Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Friday, December 22, 2006

she covered his song.

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People say that the McCartney-Lennon song Yesterday has been recorded more times than any other song, in more than 3,000 versions.

I'd put money on another song.

But I'll probably never know.

The song I'm thinking of fell out of copyright more than 100 years ago, so probably nobody has bothered to track it. And the vast majority of its recordings have been in "sampled" form. Or, not "sampled" in the sense of a re-contextualization of a previous recording, but in the pre-sampling sense of "quoted," almost always melodically, but sometimes the words.

If the song were under copyright, everytime someone quoted it, the trackers would track it in order to collect the money. Funny how without a financial imperative, we'll probably never know how many times it's been quoted.

I'm talking about Jingle Bells, the 1857 hit written by robber baron J. Pierpont Morgan's uncle, James Pierpont (pictured, above right).

I heard Joni Mitchell's lovely song "River" on the radio the other day, with its Christmas setting and its melancholy quotation of "Jingle Bells" that opens and closes it -- the most melancholy quotation of the song I know. Mitchell's quotation of "Jingle Bells" is the most trad-Christmas aspect of her record, because hundreds upon hundreds -- I'm guessing thousands -- of pop Christmas recordings quote it.

Think of the classic doo-wop recording of "White Christmas" by the Drifters. At the end of the song, out of nowhere, for no reason, they quickly sing, "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way -- ooh." Charlie Parker's burning version of the same song, in the middle of his sax solo, he quickly quotes the same bit of melody.

The classic version of "Merry Christmas, Baby," by Charles Brown -- he quotes the same bit at the beginning of his piano solo.

The wildest quote I know is sung by Tina Turner (pictured, above center), back when she was part of "Ike and . . . " Their great rocked-up version of "Merry Christmas, Baby" begins with a titanic, out-of-tempo intro of, simply, "Jingle all the way!"

I'm not even going to attempt a list right now -- though if you feel like adding examples in the comments, please do.

It's a great catchy song, nothing to do with Christmas, except it is set in the wintry north, and Christmas iconography is northern and wintry in our culture. Everybody in North America knows the song, excepting recent immigrants, new-born babies, and mentally disabled people. But who among us has ridden in a one-horse open sleigh? If you have, please do tell!

"Jingle all the way!" What a great command! Not just part of the way -- alllll the way. Jingle! It's a 19th century version of "Bring tha noise!" Jubilation, celebration -- sleigh bells are noisy, no pitch, pure excitement.

The most heart-warming version I know is the one from the 1950s by the Singing Dogs. So cheerful! (You can hear it here.) December 1998, my friends John de Roo, Jake London, Dan Tierney, and I played an all-Christmas set at a bar. John & I sang the Singing Dogs' arrangement of "Jingle Bells," John D. singing the treble dog, and me singing the baritone dog. It was a splendid, deeply satisfying thing to do -- I recommend trying it yourself. I spoke with John the other night, and he had just performed a Singing Dogs' version of it live on the college radio station in Tucson, where he lives. He and two friends each sang a chorus, and then a whole big group of people all barked together. He said he'd send me a recording of it -- I can't wait.

I just read the song's whole lyric -- I only knew two verses, but it has four, and the last has a great, great, magnificent line, Go it while you’re young.

Go it! Go it!

And Merry Season to you.

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