(Portions of this appeared in an earlier blog and have been edited.)
Holiday music is a staggeringly rich field, and can be intensely personal. Some people favor the “traditional carols”, preferring to keep things focused on the spiritual, while others prefer the more fun and festive secular music. But even here things can get contentious – if you’re talking about the traditional carols, which carols count, and whose traditions are you following? And which of the myriad covers do you prefer? And with the secular music – are you sick of the 1940’s and 1950’s recordings that have become canon, or do you favor more contemporary things? Or are you just sick of everything since you’ve been hearing everything non-stop since early November?
I manage to avoid the whole question by falling back on a playlist I made for myself about four years ago; it’s a mix of lesser-known traditional things and some contemporary stuff I always fancied. Every so often I add a song to the list, but I put that on instead of the radio every December and manage to avoid the stuff I hate (the endless repetitions of Wonderful Christmastime for one), and still end up in a fine mood.
I remember hearing Bruce Springsteen’s cover of this on the radio in the mid-70’s. I didn’t understand why Bruce’s voice sounded so stuttery and breathy towards the end; Dad had to explain that he was laughing at Clarence Clemons saying “Ho Ho Ho”. Back then, it was just part of the everyjumble of background noise each Christmas, and I didn’t think much of it. Then I hit my teens, two things happened that made it a favorite.
First I met my friend Sue – the biggest Springsteen fan I’ve ever met, hands down. And over the years I’ve gained an appreciation myself; not at Sue’s scale, but I don’t think anyone is a Springsteen fan on Sue’s scale. She has old concert posters in her bathroom walls, she runs a day care where the alphabet goes “A is for apple, B is for Bruce, C is for Clarence…” and she’s driven across three state lines just to get to concert dates. One of my favorite things that Sue gave me is a live album by Clarence Clemons — not because I’m a massive Clarence Clemons fan, but because she let me know that she had actually been at the concert date when it was being recorded, and Bruce Springsteen was a surprise guest. And on the album, when Clarence brings Bruce out, I can actually hear Sue’s estatic whoop.
The second thing I did was learn how to drive. Now, I’m not a big car fan as such — I can’t tell the difference between a Subaru and a Cadillac unless I’m looking at the owner’s manual or anything. But I am a big fan of what you can do with cars. Of the kind of exploration and adventure you can have with them. I am very much in love with road trips, and with that kind of independence. This was especially big in high school — now instead of waiting to hitch a ride anywhere with Mom, I could drive myself to the local mall to run my own errands, do my own Christmas shopping, or what have you. But not just the local mall, though — I could also drive myself to the much bigger mall in Waterford, 30 miles away. And when I was in a car by myself, I could drive as fast as I wanted, and play music as loud as I wanted; and I very quickly came up with my short list of “driving songs” that would invariably make me sing lustily along.
And that’s when I really fell in love with this song – each year, during one of my solo jaunts to do some Christmas shopping, this would come on the radio while I was en route. And I’d crank the volume all the way up, speed down Route 6 towards Exit 19 and drum along with Max Weinberg on the dashboard, hollering, “Ya BETTER be GOOD for GOODness SAKE….”
I grew up in a small town that was pretty…homogeneous, both racially and religiously. I think there were two Jewish kids in my class in first grade, and my town was small enough that they were also in my class all through second grade, third grade, and on and on up through junior high even. And each year, the teacher would invite either Seth or Molly’s mom to come visit sometime in December for a little show-and-tell about “okay, kids, not everyone celebrates Christmas – some people celebrate something called Hannukkah, and here’s Molly’s mother to tell you all about it.”
By fifth grade both Seth and Molly were looking distinctly sick of the whole thing. But it was something I always took to heart – I was always fascinated by the fact that not everyone does things the same way, and celebrations in other cultures always intrigued me. So I grew up embracing interfaith things. And so I wanted a Hannukkah song on my playlist, for Seth and Molly’s sake; this one is actually the best choice.
…I’ve since re-connected with Seth on Facebook; he is now a dentist in Pennsylvania, and recently posted photos of his three boys lighting the first candle on their menorah. Tempus fugit.
This is actually the newest entry on the list, and is on the list entirely because of another Saturday Night Live moment I didn’t think anyone else but me liked; something my then-roommate and I saw inexplicably appear on the show in 1999.
This silliness just sort of appeared on our screens when we were half-heartedly watching, and we fell in love with it immediately. It made no sense, it was deliberately corny, and it was adorable. It also all but vanished from public memory right after.
Or so I thought. Apparently SNL brought it back for the next three years, and I somehow missed it each time, and then suddenly Jimmy Fallon left SNL and went on his own show, and then suddenly it was ten years later and Jimmy was re-introducing the act on his own show with Julian Casablancas and I pretty much lost it. I just added it to the playlist this year and a couple days ago had it on a continuous loop on my way home from work.
Technically, “Soul Cake” is a Halloween song. But when I first heard Sting’s cover a few years back, I instantly remembered – for the first time in years – where I’d heard it before.
My middle school choir was tapped to take part in a big Boars’ Head Concert at my town’s Congregational Church. We were one of several groups tapped to perform; we’d have our one number, “Here We Come A’Wassailing,” and we were to sing it as we wandered down the aisles from back to front, where we’d take seats and sit through the other groups’ numbers. At the concert’s end, they’d bring in the big boar’s head, and all the performers would join in on “The Boar’s Head Carol.”
For a few weeks before, our choir teacher drilled us in the song, accompanying us on the little piano in our school music room, working on the harmony between the “ones”, the “twos” and the “threes” (Mr. B did that instead of calling us “soprano”, “alto”, and “tenor” or “bass” — probably because it was less disenheartening to refer to any of the boys who hadn’t yet hit puberty as “sopranos”). We were in fine form the last rehearsal before the concert, and feeling pretty confident; I was more worried about the costume I was still trying to put together out of one of Mom’s old prom dresses.
At the concert proper, we waited at the back before our number, listening through the first couple acts — something on the pipe organ, I think, and something by a couple soloists from the church choir. Then we were up. The church organ started the familiar chords, and we all wandered out to the aisles, splitting into our three groups, big smiles on our faces, singing the familiar “Here we come a’wassailing, among the leaves so green…”
I don’t remember whether Mr. B told us that the rest of the church would be joining us when we got to the chorus. But when we got there, suddenly the pipe organ cranked up to eleven, and the entire rest of the church thundered into song along with us – “Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too…”
And then they all dropped out again for the second verse. I don’t know about the others, but I certainly was left a little freaked out by the wall of sound that had just hit us, compared to our reedy little voices singing “we are not daily beggars that beg from door to door…” I still had the brave smile on my face, but my voice was sounding meek and small, and it was one of the few times I’ve ever felt any stage fright.
The rest of the performers joined in with us on each of the choruses after that as well, as we shyly kept singing, continuing our slow march to our assigned pews. At the last verse, we all filed to our seats and stood, singing out the last meek little “God bless the master of this house and bless the mistress too…”And as soon as the last thundering chorus rang out, we all took meek little bows, and then immediately plunked down in our seats. I was a tiny bit shell-shocked, a little too distracted to listen to the first couple acts after us.
Then a small group of women came and did “Soul Cake,” accompanied by a single flute. I hadn’t ever heard the song before, but liked it immediately, and probably appreciated the smaller scale after that big bombast. By the time the Boar’s Head came parading in, accompanied by six guys in classic Beefeater guard costumes, I’d gotten over my nerves enough to enjoy myself.
“Come And I Will Sing You” is a Newfoundland carol, one I hadn’t heard until treating myself to a concert by the band Great Big Sea two years back. In fact, that clip is from that very concert, sometime in the middle of April – I’m somewhere in that very audience singing along.
I fell instantly in love with the song. I can’t say whether it was the complicated rhythm that got me, or the imagery of the words – the lyric “eight Gabriel Angels” especially jumped out at me – but when I got home after the concert, the very first thing I did was call up the song on YouTube and play it over and over for a solid hour, trying to learn the song through sheer repetition.
I’ve got the words totally down by now. The next step is teaching myself how to play the bodhran.
I studied theater in college, and as such was required to take a theater history course freshman year. The end of the first semester, in addition to breaking us up into groups to work on a brief play in a certain historic genre, we also would have an individual music project. We were to each pick some type of music we’d never heard before, have a listen to some of it, do a brief paper and bring that and a tape of a selected song to our final class. However – since our final class was also to be our final class before break, he would also hold a small Christmas party in class that day, and the music we’d selected would be the party music.
I don’t remember much of the other student’s music — just my own, as that was my first real foray into Irish folk. But I do remember he went through all the music, reading off the brief commentary we’d each written for it, and then playing all of our samples, while we all munched on cookies and soda, listening politely.
But then he announced he’d brought in a song of his own to share as well. With a completely serious face, he spoke about how he’d recently found a touching contemporary song, one that concerned a loving couple awash with sentiment and…and I was starting to suspect that he may be winding us up, because he was really carrying on about this song quite a bit. But he stayed completely pokerfaced through his introduction.
And then he played us some Pogues.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it then. I do remember a lot of people in the class barking out surprised laughs when Kirsty McColl suddenly snarls out, “You’re a bum, you’re a punk…” and a lot of excited talk when the song was over, but I think I wasn’t sure about it just yet. However, I kept hearing it again and again each year, and each year loved it a little more. A few years ago I had a somewhat surreal conversation with my mother when we were doing some last minute shopping and this came on the store’s Muzak, and I excitedly told her I loved the song — and then watched her reactions.
This is another song that grew on me. When it came out, in 1987, I was still a very serious teenager who didn’t quite get the appeal of hip-hop. This was cute, I thought, but it wasn’t my favorite song released that year. I also was a bit puzzled at the lyric when DMC says that their mother is making “macaroni and cheese” as part of Christmas dinner – the only version of macaroni and cheese I knew about then came from a box, so I didn’t get why this was something he’d want to celebrate.
I should mention that I am very, very white.
When I was small, there were three albums my mother had in heavy rotation for the House Christmas Music – the Beach Boys, Johnny Mathis, and Barbara Streisand. She would sometimes stack all three of them on the record player and just let them play out, while she went about her business. So side 1 of all three albums are hard-wired into my subconscious as being part of the Christmas landscape.
I remember especially liking Barbara’s high-speed singing of “Jingle Bells” – and every time she got to the middle, when she speaks the word “Upsought?” in her Brooklynese, I would giggle like a loon.
This is from Sting’s “Winter” album – he took pains to avoid calling it a Christmas album – and is an adaptation of a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson.
As I’ve shied away from the traditional carols I’ve grown up with (and heard done to death), I’ve been drawn more and more toward traditional music from England and Ireland; there’s still a lot of “Old England” in New England, and some of the older songs from that part of the world still carry some of the dark mystery that I felt hanging around the edges of the whole gaily-festooned Christmas glitz. Rural New England is good for that; especially around my childhood house, there were huge stretches of land where there were no lights or wreaths or…houses. A house with just one candle in each window gets overshadowed when it’s surrounded by huge light displays, but that same house is a cherished beacon when you’re in the deep of the dark. The older English songs still have that dark in them.
Every Christmas I’ve always ended up on Cape Cod; and no matter where I’ve been – whether at my aunt and uncles’, across from Marion Harbor, or at my grandparents’ house (which is now my brother’s), or my own parents’ current home, we’ve never been very far from the sea, and I’ve often looked out the window, either to watch a storm raging while we’re all inside safe, or to watch the silence and chill stillness lingering outside.
Sometimes people have a harder time finding their way in out of the dark on the edges of Christmas. Others get trapped out there for good.
I think I first heard this the year after a really sucky Christmas; I was still reeling from a really major breakup the previous year, and had gone from heartbreak to a year of unemployment, was feeling distinctly un-merry.
But then the following year I heard this Eels song for the first time, and my ears perked up at the first line – “Remember last year when you were on your own, you swore the spirit couldn’t be found/December rolled around and you were counting on it to roll out….”
Holy hell, they were talking to me.
The rest of the lyrics were even more welcoming and cheerful – they sang of friends, all gathered and waiting for you, and how everything was going to be fine this Christmas. It was exactly what I needed to hear, and I relish it every year since, for its final lines:
“As days go by the more we need friends, and the harder they are to find/If I could have a friend like you in my life, I guess I’d be doing just fine.”
Every Christmas, or Hannukkah or Eid or whatever you celebrate, is a chance to gather with your loved ones, even if the rest of the year has sucked, and be around each other. And that is the something to celebrate.
Besides, how can you not love a song with the lyric, “Baby Jesus, born to rock”?