The eleventh song of Christmas: Miller’s tale

With the whirlwind that today and tonight are going to be, I chose a song that’s simple and pretty, and perfectly captures the tone of Christmas Eve (once all of the commitments are over). It has one verse, sung a couple times, from the perspective of an adult speaking to a young boy who should be in bed. I used to sing it to both of my boys on Christmas Eve; they’d probably look at me funny if I tried that tonight.

I hope your Christmas Eve brings you all the magic, wonder, and love that I felt as a child (and still feel as an adult) on this night, and that are expressed in this song and the two stocking stuffers. Please enjoy Roger Miller’s “Old Toy Trains” and have a fantastic night.

Happy Christmas Eve!


Lyrics:

Old toy trains, little toy tracks,
Little boy toys, comin’ from a sack
Carried by a man dressed in white and red.
Little boy, don’t you think it’s time you were in bed?

Close your eyes.
Listen to the skies.
All is calm; all is well.
Soon you’ll hear Kris Kringle and the jingle bells

Bringin’ old toy trains, little toy tracks,
Little boy toys, comin’ from a sack
Carried by a man dressed in white and red.
Little boy, don’t you think it’s time you were in bed?

Close your eyes.
Listen to the skies.
All is calm; all is well.
Soon you’ll hear Kris Kringle and the jingle bells

Bringin’ old toy trains, little toy tracks,
Little boy toys, comin’ from a sack
Carried by a man dressed in white and red.
Little boy, don’t you think it’s time you were in bed?


Stocking stuffers:


Day 12:

Wonder and hope

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The tenth song of Christmas: Annunciation enunciation

Growing up Catholic in non-Catholic schools in the South, I heard all of the comments. Their families are huge! Their kids go to “Sunday school” on Wednesday afternoons! They have saints! They. Worship. MARY!

That last bit isn’t true, by the way. Catholics do not “worship” a mortal. I mean sure, I’ve said more than a few “Hail Mary”s in my life, but it was never about deifying her. Catholics just happen to think of her as special, to the point of celebrating the Annunciation — the moment when Gabriel delivered that whole “You’re gonna give birth to a savior” message to her. They merely believe in paying respect to the woman who was chosen for that arguably intense job.

Fast forward a millennium or so past that moment in the Bible, and the Basques decided to write a carol about it. I guess technically, the carol was about both the Annunciation and the Magnificat — Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Regardless, its lyrics were inspired by two nearly adjacent passages in the Book of Luke. This thing is holy, okay? It’s treated with great veneration. I’m not sure if it went by the same title when it was first penned (or quilled, as the case may be), but in contemporary texts, it’s a folk carol known as “Gabriel’s Message.” And it’s serious, solemn stuff — as intoxicating and zesty as a bottle of Basque wine.

Sting recorded a version, and gave it every bit of zest and solemnity he had. As a result, it’s a thing of beauty. He harmonizes with himself, sings backup vocals to his lead, and proclaims the Word as clearly and respectfully as any priest could intone it. I doubt a choir of actual angels singing would sound as dignified and earnest as “Gabriel’s Message.” Basque it up.


Lyrics:

The angel Gabriel from Heaven came,
His wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame.
“All hail,” said he, “thou holy maiden Mary,
Most highly favored lady.” Gloria!

“For known a blessed mother thou shalt be.
All generations laud and honor thee.
Thy Son shall be Emmanuel by seers foretold.
Most highly favored lady.” Gloria!

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head.
“To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said.
“My soul shall laud and magnify His holy name.”
Most highly favored lady, Gloria!

Of her, Emmanuel the Christ was born
In Bethlehem all on a Christmas morn.
And everyone throughout the world will ever say,
“Most highly favored lady, Gloria!”


Stocking stuffers:


Day 11:

Miller’s tale

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Interlude 3: And the children shall lead?

The final interlude concerns a group of people who aren’t disenfranchised from Christmas one bit; in fact, the holiday is considered by many to be “just for them.” Children win at Christmas, hands down. But for all that, they’re somewhat underrepresented in the music of the season.

For a child to take an important vocal role in a Christmas song, s/he must be one extreme or the other — either very, very good or very, very bad. That is to say, we can hear near-professional choirs, or we can hear schlock about a hippopotamus. If you give a child shmaltzy material to work with, you’re going to get a shmaltzy recording as a result. (This explains why the only version I truly like of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is by an adult ensemble.)

Kids are at their best when they’re at their most sincere. Give them good, heartfelt lyrics and music, and they will soar. Better yet, let them write all of it themselves. There’s a mix of both in this entry, and I wish we could hear a lot more like them.

Patti Page recorded a song called “Christmas Bells” that made great use of children not in the lead, but as a “responding” choir in a call-and-response. It’s a catchy little song that might annoy some people, but that I love. I could swear a child or two is a tad off-key, but that makes it all the more genuine to me. Rough around the edges, but warm and glowing inside.

Cyndi Lauper’s “Early Christmas Morning” starts off with children in the first verse before Lauper takes over, but it’s an effective, engaging start. And it’s perfect for a song about children singing and enjoying Christmas. The lyrics convey some great imagery, and the song captures the magic of Christmas Day.

The children skating! The snowflakes falling in time with the lazy piano notes! The boys leaning on the fence, in sincere discussion of issues that no child should face — neuroses that are far too adult. Yep, I’m talking about A Charlie Brown Christmas, and that fantastic opening song that generates a Pavlovian response in me, hearkening back to those December evenings of my childhood. That was a time when the only way to see this wonderful Christmas special was to wait until CBS had its one annual showing. How delighted was I that day at 23 when I discovered a Vince Guaraldi Trio CD that included “Christmastime is Here” in its entirety? About as delighted as the day years before, when I found a VHS tape of the show itself, and knew I could watch it whenever I wanted….

Aselin Debison sang for the queen when she was 13. That was about the same time she released Sweet is the Melody, which included a cover song called “The Gift.” If you’ve heard it, you know why I’m including it here. If you haven’t, you’re in for a treat. It starts with Aselin singing a cappella, in a sweet voice as clear as a glass bell. The producer added a little bit of instrumentation later in the song, but it was wholly unnecessary. Her vocal talent is unmatched. The song grabs me from the opening “A poor orphan girl named Maria…” and gives me goose bumps — plus a few tears — throughout.

Lastly, the classic. A necessity for any seasonal event, and a staple background song in countless Christmas movies. The lyrics aren’t the most insightful ever, but I don’t care. Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is a tour de festive force. Having gotten married during the Christmas season, my wife and I wanted to include one Christmas song among the official, announced dances, and we went with this one. It was our bridal party dance, and it was a blast. Like Debison, Lee’s voice sounds older than she was at the time she recorded this; she was only 13.

Kids are amazing when we let them be.


Day 10:

Annunciation enunciation…

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The ninth song of Christmas: Can’t polka hole in this one

If December’s weeknights belonged to Mom and Nanny and candlelight reverence, its Sunday afternoons belonged to Dad and goofy tunes by sunlight. That’s when we pulled a different set of albums from the stack, listening to big bands being a little more playful with their carols. Two standouts in my memory are The Ray Conniff Singers and Mitch Miller and the Gang.

Dad would pull out one of their old records, the ones that smelled like what I imagined the 1940s smelled like (it should be noted that none of their albums had been released prior to 1958, but what does an eight-year-old know?), and load it up in the turntable drawer of “the radio.” We’d listen to a side or two, then he’d wander down to the basement to tinker with his scientific equipment (which is a blog for another day), whereupon the kids would take over and load up albums from The Chipmunks and The Caroleers.

Whatever the case, Sunday’s songs were usually lighter, less somber, and less likely to make someone cry (unless we forced an adult to listen to them too many times). But it almost always started with Mitch or Ray, and even though I typically eschewed their songs, a few of them grew on me. One in particular was unique; I’d never heard it covered by anyone else. I’m pretty sure I still haven’t, although I once read that Bob Dylan recorded a raucous version of it.

I enjoyed the call-and-response structure of the song, as well as its musical style, which I thought of as polka because it had an accordion (at least, I think that’s what’s making that sound). At its heart, it’s a simple, repetitive song that might just drive a person crazy, but for its childlike charm. Plus, it makes me laugh.

There’s an amusing voice in the response portions — I think a woman’s, probably an alto. She sounds a little like a kid, or possibly an adult who’s just sucked in a good helping of helium. Over the years, I’ve imagined her as a tiny, older woman with hair resembling Debbie Downer‘s. Imagine my surprise the first time I saw one of those skits, and thought Rachel Dratch must be channeling the unknown alto from Mitch Miller’s “Gang.”

Give a listen to “Must Be Santa” and see if you picture Debbie singing, “Special night, beard that’s white…” The song’s call-and-response is allegedly based on a German drinking song. Good thing, because if it were to go on for much longer than it does, it might drive you to drink….


Lyrics:

Who’s got a beard that’s long and white?
Santa’s got a beard that’s long and white.
Who comes around on a special night?
Santa comes around on a special night.

Special night, beard that’s white…
Must be Santa, must be Santa,
Must be Santa, Santa Claus.

Who wears boots and a suit of red?
Santa wears boots and a suit of red.
Who wears a long cap on his head?
Santa wears a long cap on his head.

Cap on head, suit that’s red.
Special night, beard that’s white…
Must be Santa, must be Santa,
Must be Santa, Santa Claus.

Who’s got a big red cherry nose?
Santa’s got a big red cherry nose.
Who laughs this way, “Ho, ho, ho!”?
Santa laughs this way, “Ho, ho, ho!”

Ho, ho, ho, cherry nose,
Cap on head, suit that’s red,
Special night, beard that’s white…
Must be Santa, must be Santa,
Must be Santa, Santa Claus.

Who very soon will come our way?
Santa very soon will come our way.
Eight little reindeer pull his sleigh.
Santa’s little reindeer pull his sleigh.

Reindeer sleigh, come our way,
Ho, ho, ho, cherry nose,
Cap on head, suit that’s red,
Special night, beard that’s white…
Must be Santa, must be Santa,
Must be Santa, Santa Claus.

Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen,
Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen.
Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen,
Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen.

Reindeer sleigh, come our way,
Ho, ho, ho, cherry nose,
Cap on head, suit that’s red,
Special night, beard that’s white…
Must be Santa, must be Santa,
Must be Santa, Santa Claus.


Stocking stuffers:


Interlude 3:

And the children shall lead?

 

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The eighth song of Christmas: No words

It was the first and only time I lived alone. I’d graduated from college in spring of the previous year and accepted a job I didn’t want, out of sheer desperation. They began flying me to Raleigh, NC to work on a project the following winter, and I’d spent a lot of two-week stints in a room at a crappy little motel off what was then called North Boulevard (that might reveal my age range to any Raleigh natives who happen to be reading this). That summer, I’d agreed to relocate to Raleigh to save the company airfare, and I’d moved into a one-bedroom apartment. I lived there for a year in which I didn’t put up posters, barely furnished it, and hardly ever bought any real groceries.

Through the fall, I had practically no social life, going from the apartment to work and back, driving home to Virginia every weekend, and subsisting on fast food for the most part. In November, I started dating a woman I didn’t really want to date, and I’ve never been lonelier. Fortunately for both of us, the relationship didn’t last beyond the holidays.

It was a horrible season. I was on the cusp of meeting my future wife, but there was no way of knowing that at the time. (Besides, that’s another story.) I was 300 miles away from the people I loved most, and could no longer afford to drive up every weekend. I tried to be festive. I bought a cheap six-foot string of colored lights at an Eckerd and draped it over an opening/window between the kitchen and living room. I’d plug it in at night and could see its glow from almost anywhere in the apartment, including my bedroom. I still remember waking up to that ghostly shimmer several times each night, and somehow taking a small amount of comfort in it. I owned a portable CD player, so I bought a couple of Christmas CDs to further increase that comfort. One of them changed my outlook and helped me feel alive again.

I fancied myself a fan of jazz, but a better word would have been “dilettante.” I didn’t — and still don’t — know much about that music form, but I enjoyed some better-known pieces. There was an eclectic music store nearby, where I occasionally indulged myself by dropping in, chatting with the clerks, listening whatever they were playing at the time, and pretending to know why its form mattered. That’s where I bought the CDs. One was an anthology from a jazz label named for the initials of its founders, Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen. I knew nothing about them or GRP Records, but I recognized the names of the songs on “A GRP Christmas Collection” and that was enough.

The first time I played that CD, I scratched my head a little at some of the arrangements. Most of the songs had no words, which was the first surprise. This wasn’t jazz like the other CD, which featured vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. This was jazz instrumentals.

The second surprise was, it wasn’t always true to the melodies I knew and loved. Big shocker for someone who thinks he understands jazz. In most cases, the song might start out with the melody, but would proceed to bend, twist, stretch, warp, and otherwise transform it in ways I still don’t understand enough to explain in words that belong in a real music review. Music theory is lost on me, but I believe one of the relevant terms is “syncopation.” And I felt syncopated all to hell.

So there I was, stuck with a CD of Christmas songs that I’d hoped would improve my mood, but that were instead making me angrier and at least a little confused. But night after night, I’d pop the CD in and fall asleep to it, drifting in and out of the colorful shimmer from the kitchen window as I floated on the sounds of David Benoit’s piano, Tom Scott’s tenor sax, Dave Valentin’s flute, Gary Burton’s vibraphone, and a lot more mind-bending instrumental change agents. I began to understand the concept of semuta, a mind-altering musical “drug” mentioned in Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series.

Needless to say, the CD grew on me. By the time Christmas arrived, it was giving me the comfort I’d sought, and no, there were no actual drugs involved. It’s just a humbling, dissonant, beautiful collection of songs that has since become relatable, approachable, and in my personal collection, traditional. It became the friend I needed that season, and got me through to better times in the new year.

It’s nearly impossible to choose a favorite track, but I’d say two of them stand millimeters taller than the rest. I’ve already mentioned one of them in this series — I included Daryl Stuermer’s amazing “Little Drummer Boy” on the list of stocking stuffers accompanying my pick for the sixth song of Christmas. I don’t want to repeat a song, so tonight I’m going with the other — “Silver Bells” by Kevin Eubanks.

Eubanks’ guitar is almost supernatural, at once haunting and reassuring, welcoming and off-putting. I get lost in it every time. I recommend lying back and closing your eyes as you listen, letting him take you on a trip along the busy city sidewalks, dressed in holiday style. You might come back a changed person.


Lyrics:

None in this version except a very cool “Geh-jee-geh” beatbox effect.


Stocking stuffers:


Day 9:

Can’t polka hole in this one….

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The seventh song of Christmas: A white trash Christmas

If the subtitle grabbed your attention and raised any hackles, know that I used it ironically. I don’t like the phrase “white trash” for two reasons. First, the qualifier “white” implies that “trash” by itself is black, and I don’t much care for that sentiment. Secondly, the word “trash” smacks of elitism when it’s applied to people, and as such, is used to demean those whom we see as being of a lower class than our own.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and in the case of Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family,” that treasure lies in the narrator’s familial relationships. Certainly, Keen’s blend of Americana, bluegrass, country, and folk is associated with “white trash.” And the picture he paints of his family is associated with the same. I say it’s a painting of personality, and I’ve seen some of that personality at my own family gatherings. This can’t be white trash, because it portrays so much color.

The lyrics crack me up to this day, especially the shopping lists in the two refrains. I’m fairly certain this is the only Christmas song ever to use the word “tampon” in a refrain, and that’s only one example of this family’s complete honesty with one another. Some of the lyrics sound judgmental, but I submit they’re not meant that way. Rather, they’re meant to show love and respect, bodily functions and all.

You probably noticed I linked to the live version above. I’m not including a link to the studio version, because the live version is far superior in my opinion, and because apparently the internet agrees with me, as I couldn’t find the studio version on the first page of search results. And I’m too lazy to search further. Plus, I’m going to see Star Wars soon, so I’ll wrap up….

I love songs like this, that capture regional flavor in music and lyrics, typically of marginalized groups. That’s how my picks for this entry’s “stocking stuffers” are related; they’re from other regions featuring other specific groups of people who’ve been stereotyped. These people are both white and black, but none of them is trash.


Lyrics:

Mom got drunk and Dad got drunk
At our Christmas party.
We were drinkin’ champagne punch and
Homemade eggnog.

Little Sister brought her new boyfriend.
He was a Mexican.
We didn’t know what to think of him
‘Til he sang, “Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad!”

Brother Ken brought his kids with him —
The three from his first wife, Lynn,
And the two identical twins
From his second wife, Mary Nell.

Of course he brought his new wife, Kay,
Who talks all about AA,
Chain smokin’ while the stereo plays,
“Noel, Noel, the First Noel.”

Carve the turkey, turn the ballgame on.
Mix margaritas when the eggnog’s gone.
Send somebody to the Quik Pak store;
We need some ice and an extension cord,
A can of bean dip and some Diet Rites,
A box of tampons, some Marlboro Lights.

Fran and Rita drove from Harlingen.
I can’t remember how I’m kin to them.
But when they tried to plug their motor home in,
They blew our Christmas lights.

Cousin David knew just what went wrong,
So we all waited out on our front lawn.
He threw a breaker and the lights came on
And we sang, “Silent night, oh silent night, oh holy night.”

Carve the turkey, turn the ballgame on.
Make Bloody Marys ’cause we all want one!
Send somebody to the Stop and Go;
We need some celery and a can of fake snow,
A bag of lemons and some Diet Sprites,
A box of tampons, some Salem Lights.
Hallelujah, everybody say, “Cheese!”
Merry Christmas from the family.

Feliz Navidad!


Stocking stuffers:


Day 8:

No words…

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Interlude 2: Demons of Christmas past, present, and future

The second group of Christmas-disenfranchised people isn’t due to religious beliefs; in fact, it’s not necessarily due to any beliefs at all. Rather, it’s due to various emotional states. I’m well-aware this is an awful time of year for a lot of people, some of whom follow this blog and/or my social media accounts, and therefore have likely been gritting their teeth over the past week’s worth of my posts.

This time of year is bad for those suffering from seasonal affective disorder, depression, loneliness, stress, grief, debt, and other afflictions. If you are one of them, I’m sorry and I’m here for you. Please know you’re not alone. I’ve been where you are, and likely will be again.

The season presents too many demons, triggers, and other hazards. Each of us deals with them in a different way; sometimes I get past the blues by fully embracing the dark side of the season. Apropos of that, the following songs are full of darkness, and I love them. I hope you will, too.

Let’s start off easy, with a song that’s more cynical than flat-out sad. A gang of young toughs beat up a department store Santa, demanding money rather than toys. If you think about it long enough, the sadness will come, but the Kinks present “Father Christmas” in an almost-humorous manner. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.

The next two songs tell stories of Irish families destroying Christmas — and each other. Dropkick Murphys sing a song of familial disdain in “The Season’s Upon Us,” and if the lyrics aren’t enough to explain why the narrator hates going home for Christmas, the music video justifies Ken Casey’s words amusingly. The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” however, isn’t funny at all. It spins a tale of the disenchantment and eventual derision between two long-time lovers who met on a Christmas Eve and who’ve been down on their luck for as long as they’ve been together.

Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” tells a story of ex-lovers who run into each other on Christmas Eve, and is a tragically beautiful tale of regret and the one that got away. I both anticipate and dread listening to it every year. I dare you not to get choked up when you do. But keep in mind, there’s a more optimistic way to interpret the ending, where the snow turns into rain — a ten-year-old girl sent him a letter to ask if that meant he felt warm inside from having reconnected with his ex. I’ve always interpreted it to mean nothing of beauty can last, the world sucks, and we can’t have nice things.

At least those two had a relationship, though. The narrator in Dido’s “Christmas Day” has only the promise of one from a passing stranger who professes his love for her and rides off with a vow to return on Christmas. As of the end of the song, he hasn’t fulfilled that vow. She says his it was the last words she ever heard him say, but does that mean she believes he won’t come back? His fate is unknown, as is the status of their relationship. Melancholy, at best.

Lastly, give a listen to Greg Lake’s sublime “I Believe in Father Christmas.” He allegedly wrote it in disgust at the commercialization of the holiday, but I’m pretty sure I detect a more poignantly dark theme. Ultimately, I find it to be about disillusionment and lost innocence. The line “Be it heaven or hell, the Christmas we get, we deserve” gets me every time, but I just can’t buy into that sentiment.

Too many people deserve better than they get at this time of year; to them, I’d like to stress Lake’s most optimistic lines from his song:

I wish you a hopeful Christmas;
I wish you a brave new year.
All anguish, pain, and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear. 


Day 7:

White trash Christmas

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