Between the lines: Christmas music, from Dylan to Death Row
No holiday has inspired more music — and groans about its omnipresence — than Christmas.
It used to be the holiday music started in stores the day after Thanksgiving. This year I heard holiday harmonies on the day after Halloween. Talk about feeling haunted…
But in spite of the insipid nature of most Christmas music, every year we believers and nonbelievers at some point fall prey to its charms. Even the Scrooges among us put on a few tunes come Christmas Eve.
In my household the holiday music runs to the traditional — at least when traditional is defined as “what we listened to when I was a kid.”
You won’t catch me playing James Taylor’s or Katy Perry’s Christmas albums.
Instead I stick with the timeless classics from Frank Sinatra and the Kingston Trio.
“The Sinatra Christmas Album,” with heavenly arrangements by Gordon Jenkins, was recorded in 1957. You can buy a vinyl version of it on eBay for $72.25. Or listen on Spotify for $11 a month.
Or catch it on the free version of Spotify, if you want to have your holiday reveries interrupted by ads for burglar alarms.
If you’re willing to endure the execrable sound from your computer’s speakers, you can even listen to it free on YouTube.
Frankie won’t begrudge you the missing royalty payments from YouTube. He’s been dead since 1998.
Sinatra recorded other Christmas albums before he faced his final curtain. But there’s no better one than the first LP.
Side 1 — I still think of it in terms of the vinyl — calls in the holiday with “Jingle Bells,” preceded by the cheery sound of actual jingle bells.
Sinatra also stole from Nat King Cole with “The Christmas Song” and all those chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
A CD version of the album even includes a page from Der Bingle’s book with a so-so version of “White Christmas.” (Which as my dad always noted, “is a wonderful song but Irving Berlin really should have written one more verse”).
For my money, Frankie really hit the high note with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
I recall that even at age 11 as I placed the angel atop my family’s 12-foot-tall Christmas tree, I looked down and hoped the lyrics would always come true:
Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more
As for the Kingston Trio’s Christmas album, it’s become fashionable even among folkies to slam the Trio, lost on the MTA or hangin’ from a white oak tree with Tom Dooley.
Yes, they were corny in their striped short-sleeve shirts. But hey, the Beach Boys wore them, too.
The Trio was also shameless about stealing other people’s songs and calling them their own.
At least they stole from the very best — never more so than on their classic 1960 album, “Last Month of the Year,” recorded in the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. (the same hotel where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, for all you conspiracy theorists).
The album borrows from olde English carols and black spirituals alike, complete with gut-string guitar, glockenspiel, heavenly harmonies, and a bouzouki played by Dave Guard. (Local angle: Guard’s daughter went to Middlebury College.)
Wikipedia calls the album “their most musically ambitious and also one of the Trio’s least known.”
You can pick it up online for, well, a song. Or you can, like any sensible person, get that album and virtually every other one ever recorded via Spotify.
Yes, Pandora will get you free Christmas music, to play in the background while you’re arguing with your relatives about whether Donald Trump is truly insane or merely incompetent.
But nothing brings you the world of holiday music like Spotify.
I mean, it’s all there. Mommy kissing Santa Claus. John Denver pleading, “Please, daddy, don’t get drunk this Christmas.” Elvis reminding us he’ll have a b-b-blue blue Christmas without you.
And where else are you going to have instant access to the lesser-known Elvis Christmas songs, such as “Santa Claus is Back in Town”? Wherein Elvis tells his girlfriend:
Got no sleigh with reindeer
Got no sack on my back
You’re gonna see me comin’
In a big black Cadillac
Ol’ Elvis really put one over on the censors with the next verse:
Hang up your pretty stockings
And turn off the light
Santa Claus is coming
Down your chimney tonight
If you’re looking for tips on what to listen to this holiday season, Rolling Stone magazine put together a list of the top 25 Christmas albums ever — “from Bing Crosby to Bob Dylan, Motown to Death Row.”
Or you can just tune in to Frankie:
Though the years
We all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star
Upon the highest bow
And have yourself
A merry little Christmas now
Merry Christmas, everybody.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected] Or stop by and say hi at the North Pole.