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.”