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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Elegant, erudite, and enthusiastic blogger Jody Rosen has written an entire book on Irving Berlin's holiday perennial White Christmas. I saw it at a bookstore last Season, picked it up, came this close to buying it, and put it down, thinking, I'm sure I'll get this later. Well, I haven't come across it since, but I do remember it closing -- or at least I think I do -- with a charming anecdote illustrating the friendly bantering relationship between songwriter Berlin and his song's most successful salesman, Bing Crosby. Jody has graced this blog with occasional observations; if you missed his startling datum about the original lyrics of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," scroll down to comments and do partake.

Most of us have heard many many versions of "White Christmas." The song's ability withstand an enormous variety of approaches and interpretations impresses. In addition to Bing's classic reading, a few I love:

* Darlene Love's insouciant and sassy take, which includes the song's rarely used comic introduction as an interlude, on Phil Spector's Christmas album. (I'm guessing Berlin originally conceived the song as at least semi-comic, beginning it with "the sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway, there's never been a nicer day in Beverly Hills, L.A." A review of Jody's book mentions Berlin wrote it in 1938. It became a hit during World War 2, when Bing omitted the introduction and made the song a tender melancholy fantasy of overseas soldiers for home.)

* The Drifters' classic swinging finger-popping doo-wop version.

* Elvis's solo cover of the Drifters' arrangement, which assigns the gorgeous tenor line to the piano.

* The Statues' stately soaring doo-wop version.

* Canadian composer John Oswald's plunderphonic handling of Bing's classic recording, in which he keeps Bing's tempo but electronically manipulates his pitch, sending it wobbling all over the place.

* Barbra Streisand's tender reading, which includes the "orange and palm trees" introduction but makes it seem sweet and nostalgic.

Lots of other versions stick fairly close to Bing's reading, and though nobody matches his combination of easy masculine confidence and tenderness, and nobody else ever had the heart-rending context he fitted so well, I don't dislike any of them; or, I didn't.

Until today. Today I heard for the first time a version I hate: Frank Sinatra's. The arrangement sticks close to Bing's tender melancholy, but Frank seems flummoxed by Bing's mastery, knowing he can't touch it, and so to distance himself from it he desecrates the song far more disrespectfully than John Oswald's assault on it, which honestly recognizes and even celebrates the original's power. To make himself seem hip, Frank changes one word and, for me, wrecks the song.

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten
And kiddies listen
To hear sleighbells in the snow
"Kiddies" -- yuck. As if "kid" isn't diminuitive enough. But "kid" can be affectionate. No affection in "kiddies." Bah, Frank, you phony humbug.

* * *

Plunked through "The Twelve Days of Christmas" on the piano the other night, and, reading the song, realized what my ears had never told me -- it freely switches back and forth from 3/4 time to 4/4. Pretty cool.

* * *

Heard Elvis's "Blue Christmas" on the radio today. Such a great record! Fine, bluesy guitar & piano playing; nice shuffling rhythm; great lead from Elvis, especially on "blue blue blue Christmas," first time bluesy, 2nd time bubbly; and, best of all, the eerie falsetto vocal riff from the chorus. So easy to take the record for granted, having heard it so many times all these years; listening closely revealed anew its delights.

* * *

On the recommendation of ACD (whose blog Sounds and Fury, for some reason, is resisting the efforts of my computer to reach it tonight, giving me the message "Forbidden

You don't have permission to access / on this server."), I bought a Christmas album by the choral group Chanticleer, the album with guest soprano Dawn Upshaw. Such breathtakingly lovely singing, the loveliness of the sounds and the soul-ringing intonation. Really dark moody holy nighttime Xmas music.

I have trouble articulating my experience of classical music. Thinking maybe that my experience of music is so bound up with rhythm and tone -- the rhetorics of rhythm in vernacular music, how beats signify socially and emotionally; the rhetorics of tone and timbre in singing, Bing's relaxed masculinity versus Sinatra's more stressed masculinity. Nothing rhythmically grabbing about most of the Chanticleer CD, and the timbre/emotional tone throughout is reverent. I'm all good with the reverence -- as Oscar Wilde said, Christmas teaches the worship of the baby; and any birth inspires reverence. To believing Christians, Christmas signifies something more, as it does to anybody plugged into the solar cycle. Speaking as a culturally Christian agnostic continually trying to cultivate a reverence for the immensity and mystery and preciousness of life, Chanticleer sings that something more, beautifully.

Shucks, John, thanks for the props. (I'll send you a copy of my book.) By the way, wish I'd written "easy masculine confidence and tenderness" in my book. That sums it up, alright.

Other good WC's:

Rock-steady Wailers version, with Marley singing "NOT like the ones I used to know."

Mel Torme. Like Darlene and Babs, he does the WC verse.

Otis Redding's gorgeous soul ballad treatment.

And especially: "White Christmas (Demo for Tom Waits)," WC-on-Planet-X rendidtion by The Flaming Lips, which simultaneously lampoons the song and captures its spooky-melancholy essence.

By the way, you're right about Frank. He was just cowed by Bing in this case.
Thanks for the tips!

Weirdest "White Christmas" I know: Louis Armstrong with the Gordon Jenkins Orchestra. Can't tell whether Pops is singing especially tenderly, or if he's grimacingly mocking the Whiteness of the lyric. Either way, he respects the song's power.
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