arrangements are consistently creative and often fun; the harmonies are as exquisite as you’d expect. One of my favorite stories about Ben involves the title track. Here are four others I like a bunch. The haunting “Star of Wonder” is one of two original songs on the disk.

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Stan Freberg, “Green Chri$tma$”

I’ve noted before that my dad was a big fan of Stan Freberg’s comedy recordings: the compilation album A Child’s Garden of Freberg was a formative part of my childhood, and certainly helped cement the bond between father and son. I confess I was less interested in Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Volume One: The Early Years, though I still know a couple of the biggest gags on it. I purchased Tip of the Freberg, a 4-CD retrospective, likely as a Christmas gift twenty years ago, so that Dad didn’t have to dip into his vinyl collection when he wanted a good laugh. I’ve kept all of the above.

Anyway, today’s a day on which I’m thinking of my father, so in honor of him and a performer that he really enjoyed, I offer up “Green Chri$tma$,” a piece that the sales departments of many radio stations definitely did not want their DJs to play after it came out at the end of 1958. Ironically, Freberg soon moved into the advertising business, and was incredibly successful at it.

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Royal Guardsmen, “Snoopy’s Christmas”

A treasured favorite from my youth. We didn’t often listen to the Royal Guardsmen’s Snoopy and His Friends in December, but the message of “Snoopy’s Christmas” seems like a great one for this (or any) time of year.

And yes, I still have the poster that came with the album (we detached it from the back way back in the 70s and keep it in the sleeve):

SnoopyChristmas

Merry Christmas, my friends!

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Alfred Burt

We’ve sung a lot of different pieces over the years for our choir Christmas programs at church; it’s been a joy to gain familiarity with some of the very fine composers of such music. One of the more interesting is Alfred Burt, introduced to me close to twenty years ago by our long-time director John Heaton.

Burt’s story is tragically brief. He grew up in Michigan, was a music major at Ann Arbor, and served in an Army band during WWII as a trumpeter. He continued performing and composing after being discharged, but died in early 1954 at the age of 33, of lung cancer.

He’s known to us now because of the music he provided for fifteen carols. Burt’s father, an Episcopal priest, began composing his own carols for inclusion in Christmas cards when Alfred was very young. Burt took over writing the music for his father’s words around the time he finished college. The elder Burt died in 1948, but Alfred continued the tradition, asking Wihla Hutson, the organist at his father’s church, to take over as lyricist.

The first recordings of the carols, originally meant only for family and friends, came soon after Alfred Burt’s death (twelve of them appeared on a late 1954 Columbia collection entitled The Christmas Mood). Over the following years, a few wound up being recorded by well-known artists; the one you’re most likely to hear these days is Nat King Cole’s version of “Caroling, Caroling.” Several years ago, we bought This Is Christmas, an a cappella 1963 recording of all fifteen carols by The Voices of Jimmy Joyce. I can’t say I listen to it every year (though I did play it this morning), but a few of these songs bring back very pleasant memories of Christmas choir performances past: “This Is Christmas,” “Some Children See Him,” The Star Carol,” Jesu Parvale,” and especially “We’ll Dress the House.” I’d love to sing them again sometime soon.

In 1968 Simon and Garfunkel did “The Star Carol,” a song Burt completed just days before he died.

 

And here’s a nice medley of “Caroling, Caroling” and “We’ll Dress the House,” by the Salt Lake Vocal Artists. I’ve always loved the chords toward the end of each verse in the latter.