Santa must wear earplugs

I’ve recovered a vintage JBJ posting from the archive, December 2008 (hence the reference to waiting for the end of the Bush administration. Still waiting. . . ) 

Yuletide music in the U.S. hasn’t gotten better since I first posted this, but it’s not for lack of song programmers scraping the bottom of the barrel. Among seasonal kitsch in heavy rotation I’ve heard Burl Ives warbling “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” enough to times to realize he’s really quite glum — maybe it was the blacklist, maybe the testifying to HUAC as a friendly witness to get out of it, but he’s not a happy man singing a happy song.

Is it really Frank Sinatra on “I Wouldn’t Trade Christmas”? Must be, who else would dare a line like, “You buy the Kris Kringle scene”? Shame on you, Sammy Cahn! And then there’s “We Need A Little Christmas Now” from Mame, which I believe is a plea from retailers going broke. Jerry Herman wrote better in his first Broadway musical, Milk and Honey, about Jewish widows looking for husbands in Israel. It’s okay, there’s a long line of Jewish composers cashing in with Christmas jingles. Hats off to Irving Berlin — “White Christmas”  suits Jascha Heifitz.

As a disbeliever, I am most offended by songs blasted into secular public space about the newborn King, Christ Our Lord cometh, Holy Night — uh huh,hallelujah. Glad to say I’ve found a couple of new (old) songs that spell Christmas relief: Eartha Kitt purring “Santa Baby,” which puts the “pay for play” element of mid-winter capitalism right out front. Taylor Swift’s version isn’t nearly as avaricious.

 Sonny Boy (Rice Miller) Williamson #2  blows true to his fashion on “Christmas Blues,” —  drinking ’cause his baby left him, and allowin’ how, “I tried to fetch religion, but the Devil won’t let me pray.”

Thanks to Jim Eigo of Jazz Promo Services for tipping me to organist Bill Doggett’s 12 Songs of Christmas, but it’s basic ice rink material. Bob Dylan, of course, has his Christmas In The Heart album (in which he channels Tom Waits); John Zorn has his A Dreamers Christmas (in which he employed fine players from the “downtown avant garde) — but damn if both don’t play the seasonal sentiments straight. Where’s Spike Jones when we need him? Out-of-print.

As promised above, here’s “I wake up screaming”. Steel yourselves, friends. Soon it will be over.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” — the most odious quasi-pop song ever committed — was ringing in my semi-conscious loud enough to jolt me out of sleep one night last week (I summoned to mind “Night In Tunisia,” trying to recall every kink in Charlie Parker’s famous alto break, to dispel it). “Little Drummer Boy,” “Silent Night,” Gene Autry’s original version of “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer” and James Taylor singing “Go Tell It On The Mountain” — does it really have an extended chorus for recorder ensemble? — assault me at the grocery store (the butcher behind the deli counter fights it with a salsa radio station on high volume). “Jingle Bell Rock” is the best of the bunch — at least Bobby Helms swings and the guitar twangs. Must we suffer this cloying drivel every winter holiday?

The grocery’s manager directed that the Xmas tape be played LOUD! starting the day after Thanksgiving, and the clerks — Brooklynites apparently out of Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, serving customers from points including Russia, Syria, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Manhattan — have gone nuts, bombarded by this stuff on every shift. Last night I shopped in Soho clothing boutiques with my teenage daughter and endured shamelessly glitzy renditions of clichés — er, “classics” — that should have been buried decades back by the big stars of pop now, Beyoncé among others I’ve blanked on in self-defense. There is perhaps one handful of moderately acceptable tunes, relatively literate lyrics and decent voices (perhaps “Chestnuts Roasting,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Let It Snow”) and maybe one seasonal delight (“Baby It’s Cold Outside,” Ray Charles & Betty Carter still the best), but all are rendered obnoxious by six weeks of ceaseless repetition.

The loop is too short, that’s part of the problem. Come on, djs! Throw some curves! Where’s Mae West’s (or Marilyn Monroe’s, or Marianne Faithfull’s) “Santa Claus is Coming To Town”? Bing Crosby or Prince drooling “Merry Christmas, Baby”? James Brown powering or George Clinton slandering “Up on the Rooftop with Good St. Nick?” They don’t exist? Then let’s hear Bird and Kenny Dorham blow hipply on “White Christmas” (since Billie Holiday didn’t sing it as a dirge), Count Basie’s big band boogie “Jingle Bells,” and Jimi Hendrix throw down “Little Drummer Boy” (yuck) and “Silent Night.” Let’s hear Stevie Wonder and Aretha and, oh, John Zorn’s Masada or Steven Bernstein’s Diaspora Soul for some Hanukah flavor.

But enough of this inescapable, annoying, pseudo-sacred, unholy over-wrought, rudely self-righteous and irresponsibly sectarian crap in public places! Can it possibly be helping people spend? I did notice one elderly lady pushing her shopping cart through the aisles while humming along with “Ave Maria” but the vocal was way out of her range and she did not add pleasantly to the esthetic experience. And her cart was empty. She may have been there expressly for the Muzak, but it makes me mu-sick and for sure I want to get out of the store as fast as possible. Things are bad enough, economics, war, climate change, waiting for the end of the world or the Bush administration, whichever comes first. Can’t we go out with a bang, not a whimper? Enough — more than enough! — too, too much commercial Christmas corn!

Complete disclosure: My birthday is the day after Christmas, a distinction I share proudly with Henry Miller, Friedrich Engle, Steve Allen, Elisha Cook Jr. and Frederick II, less proudly so with Mao Zedong, Rosemary Woods and Phil Spector. As a child I felt I was cause of all the fuss, newborn king or just as good as, and though I’ve been told otherwise I can’t say I’ve adjusted. So I stay home surrounded by my own selections or venture forth glad sound is not wired into the subway. But something dreadful can emerge anytime, from any opening door, any car window. “Feliz Navidad.” “Joy to the World.” “This Christmas.”

At least I found a different grocery store. It’s at the edge of Boro Park and seems to be patronized mostly by Orthodox and Chasidic Jewish residents of the area. I have a hard time making myself understood there, speaking English. But I haven’t heard the Chipmunks or any of their ilk rattling on about 12 days of partridges in pear trees. Twelve days — aren’t they over yet? Ah, sweet relief: Roscoe Mitchell’s “Nonaah.” Iannis Xenakis’ Electro-Acoustic Music. The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.”

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  1. Eric Benjamin says

    Amen, brother.


    It IS getting worse…this year the phenomenon seems to have reached new lows. I found myself running through stores to lessen the exposure time. And it astounds me that whenever I mention it – just casually, in passing, say – to a clerk that “…gee, the music is so loud…and i’s driving me crazy…how do you…?” the help pauses and then invariably says: “Oh, I don’t even notice it.” It surprises me that I haven’t read more objections to the trend (yours is the only one I’ve seen – and well done!). Right – the newly-minted pop stars with their unique interpretations of seasonal classics just sound desperate – desperate to sound sincere, or to sound unique, or to please the producer.

    And the specifically sectarian language being sprayed all over me as I look over produce actually lessens appetite and causes me to spend less. (The smugness in Bing’s voice as he sings “O come all ye faithful” – no one else hears this? I put my fingers in my ears and started speaking nonsense syllables, not caring what it made me appear to those in the next aisle.)

    Well, nice to read a kindred spirit. It’s almost over. Another twelve hours and we’re safe for another 350 or so.

    • says

      Thanks for your note, Eric — retail employees who can tune out the day-long soundtrack at roaring volume I’ve found are also immune to making eye contact or answering a question about a purchase. And that’s not just during the heavy shopping season. Having grown up in Chicago, I kinda like winter, snow, frost, and lights are essential to combat the short dark days. Good music helps, too. But that’s if it’s good music. We are in accord.

  2. David Sampson says

    You’re dead right about the ubiquitously trite Christmas music that swamps us.Exceptions are welcome and Your suggestions are great. Wondering what to play in Sydney for our pre-Xmas jazz show, On the Corner, we came up with some goodies that included the following:

    1. Tracks from the lovely Dust-to-Digital CD collection Where will you be on Christmas Day? 24 recordings from 1917-1959, including Butterbeans & Susie’s hilarious Papa ain’t no Santa Claus (and mama ain’t no Christmas tree); The unearthly last month of the year by Vara Hall Ward; Rev Edward W Clayborl (the guitar evangelist’s) highly relevant bottleneck admonition The wrong way to celebrate Christmas; the irresistibly exuberant Christ was born on Christmas morn by Frankie Jaxon and the Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers; and Lord Beginner’s Christmas Morning the rum had me yawning

    2. Sun Ra’s doowopppy It’s Christmas time from the Sun Ra Singles Box on Evidence

    3. Clyde McPhatter’s fabulous White Christmas

    And many thanks for hipping everyone to Jamaladeen’s Ornette CD which had escaped my notice

    • says

      Any radio show called On The Corner gets my immediate interest. Thanks for your suggestions, I’m sure Ra’s understanding of Christmas is worth investigating. And I’m glad to let people know about Jamaaladeen doing anything. Are you aware he takes digital video of his own fingers on his bass neck while playing?

      • David Sampson says

        Thanks for the mind-blowing info about Jamaladeen’s self-filming. I saw him play maybe 15 years ago at a museum in Manhattan and thought he was an amazing enough player (and a really nice bloke) even without the filming.

        For the first time since then I visited New York in October 2011. I was tempted to look you up to see if you were going to one of the gigs I got to (Brass Fantasy at Sista’s Place for Lester Bowie’s 70th birthday; seeing Amina Claudine Myers; and the CD launches for Jacob Fred’s Jazz Odyssey, Steven Bernstein;s MTO Orchestra, and Darius Jones were the picks) so I could buy you a beer as a thank you for your writing. Anyway, I ran out of time and though a thank you is much thirstier than a beer it will have to do.

        Cheers and happy New Year
        Dave sampson

  3. says

    One of the quiet gems of beautiful Christmas music is hiding in one of those wonderful Mosaic sets (MOSAIC SELECT 8 DUKE PEARSON). Not only does it nclude everything that Duke Pearson recorded for Blue Note, but also the long out-of-print Duke Pearson Christmas album Merry Ole Soul. This is simply one of my all-time favorite jazz Christmas recordings and one of the most beautiful jazz Christmas recordings ever!

    Feat: Duke Pearson-Piano/Celeste, Bob Cranshaw-Bass, Mickey Roker-Drums, Airto-Per.

    Selections: 1-Sleigh Ride, 2-Little Drummer Boy, 3-Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, 4-Jingle Bells, 5-Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, 6-Go Tell It On The Mountain, 7-Wassail Song, 8-Silent Night 9-O Little Town Of Bethlehem

    • says

      Duke Pearson had a lot of class. I haven’t heard his Christmas music, Jim (and that song list has several of my least favorites) but if Duke’s playing celeste and Roker’s drumming, there’s something nice to be said for such recordings.