december 2009

Winter Scene by Fanny F. Palmer’s 2nd Annual Christmas Music Extravaganza!

marley's ghost
Marley's Ghost, a hand-colored etching by John Leech provided for the original 'A Christmas Carol' published in December 1843

'Mankind Was My Business!'
"Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed," cried the phantom, "not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed! Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!"

"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

‘twas the Night Before Christmas
"You know somethin', sweetheart? Christmas is, well, it's about the best time of the whole year. You walk down the streets, even for weeks before Christmas comes, and there's lights hanging up, green ones, and red ones, sometimes there's snow. And everybody's hustling some place. But they don't hustle around Christmas time like they usually do. Y'know, they're a little more friendlier; they bump into you, they laugh and say 'Pardon me' and 'Merry Christmas.' Especially when it gets real close to Christmas night. Everybody's walkin' home, you can hardly hear a sound. Bells are ringin', kids are singin', snow is comin' down. And boy what a pleasure it is to think that you got some place to go to, and the place that you're going to has somebody in it that you really love...someone you're nuts about. Merry Christmas."

(Ralph Kramden reflecting on the Yuletide, from The Honeymooners' Christmas episode, "'Twas The Night Before Christmas," first aired 1955)

Louis Armstrong reads ‘The Night Before Christmas’
A promotional recording Satchmo made for the Lorillard Tobacco Company in 1957.


When we sing these songs, whether we voice them aloud or whisper them in our hearts, we entwine our souls with the powerful parade of humanity that has walked this planet from the time many of the tunes were first appropriated from the Finnish medieval text, Piae Cantiones, in the 17th Century. "Coventry Carol" molds tragedy into beauty in the wistfulness of its ancient melody and the maternal shelter its lyrics promise, which indeed are the words of mothers singing their babes to sleep, while awaiting the imminent arrival of Herod's soldiers to carry out the King's cruel decree to slay the town's firstborn males. The 20th Century carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem" is even more stirring when you know it was written by an English cleric whose inspiration for the song came from standing in the field outside Bethlehem in which angels were said to have visited the shepherds tending their flocks by night. "O little one sweet" is built around a captivating chorale harmonization composed by J.S. Bach; "Joy to the World" uses a rich melody composed by Handel; the popular version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" sets lyrics by Charles Wesley to a melody by Felix Mendelssohn; and the haunting "In the bleak midwinter" comes courtesy the composer Gustav Holst (best known for "Planets") who transformed Christina Rossetti's lament over the end of a love affair into one of the most reverent and transcendently beautiful expositions of the Christmas story. We are indebted to the enterprising and nameless citizens of the 17th Century who responded to the Calvinists' and Puritans' bans of all non-religious texts by salvaging them through door-to-door caroling; these folks' unquenchable spirit ultimately spurred the writing of carols customized to fit a new tradition, including the beloved "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." We are indebted to Queen Victoria's consort Prince Albert, who in the 1840s championed the revival of all Yuletide festivities and traditions, thus inaugurating what is now recognized as the modern Christmas season; concurrently, two English clerics rediscovered the Piae Cantiones, and among the reconfigured tunes that emerged from this find was a cheery tale of charity and redemption on a night when "the frost was cruel." Based on the reign of King Vaclav the Good of Bohemia, the message in the song "Good King Wenceslas" presumes an innate goodness in humankind's collective heart that breaches class distinctions in service to the downtrodden among us. Dame Kiri, in spectacular voice, cedes the spotlight frequently, allowing baritone Michael George and the choirs of Coventry and Lichfield Cathedrals, accompanied by the keening, triumphant trumpet solos of Jouko Harjanne and the redoubtable BBC Philharmonic conducted by Robin Stapleton, ample room to make powerful statements in their own right. But in the end this disc is not about Dame Kiri or any of her estimable collaborators. It is, in fact, about us, the men and women, girls and boys, who make of this mortal coil a place called home, and what we wish it could be were the better angels of our nature to rule the day. It's Christmas, a time for believing in things you can't see.

Happy Holidays and peace to all. —David McGee

charlie brown

We’re getting a jump on 2010’s 60th anniversary celebration for the Peanuts gang by featuring a well-deserved cover story tribute to the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas TV special and especially to the masterpiece within the masterpiece—VINCE GUARALDI’s timeless score for the holiday special. In our cover story, Sublime & Swingin’: Vince Guaraldi’s Score For A Charlie Brown Christmas Endures As a Masterpiece Within a Masterpiece we chronicle the circumstances that brought Guaraldi into producer LEE MENDELSON’s long-incubating project as detailed in the essential book, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making Of a Tradition. Our theory is, If Frank Sinatra is the voice of Christmas in America, as is asserted elsewhere in this issue, then Vince Guaraldi’s music for A Charlie Brown Christmas has become the sound of Yuletide on these shores since it was first heard on Thursday, December 9, 1965 its debut airing on CBS-TV. As part of this coverage, we also take a critical look at the expanded reissue of Guaraldi’s score, as well as the latest DVD release of the show.

Advent: A Way Of Knowing More What God Is Like
By Christopher Hill

In an excerpt from his book Holidays & Holy Nights: Celebrating Twelve Seasonal Festivals of the Christian Year (Quest Books, 2008), contributing editor Christopher HILL writes: “Advent calls on us to take seriously the knowledge of childhood—knowledge from the quiet that winter nights lay over the world and the dark purity of the sky and the polished stars. It reminds us of what we knew in the silence of the waiting woods and in the twinkling white lights that shook and flickered on bushes and trees as if the world were putting on elegant clothes. It calls us to remember the growing fullness that pressed in around everything like cotton. It brings to mind that the music we heard and the songs we sang with their tender golden sadness were also full of that presence.” Herewith Hill’s look at the historical roots of Advent and its meaning to our world today.

Advent: The Season Of No Hustle, No Bustle
By Chris Bowler

From the blog of self-described “professional tinkerer” CHRIS BOWLER, a warm, personal take on Advent as he experiences it with his wife and children. “Over the past couple of years, our family has started a new tradition—partaking in the celebration of the Advent season. Celebrating the Christmas season has always been an important part of our year as my wife and I attempt to ingrain a sense of identity in our young family. But I feel like the past couple of years have been extra special as we've moved our focus beyond our traditional practices of celebrating Christmas to including a focus on this period of waiting and expectation that is the Advent,” Bowler writes in his elegant essay, concluding with a sentiment we should all embrace: “Maybe I'm too much of a romantic, but I'd love to see that rather than a time of extra stress, this part of the year would be when we pull back and spend more time in quiet and reflection, evaluating what's really important in our lives.”


Marvin Gaye Sings a Christmas Song
by Forest Hairston

Songwriter FOREST HAIRSTON and his friend Marvin Gaye are credited as co-writers of “I Want To Come Home For Christmas,” a song Gaye recorded in 1972 around the time he was working on his Trouble Man album. The song was supposed to be released as a Tamla single that year, but was withheld and did not see the light of day until 1990’s four-CD box set, The Marvin Gaye Collection. How the song came to be, what Marvin did with it, and its bittersweet aftermath are the focus of Hairston’s warm reminiscence.

Illustration by Jim O’Toole

‘Silent Night’: The Song Heard ‘Round the World
The words for the Christmas carol we know as "Silent Night" were first set down on paper in 1816 in the tiny Alpine village of Mariapfarr, Austria, by Fr. Joseph Mohr. Two years later, music was added by Franz Xaver Guber and the song was performed for the first time in the Alpine village of Oberndorf, Austria, on Christmas Day, 1818. The fame of this composition spread throughout the world and 181 years later, people are still touched by both the simplicity and the strength of its message. In the first part of our two-part study of “Silent Night,” “The Song Heard ‘Round the World,” Christmas historian BILL EGAN profiles the two men who composed “Silent Night,” and traces the song’s fascinating history from its origins to the modern day.  As an addendum to Egan’s piece, we offer a vivid example of how “Silent Night” provided some soldiers in WWII with a brief moment of Peace On Earth, as told in an email by a source who was there in the trenches, identified only by his email address of In a second piece, ‘SILENT NIGHT!’ FROM THE HANDS OF THE CREATORS,based on information supplied by Austria’s Silent Night Association, we learn more about Gruber and Fr. Mohr, and the historical context of the song, which first appeared “in very difficult times” that made its longing for peace and comfort especially potent. Also, this story includes reproductions of four original scores from Guber and Mohr. And not least of all, we couldn’t devote so much space to “Silent Night” without giving our readers a chance actually to hear the song, so each story includes a video: Egan’s piece concludes with ENYA’s beautiful Irish language version of the song, the second piece with a moving performance by JOHNNY CASH, his daughters and stepdaughters, from 1978.

FRANK SINATRA: A Yuletide Report From the Chairman Of the Board
By David McGee

Bing Crosby popularized secular Christmas music, and then some, with his 1942 (later re-recorded in 1947 in the version most often heard today) recording of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," but it was Frank Sinatra who made an art form of both secular and sacred Yuletide music.

NAT KING COLE: The Christmas Song, Like No Other Christmas Song
By David McGee

Christmas is illegal without Nat King Cole, right? Surely it would violate the laws of this land for a season to pass without the reassuring tones of the man with the smoky grey voice blessing us with a comforting "Merry you," his annual benediction reaffirming warm tidings of home, family and seasonal traditions, unsullied by cynicism, untouched by post-modern angst. No, Christmas is impossible to imagine without Nat King Cole gliding coolly through the classic sentiments penned by Robert Wells, set to music by Mel Torme, beautifully orchestrated by Charles Grean and Nat's favorite arranger Pete Rugulo, with Ralph Carmichael conducting, and further enhanced by Nat's own succinct, tasty piano solo. "The Christmas Song" is, pure and simple, "The Christmas Song."

JO STAFFORD: Jo! Jo! Jo! And A Merry Christmas To All…
By David McGee

Assessing the essential holiday recordings by one of the greatest of all American pop singers.

ELVIS PRESLEY: When The King Sang Christmas
By David McGee

Despite reports of Elvis's blasé attitude going into those 1957 and 1971 sessions, however, a listener would be hard pressed to hear anything on the finished products but warm, committed vocalizing on the traditional carols and spirituals and feisty, carefree spirit on the rock 'n' roll and blues numbers.

ALAN JACKSON: Right At Home For Christmas
By David McGee

Two very different approaches to Christmas music are defined in Alan Jackson's Yuletide long players. Honky Tonk Christmas, released in 1993, came near the beginning of Jackson's hit-filled career, and it emphasizes his reverence not only for the season but for the style of country music he prefers and has made his trademark when other artists of his generation and younger are recycling '80s arena rock riffs. Let It Be Christmas, from 2002, is from an artist at the top of his game, assured enough to broaden out his basic band with orchestra, strings and a large background chorus, adopting a soft, dreamy pop ambience in stark contrast to the stripped down approach of its holiday predecessor.

ELLA FITZGERALD: And A Swinging Christmas To You, Too
By David McGee

Remastered and reissued in 2002, the First Lady of Song's only album-length collection of secular Christmas songs ranks with the finest efforts of her gifted peers, such as those of her staunch fan and supporter Frank Sinatra, for one.

By David McGee

If you were to select only two all-instrumental albums of holiday music, you could hardly do better than the two disparate titles here: A Leroy Anderson Christmas, and The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album/Christmas With John Fahey, Vol. II. Composer/conductor Leroy Anderson and guitarist John Fahey come at their seasonal musings from quite different perspectives, but both wind up in a place of joyous reverence for the magnificence and timelessness of Christmas carols and hymns.

Christmas In Antiquity, Exquisitely Rendered
By David McGee

As related by THE BALTIMORE CONSORT in Bright Day Star, and ANONYMOUS 4 in Wolcum Yule.

by David McGee
a Yule without Der Bingle or Satchmo would be comparable to finding a lump of coal in the stocking on Christmas morn.

KATHLEEN BATTLE and Christopher PARKENING, Angels’ Glory To the energy and intellect the marked his playing in his early professional career, Christopher Parkening has over time (notably since returning from a self-imposed retirement in the early ‘80s, during which he became a devout Christian) added restraint as another essential ingredient to his approach. He uses it as effectively as the late film director Stanley Kubrick used silence, making it an identifiable element of his art, a near-sensuous presence as a defining feature of the soundscapes he constructs with strings. It is one of the many compelling aspects of his exceptional pairing with the temperamental lyric soprano Kathleen Battle on the seasonal fare comprising Angels’ Glory.

By David McGee

Given how fundamental the church has been to just about everything the Persuasions have sung in their long career, it’s rather amazing that it took this incomparable a cappella quintet until 1997 to get around to a Christmas album. What’s important, though, is that they did get around to it, because it’s everything you would expect of a Persuasions Christmas album and more, because you never know for certain how the singers are going to find unique ways into their songs. In this case, most of the songs are so familiar as to be daunting, it would seem, to those attempting any variations on the themes. But the Persuasions are just not any group of a cappella practitioners, and so what they do with “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “Silent Night,” to name a couple of prime examples, is not like anything you’ve heard anyone else do with those songs.

NEW FOR 2009
RAY CHARLES, The Spirit of Christmas Seems odd that Ray Charles waited until 1985 to cut his first and only Christmas album, but them’s the facts. That said, working with horns, strings, the Raeletts, Jeff Pevar and Kevin Turner on guitar, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Rudy Johnson on tenor sax, Brother Ray does Christmas pretty much as you would expect—in his own way, never predictably, and not without some surprises along the way.

CHRISTMAS SINATRA & FRIENDSAn interesting collection, this, focused as it is on eight selected later-era WB/Reprise Frank Sinatra Christmas recordings (which, coincidentally, chart Nelson Riddle's diminishing role in Sinatra's recordings as Don Costa emerged as a new, favored arranger) supplemented by engaging, sometimes moving, performances from Mel Torme, Tony Bennett with Bill Evans, Rosemary Clooney and, for good measure, the smoldering Ray Charles-Betty Carter duet on "Baby It's Cold Outside."

JOHN COWAN, Comfort & JoyA progressive bluegrass pioneer and still one of the finest voices on any scene, John Cowan has made the most out of his first holiday album…

JERRY DOUGLAS, Jerry ChristmasAnyone who’s followed Jerry Douglas’s solo career knows when he gets together with his similarly exploratory mates he likes to find out how much a song’s melody can be stretched and remolded from its original shape and then returned to the state from whence it came. Interesting, then, that on his exemplary Jerry Christmas celebration he teases with hit-and-run improvisation, suggesting where the path might lead, but takes care to return to the familiar melodies and emotional touchstones in his mostly traditional and familiar repertoire. It’s beautifully done at every turn.

BOB DYLAN, Christmas From the Heart
By Billy Altman
Here it is Christmas time 2009, and true believer (of the soul of man) Bob Dylan is wishing us peace on earth—if we just follow the light. As per the final word heard on "O Little Town of Bethlehem," the final song of this wonderful little gift of an album: Amen.

JACKSON 5: ULTIMATE CHRISTMAS COLLECTIONThe original Jackson 5 Christmas Album, though less introspective and absent any spiritual orientation evident in Yuletide long players by labelmates Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and Stevie Wonder, for example, is a classic Christmas album nonetheless simply for doing what the Jacksons were doing so well back then—speaking to their audience, without condescension, and with considerable heart and abundant, infectious energy. So it is that the original 11-song LP is remembered for its high spirits and hard charging performances. This Ultimate version of the J5 Christmas album is fleshed out with spoken Season’s Greetings from four of the five brothers (including Michael), and six other musical tracks. The original album, though, remastered and reissued on CD in 1993, will do just fine for those on a budget or preferring an undiluted Jackson 5 holiday bonanza.

THE SONG TRUST, Merry KidsmasPropelled by a moving 2007 hit single sung by a six-year-old girl wishing for her soldier father to come home from his overseas deployment to be with the family during the holidays, “Bring Him Home, Santa” now has company in the form of 11 other songs mostly sung by children expressing their hopes and joys for the Christmas season. Partnering with Country Music Television’s One Country program, the Nashville-based songwriters collective that calls itself The Song Trust has expanded the concept of its first single into an entire album, with proceeds from its sales slated going to the USO to benefit members of our Armed Forces. It’s a good cause, and it’s a fun record.

Brian Setzer puts his cat clothes on and rocks the Yule, again
By David McGee

Christmas 2009 brings another Brian Setzer Orchestra Yuletide blast in Ultimate Christmas Collection, a compilation boasting some of the swingin’est tunes from his two holiday long players in a collection further sweetened by a DVD, “Christmas Extravaganza,” featuring no less than 25 songs from a near-two-hour performance.

By Christopher Hill
STING, If On A Winter’s Night; SUSAN MCKEOWN & LINDSEY HOMER, Through the Bitter Frost and Snow

Every once in a while, an artist happens down the Xmas trail through whose senses we can feel the season freshly; combine that with centuries of festive associations, and you can really have something. 

By David McGee
The best reason to buy all the classic ‘60s Christmas albums from legendary Motown artists such as the Supremes, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations, among others, is because those albums are so good in and of themselves. However, the two-CD, 51-track The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection is pretty great on its own, too, in that it serves up some of the finest performances from Motown greats along with some worthy installments by good artists who followed the label’s Golden Era. Make no mistake, though—the big names carry this double-disc set, and they alone elevate it to the rank of Yuletide essentials.

WINTERBLOOM, Traditions RearrangedIt’s unclear at this point exactly how down with Father Christmas the four impressive gals of Winterbloom really are, but they sure have made their holiday EP a memorable event, acerbic and reverent all at once.

Recent and vintage Christmas music for Yuletide connoisseurs

TONY BENNETT, Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album

DEANA CARTER, Father Christmas

KENNY CHESNEY, All I Want For Christmas Is a Real Good Tan


CHARLIE DANIELS, A Merry Christmas To All

ENYA, And Winter Came


MERLE HAGGARD, A Christmas Present

ETTA JAMES, 12 Songs of Christmas

TOBY KEITH, A Classic Christmas, Vols. One and Two

B.B. KING, A Christmas Celebration of Hope

NANCY LAMOTT, Just In Time For Christmas

BRENDA LEE, The Best of Brenda Lee: The Christmas Collection

PATTY LOVELESS, Bluegrass & White Snow

DEAN MARTIN, Christmas With Dino

KATHY MATTEA, Joy For Christmas Day

REBA MCENTIRE, The Best Of Reba: The Christmas Collection


NEW GRANGE, Christmas Heritage

JOE NICHOLS, A Traditional Christmas

PATTI PAGE, Sweet Sounds of Christmas

BRAD PAISLEY, A Brad Paisley Christmas

SHEDAISY, Brand New Year


JAMES TAYLOR, At Christmas

PAM TILLIS, Just In Time For Christmas




Various Artists, SOUL CHRISTMAS




THE VENTURES, The Ventures’ Christmas Album

WYNONNA, A Classic Christmas

TRISHA YEARWOOD, The Sweetest Gift


This month our Mongolia correspondent, BILGUUN MUNKHJARGAL, clues us into the challenging music of ALTAN DURAG.

Our columnist is taking this month off to plan her 2010 agenda for us, but to keep the focus on the crisis in the Appalachians due to the devastation wrought by mountaintop removal coal mining, we are publishing again the review of the fund-raising CD released by Osha’s organization,, to urge readers to contribute to help those suffering in Appalachia.


In Crossing Over, we remember TROY SMITH, founder of the Sonic Drive-Ins

TOMMY HENRICH, the last living New York Yankees player from the team’s 1938 World Series champions, the player dubbed “Old Reliable” for his ability to produce in pressure situations during his career-long 11-year tenure with the Bronx Bombers, passed away at age 96.

DAILEY & VINCENT get a gospel album together, and it’s a triumph, appropriately titled Singing From the Heart. A powerful testimony resides therein.


JAMES HAND, Shadow On the Ground—Produced by the redoubtable tandem of Lloyd Maines and Ray Benson, Hand’s Shadow On the Ground seems almost an impossibility—country music so deeply rooted in the genre’s honky tonk roots it gives nary a nod to contemporary conventions. Even its one cover—wait for it—wait for it—of the Ray Evans-Jay Livingston classic American pop evergreen, “Mona Lisa,” with Benson adding a Spanish-tinged electric guitar line and Eddie Rivers crying longingly on the steel, dares not advance any further for inspiration than Carl Mann’s similarly propulsive 1958 Sun single of same (the great Nat King Cole is nowhere in sight, except in blessed memory), but even so Hand’s sprightly take occupies ground for which it holds the sole deed.

SPUYTEN DUYVIL, In Spite Of the Devil by Billy Altman—Spuyten Duyvil describes itself as a group whose sound "wanders the last 100 years of American music conjuring embittered civil war veterans, recalcitrant small town bawds, suicidal bureaucrats, star crossed lovers and bravehearted fools navigating the mysteries of daily life." In other words, they've got something to say, not merely something to sell.


Fired Up and Ready To Go by David McGee
Terrific new blues albums from DEBBIE DAVIES (Holdin’ Court) and the LAURIE MORVAN BAND (Fire It Up!).

CHARLES WILSON, Troubled Child
The Truth, Unvarnished and Powerfully Persuasive
By David McGee

Troubled Child is not a summation of a career to date, but a promise at long last fulfilled. This is the man we want Charles Wilson to be, taking the smooth groove of Philly soul; the gospel-infused, horn-driven smolder of Memphis soul; the urban romanticism of latter-day Smokey Robinson; and a clear, poetically articulated vision of the world he wants to live in, then molding these elements into a seamless signature sound.


Field Notes From a Songwriter’s Centennial
A Son Remembers His Father
By Michael Sigman

“September 24th, 2009, was the centennial birthday of my late father, the songwriter Carl Sigman (1909-2000), who wrote nearly a thousand songs, including ‘It's All In The Game,’ ‘(Where Do I Begin) Love Story,’ ‘Ebb Tide,’ ‘What Now, My Love,’ ‘Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)’ and ‘Arrivederci, Roma.’ Herewith a son offers some fun facts and observations on the father’s life’s work.”

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