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Happy 75th Birthday, Woody Allen!
(born Allan Stewart Konigsberg, December 1, 1935)
Woody Allen, ‘The Moose,’ 1965
The final scenes from Manhattan (1979), including the Chaplin-inspired closing scene with Mariel Hemingway (note the Chaplin twitch of Woody’s mouth at the 3:56 mark). Beautiful.
‘Happy Christmas (War Is Over)’
Thirty years ago this month John Lennon was murdered by Mark David Chapman. We remember the great gifts John left us, especially during the holiday season, when his song ‘Happy Christmas (War Is Over)’ remains close to our hearts. We’re sure John wishes it had been made obsolete, but the headlines say otherwise. We in turn say it can never be played too much, at any time of year.
‘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)
'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!" (Charles Dickens, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ published on December 19, 1843; the above scene is from the 1984 made-for-television adaptation directed by Clive Donner and starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. Frank Finlay has a star turn as Marley’s ghost.)
In Praise Of Christmas Songs
CHRISTMAS WITH KIRI TE KANAWA
CAROLS FROM COVENTRY CATHEDRAL
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
Louis Armstrong reads ‘The Night Before Christmas.’
Recorded on February 26, 1971, in Armstrong’s home, this recording was distributed as a single by the Lorillard Company. Two weeks later Pops had another heart attack and was in intensive care until May 5, when he insisted on going home. On July 5 he announced he was ready to perform again and requested his band convene for rehearsal. He passed away at 5:30 the next morning, July 6.
Closing in on their 25th year of existence, the quartet of women who call themselves ANONYMOUS 4 keep sailing along, making wondrous excursions into medieval music and, more recently, exploring early 20th Century Appalachian folk, country and gospel (on two acclaimed albums, American Angels and Gloryland). In fact, since their “retirement” was ballyhooed in the press a few year ago, A4 has been more popular than ever, largely on the strength of the aforementioned American Angels and Gloryland albums. Christmas music has been a constant in A4’s history, and this year finds the group offering another marvelous immersion in seasonal fare on their new album, The Cherry Tree Carol, their fifth such Christmas-oriented long-player but the first of those five to break out of purely medieval fare and blend in modern songs—although the title tune is ages old, MARSHA GENENSKY performs it solo on the album in an arrangement dating from Kentucky, 1917. In TheBluegrassSpecial.com Interview, Ms. Genensky discusses the process by which she and her colleagues assembled The Cherry Tree Carol, the particular challenges of bringing medieval repertoire to life, and why the celebrated “retirement” of A4 was short-lived. Suffice it to say the quartet is going strong as ever and has an ambitious schedule planned to mark their quarter-century of glorious harmonizing together.
WHY ‘A CHRISTMAS CAROL’ SINGS?
By Michael Bruner
What makes “A Christmas Carol” sing, particularly in America? Two things: the art of storytelling, of which Dickens is a master, and which allows the story to transcend culture; and the particular echoes of the story that ring in American ears, allowing us to reexamine our notions of what it means to be American. The author, an adjunct professor of English and religion at Azusa Pacific University, ponders the larger import and continuing relevance of a Christmas story written 166 years ago.
THE NEW GREATEST CHRISTMAS SONG
By Christoper Hill
When Judy Collins, Garrison Keillor, country star Kathy Mattea, jazz singer Dianne Reeve, alt-folkies like Shawn Colvin and Susan McKeown, ambient composer Richard Souther, and the United States Army band all cover a song, you know it's poised to become a standard. Consider, then, ‘Christ Child’s Lullaby,’ or the Taldh Chriosda, whch still brings into the Christmas repertoire a haunting air of the storm-battered islands of the Scottish Hebrides islands where it was born.
TALES OF TWO CAROLS: 'ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH' and 'IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER'
The history of two beloved Yuletide carols, ‘Angels We Have Heard On High,’ which has its origins in 18th Century France, and ‘In The Bleak Midwinter,’ based on a Christina Rossi poem written before 1872, published in 1904 and set to Gustva Holst’s ‘Cranham’ in 1906.
Corrine May, 'In The Bleak Midwinter'
Born in Singapore, named after her mother's favorite song ("Corinna, Corinna"), Corrine May earned an honors degree in English Literature at the National University of Singapore, then matriculated to at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she studied songwriting and film scoring. After graduating with a Bachelor of Music degree, she moved to Los Angeles. Her self-titled debut album, released in 2001, featured the ballad "If You Didn't Love Me,” co-written with Carole King and Carole Bayer Sager, and earned her the Kerrville New Folk Award among 600 contenders at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Kerrville, TX. Her 2006 Christmas album, The Gift, featured the song “The Answer," with lyrics by Ms. May, set to Gustav Holst's “Jupiter” from the composer's “The Planets” suite. Holst music has an illustrious history in the realm of Christmas carols, as his "Cranham" is the music accompanying Christina Rossi's poem, "In The Bleak Midwinter." Her most recent album, 2007's Beautiful Seed, has gone platinum in her native Singapore and was gold in its first month of release. Her performance of "In The Bleak Midwinter" captured here was recorded at Pete's Coffee & Tea in Tarzana, CA.
'Silent Night' 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 WILLIAMSGK@aol.com. 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.
Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!
We’re closing out the 60th anniversary celebration year for the Peanuts gang by reprising our December 2009 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.
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.
Christmas Fiction: PAPA PANOV'S SPECIAL DAY
By Leo Tolstoy
Old Papa Panov, the village shoemaker, stepped outside his shop to take one last look around. The sounds of happiness, the bright lights and the faint but delicious smells of Christmas cooking reminded him of past Christmas times when his wife had still been alive and his own children little. Now they had gone. His usually cheerful face, with the little laughter wrinkles behind the round steel spectacles, looked sad now. But he went back indoors with a firm step, put up the shutters and set a pot of coffee to heat on the charcoal stove. Then, with a sigh, he settled in his big armchair.
Christmas Reflections: WHAT CHRISTMAS IS AS WE GROW OLDER
By Charles Dickens
Time was, with most of us, when Christmas Day, encircling all our limited world like a magic ring, left nothing out for us to miss or seek; bound together all our home enjoyments, affections, and hopes; grouped everything and every one around the Christmas fire; and made the little picture shining in our bright young eyes complete.
And is our life here, at the best, so constituted that, pausing as we advance at such a noticeable milestone in the track as this great birthday, we look back on the things that never were, as naturally and full as gravely as on the things that have been and are gone, or have been and still are? If it be so, and so it seems to be, must we come to the conclusion that life is little better than a dream, and little worth the loves and strivings that we crowd into it?
CHRISTMAS IN THE CIVIL WAR
OUGHT IT NOT BE A MERRY CHRISTMAS?
For a nation torn by civil war, Christmas in the 1860s was observed with conflicting emotions. Nineteenth-century Americans embraced Christmas with all the Victorian trappings that had moved the holiday from the private and religious realm to a public celebration. Christmas cards were in vogue, carol singing was common in public venues, and greenery festooned communities north and south. Christmas trees stood in places of honor in many homes, and a mirthful poem about the jolly old elf who delivered toys to well-behaved children captivated Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
But Christmas also made the heartache for lost loved ones more acute. As the Civil War dragged on, deprivation replaced bounteous repasts and familiar faces were missing from the family dinner table. Soldiers used to "bringing in the tree" and caroling in church were instead scavenging for firewood and singing drinking songs around the campfire. And so the holiday celebration most associated with family and home was a contradiction. It was a joyful, sad, religious, boisterous, and subdued event.
A year-by-year chronicle of how the observance of Christmas changed along with the fortunes of the warring armies, evolving before a shot was fired at Fort Sumter and flowering again following the events of 1865, notably the passage of the 13th Amendment on December 18, which abolished slavery, when ‘soldiers and civilians alike were ready to reunite with their families and again embrace Victorian holiday customs.’ Profusely illustrated with period drawings, most by Thomas Nast, from Harper’s Weekly.
CHRISTMAS IN THE CIVIL WAR:
‘I HEARD THE BELLS ON CHRISTMAS DAY’
A related piece, ‘HOW INEXPRESSIBLY SAD ARE ALL HOLIDAYS,’ describes how, from the death of his wife by fire and the wounding of his son in the Civil War sprang Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 'Christmas Bells,' a poem in which its author's doubt of God's existence is expunged by the message pealing from Yuletide bells. Herewith the true story of the events animating Longfellow's agonizing verses and the text of the complete poem, including two stanzas directly referencing the horrors of the Civil War that were omitted in 1872 when John Baptiste Calkin arranged Longfellow's verses into the seasonal classic expressing the triumph of good over evil in the world, 'I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day.'
We honor the Jewish faith’s eight-day Festival of Lights holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. Our coverage is tripartite in nature:
*OH HANNUKAH, OH HANNUKAH
By Laura Berman Fortgang
Growing up, we were one of the only Jewish families in our school system and in truth, it's not that much different for my kids, but the times have changed. In my day, we did our Hannukah thing and no one really noticed. My children, in contrast, are asked by their classmates to report what gift they received for Hannukah on a daily basis and actually have kids say they are jealous that the holiday last for eight days. Their teachers wonder if I'll be bringing in latkes each year and look at me with eager anticipation so I'll get the hint as this time rolls around.
*WHY JEWS LOVE CHRISTMAS
By Laura Berman Fortgang
I can really only speak for this Jew, but I love Christmas. (Something tells me I'm not alone.) For me, it gets down to two reasons. One, the fascination as an “outsider” who did not have Christmas in their home and two, the mood that permeates the air at Christmastime.
*CHOPSTICKS & JEWS: A CHRISTMAS TRADITION
By Rick Horowitz
‘Everyone’ knows the ‘tradition’ calls for Chinese food and a movie. But which comes first? As it turns out, there does not seem to be any clear agreement. While I think everyone agrees you hope whoever chooses the movie didn't lay an egg, some people don't even know that you should eat a little duck (the ‘Chinese turkey’ of A Christmas Story). And a few people totally miss the point by thinking it's okay to get take-out—take-out!—and rent—RENT!—movies. Oy veh! Don't Jewish families teach their kids anything anymore?!
‘GLORY, GLORY TO THE NEW BORN KING’
Gospel at Christmastime
By Bob Marovich
When did the tradition of gospel artists recording Christmas carols begin? One is inclined to answer that Mahalia Jackson set the standard in 1950 with her Apollo recording of "Silent Night," but the tradition goes back much further, more than two decades before the release of Mahalia's disc. In truth, Christmas recordings by African American sacred artists predate gospel by several years. Our gospel contributor Bob Marovich, of the Black Gospel Blog, takes a look at the history of Christmas-oriented gospel music in America.
In THE TWELVE CLASSIC GOSPEL SONGS OF CHRISTMAS, Bob Marovich selects his favorite dozen Yuletide gospel songs.
(For the following CD & DVD Reviews click the back button of your browser to return to the December 2010 issue)
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 Christmas...to 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: Season’s Greetings Of A Singular Nature
By David McGee
Assessing the essential holiday recordings by one of the greatest of all American pop singers. Quoth Lester Young: ‘I hear her voice and the sound and the way and the way she puts things on. Enough said.’
ELVIS PRESLEY: The King Keeps Christmas Well
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, including those of her staunch fan and supporter Frank Sinatra.
LEROY ANDERSON, JOHN FAHEY: NO WORDS NECESSARY
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.
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.
THE PERSUASIONS: IN ALL WEATHERS, GLAD TIDINGS
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.
BOB DYLAN, Christmas From the Heart
By Billy Altman
There's an old joke about two psychiatrists who pass each other on the street. As they do, they nod and say "Hello." By the end of the block, they're both thinking, "Hmm, I wonder what he meant by that." I think it's safe to say that, were he so inclined, Bob Dylan would probably be having himself a merry little "Ho ho ho" surveying all the furrowed-brow commentary surrounding the "meaning" of his Christmas In The Heart. The CD, whose royalty proceeds will benefit the needy through the Feeding America program, finds Dylan delivering disarmingly straightforward renditions of fifteen Yuletide tunes, including such classics as "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Winter Wonderland," "Silver Bells" and "Hark The Herald Angels Sing," all of which have been part of our collective consciousness since everyone's childhood. That, of course, includes his own, which is why it doesn't come as a surprise (at least not to this listener) that Dylan treats the material as transparently as possible: there's real tradition involved in Christmas-themed music, stretching from matters of faith and community to matters of composition and songwriting. And as he's periodically demonstrated throughout his near half-century in the public eye, Dylan is an artist who at his core really does understand and respect the value of tradition:
JACKSON 5: ULTIMATE CHRISTMAS COLLECTION—The 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 MYTHIC WEIGHT OF PHIL SPECTOR'S CHRISTMAS GIFT
By Billy Altman
Few holiday albums carry the mythic weight of 1963's A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector, wherein Spector sought to put his personal stamp on Christmas music by "treating" a batch of well-worn Yuletide classics to his signature "Wall of Sound" production style. Here's what happened next, when tragic history intruded on the young producer-titan's dream project.
CENTURIES OF SENTIMENT AND CELEBRATION
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.
‘ZAT YOU, SANTA CLAUS?
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.
OF SOUL, AS AN AFFIRMATION OF OUR COMMON HUMANITY
By David McGee
THE ULTIMATE MOTOWN CHRISTMAS COLLECTION—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.
SOLACE AND LAUGHTER IN A VALLEY OF TEARS
By David McGee
Originally released at the end of a tumultuous 1968, Atlantic's Soul Christmas collection, featuring southern soul greats such as Otis Redding, William Bell, Carla Thomas, Clarence Carter, Booker T. & the MG's, and others, came along with a message of love, conciliation and reconciliation, delivered with conviction, warmth, inclusiveness and a dollop of humor. It was recorded by black and white musicians in studios in New York and Nashville, but mostly in Memphis, not far from the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. King lost his life. Soul Christmas abounded in hope without ignoring reality, offered solace and laughter in a valley of tears. It still does; you just have to work a little harder to get there.
SUFFUSED WITH BEAUTY
By David McGee
Nancy Lamott and beauty were on intimate terms. It radiated from her warm personality, resonated in her tender vocals, and suffused the recordings she made before succumbing to cancer in 1995 at age 43. Disc jockey Jonathan Schwartz, described elsewhere in this issue as a friend of and authority on Frank Sinatra, declared Lamott the finest cabaret singer since the Chairman of the Board, praise well earned by Lamott and thoughtfully dispensed by Schwartz. Like Sinatra, Lamott sought out literate songs with a folksy quality-the settings may have been urbane, but the feelings were universal. The Great American Songbook has rarely had so effective an advocate as Nancy Lamott. Her lone Christmas album, Just In Time for Christmas, is a crash course in all that was remarkable about this gifted artist.
A SOUL EVER MORE GRATEFUL FOR WHAT IT KNOWS OF LOVE
By David McGee
The interesting fact about B.B. King's first Christmas album is how the sum of the parts adds up to something greater than what went down in Maurice, Louisiana's Dockside Studios in June 2001. Taken individually, the performances on the album are warm and ingratiating enough, appropriate to the season, some treated in a lighthearted manner, a couple of blues getting down into the depths of feeling; but when it's all over, a spell lingers. There's something special about the imprint B.B. puts on these songs-the conviction in his voice, the personality he projects throughout, Lucille's sunny tone—and when that's coupled to his road band's high spirited accompaniment the end result is a model Yuletide blues album that sneaks up on a listener.
WINTERBLOOM, Traditions Rearranged—It’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.
TRISHA YEARWOOD, The Sweetest Gift
For her first holiday album, one of country's great singers eschewed the safety of seasonal favorites for a 50-50 mix, with half of the songs being newly penned by contemporary songwriters. Despite being no stranger to huge, soaring ballads, Yearwood here opts mostly for a low-key approach, and by and large keeps it country; in the end the sweetest gift is quietude.
From our archives, reviews of other essential recent and vintage Christmas music for Yuletide connoisseurs
Christmas DVD Roundup
Christmas Around The World
The Vietnamese are a fun-loving, sociable people and the various Vietnam festivals and events are actually occasions for them to enjoy a gala time—Christmas in Vietnam is a grand party.
Where Christmas is so good they celebrate it twice!
Of food, family and Christmas joy… Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas day in Lithuania. Dec. 24th is the shortest day of the year. All traditions are related to it.
NEW CHRISTMAS REVIEWS FOR 2010
MANDY BARNETT, Winter Wonderland—Despite a boatload of critical acclaim over the years, the expected breakthrough commercial smash has eluded Mandy Barnett. It’s unlikely a Christmas album will do what her two studio albums from the ‘90s could not do, but if one could, Winter Wonderland would be it. It is, quite simply, a virtuoso performance of sensitive, nuanced vocalizing, as good as it gets, in service and bringing fresh energy to a clutch of beloved seasonal standards.
A MERRY CHRISTMAS WITH BING CROSBY & THE ANDREWS SISTERS— Few male-female vocal pairings of a holiday nature summoned the festive and the reflective spirit of the season alike with more grace and conviction than that of Bing Crosby and Andrews Sisters Patty, LaVerne and Maxene. This 20-track collection contains all six of the wonderful Crosby-Andrews Sisters pairings on record, a couple from 1950, the others from the ‘40s, dating back to 1943’s double-sided gold-certified hit single, “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” b/w “Jingle Bells.”
DORIS DAY, Complete Christmas Collection—Wonderful technique is at work in all of Doris Day’s recordings, but what she wrought in her Christmas material is something beyond technique, something abiding in the exalted realm of the heart, where pure feeling produces the peace that passes all understanding. This is beautiful.
THE HEPCATS, Christmas With The Hepcats—A clever ruse this is, but could it have been more perfectly executed? One thinks not. The Hepcats are billed as a guitar trio: Johnny Paulcat, “Son” Hepjohn and Paul Catson. Which sounds suspiciously like the group is really a single human being, one Paul Johnson, famed in surf music circles as the leader of the Bel-Airs and composer of the group’s classic 1961 hit, “Mr. Moto.” Any way you cut it, Johnson is a monster of a guitar picker, and his multitracked excursions into Christmas fare are as beautifullyrendered as they are arresting as they are fun.
THE ISAACS, Christmas—In its diverse themes, in its execution, and especially in the voices’ conviction and beauty, The Isaacs’ Christmas has the feel of a seasonal classic by a group whose every new album exceeds its own high standards.
VARIOUS ARTISTS, Let It Snow: A Holiday Musical Collection— Everyone needs stamps at Christmas time, and this year the U.S. Postal Service is making it easy to pick up some musical holiday cheer while tending to those mailing duties. The USPS and Concord Records have teamed up on a tasty 11-song festival of holiday songs, some drawn from artists in the Concord Records Group family, a handful of others licensed from other sources, and the whole working wonderfully as a pleasant, stylistically diverse overview of holiday performances both vintage and contemporary.
SCOTT MILLER, Christmas Gift—Former V-Roy Scott Miller was heard from earlier this year, on one of 2010’s finest albums, For Crying Out Loud, and now he returns, unassumingly, with a stirring seven-song EP for the holiday season available at his website. Christmas Gift may be slight in terms of its tunestack, but it is bountiful indeed in profound spirituality—unspoken, but felt in the unstudied beauty of these original songs and interesting covers—and bone-deep honesty of the entire endeavor.
MICHAEL MARTIN MURPHEY, Acoustic Christmas Carols: Cowboy Christmas II— What can you say? At every step Murph makes all the right moves and delivers a Christmas message in a style all his own, intimate in its presentation, expansive in its larger meaning. This is a big-time album, in a quiet way.
DAVID PHELPS, Christmas With David Phelps—For his joyous holiday celebration, David Phelps pulls out all the stops. This is not to suggest a lack of reverence on the artist’s part but rather an overflowing spirit that needs not only a full band but also an orchestra and choir as well to support his expressive, emotional tenor in its dynamic explorations of Yuletide fare both new and traditional.
STEVE WARINER, Guitar Christmas— Unassuming as it is, Guitar Christmas is one of those Yuletide albums that won’t get the attention of more grandiose, overblown, superstar-driven efforts but will in fact occupy the special place for holiday discs that simply endure when others have been blessedly forgotten. In spirit, in mood, in heart, this one gets it right all the way through.
HAILING AN AMERICAN TREASURE
By Chip Stern
As Dave Brubeck’s 90th birthday approaches, our correspondent looks back at two special moments in this American treasure’s fruitful history, and gives thanks. Also: an appraisal of two new box sets of the master’s work
ELLIOTT CARTER TURNS 102
A Personal Recollection by Chip Stern
America’s preeminent composer, Elliott Carter, turns 102 on December 11, 2010. He is not merely alive, but very much ticking and kicking, expanding every morning upon a post-modernist language of his own making. To get lost in his uncompromising music is a transformational experience, which at once is expressive of the American century, intricate psycho-dramas that place enormous demands on performers and listeners alike. ‘Let me share some vignettes and one very special encounter with Mister Carter,’ writes the author of this piece, ‘which upon reflection seems a blessed, privileged event—borderline mystical in its way.’
A Lesson For All Seasons
Nasreen's Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan by JEANETTE WINTERS is, says our books blogger JULES, a “tale to be quite poignant and beautifully told,” of a young girl who lives in an ancient city in Afghanistan, where art and music and learning once flourished—but no longer do,” thanks to the Taliban, which doesn’t want girls to learn about the world. Against all odds, Nasreen is finally able to continue her learning, in a story that “celebrates the value of education.”
THE BLOGGING FARMER: ALEX TILLER’S BLOG ON AGRICULTURE AND FARMING
By Alex Tiller
Scientists have succeeded in decoding the genome for wheat, which could go a long way towards the development of new, faster growing, heartier strains of wheat and help prevent food shortages caused by droughts, climate change, environmental degradation and the exploding population. A related news story, “Wheat Genome Mapped To Prevent Food Shortages,” explains why, “with the help of DNA mapping, wheat crops selectively bred for drought tolerance and high yields may provide a solution” to feeding a growing population on diminishing agricultural land.
The Badger’s Best Friend?
By Duncan Strauss
Say what you will about Queen—for every five folks who worship at that altar there’s probably one or two ready to spit on it (and those two camps intersected a bit when the Paul Rodgers edition of Queen was unleashed)—animal lovers of all stripes would be hard-pressed not to adore BRIAN MAY. Since launching his own animal protection campaign, Save Me (named after the May-penned Queen song), the guitarist/degreed astrophysicist has found himself in the crosshairs of a controversy over the spread of bovine TB in Britain. He’s at odds with forces that have pinned the blame for the epidemic on badgers and get on with the business of wiping the critters wipe off the planet. May begs to differ, and he tells Talking Animals host Duncan Strauss why.
News & Notes
*Remembering actor LESLIE NIELSEN of Airplane! and Naked Gun fame. Don’t call him Shirley.
*Remembering JERRY BOCK, the composer who teamed with lyricist Sheldon Harnick to win a Tony and Pulitzer Prize for Fiorello, their musical theater biography of former New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and a Tony award for Fiddler On the Roof.
*Remembering GIL MCDOUGALD, one of the classiest and most reliable of the Yankee mainstays during the franchise’s championship reign in the ‘50s and early ‘60s; and RON SANTO, the great Chicago Cubs third baseman, one of the top 10 third basemen statistically of all time, who inexplicably has not been voted into the Hall of Fame.
A Potpourri of Christmas Music, featuring GENE AUTRY, DEAN MARTIN and FRANK SINATRA, KATHY MATTEA, BOB HOPE & MARILYN MAXWELL, YO-YO MA and ALISON KRAUSS, DARLENE LOVE and RONNIE SPECTOR, MEL TORME and JUDY GARLAND, RICKY NELSON, THE BEATLES, SISSEL KYRKJEBO, BING CROSBY, ACABELLA, JIMMY DURANTE and two WALT DISNEY ‘SILLY SYMPHONY’ Christmas cartoons from 1932 and 1933.
CHRISTINE SANTELLI’S VIDEO OF THE MONTH
(Having completed a personal project of filming 100 videos in 100 days—well, technically, in 103 days—Christine Santelli, a favorite around these parts, will be previewing a new song or offering a different twist on one of her previously recorded songs each month in this space. Right on time for the season, she composed a new tune, ‘Christmastime,’ and we have it first. Happy holidays!)
Merry Christmas from www.TheBluegrassSpecial.com!