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Saturday, January 06, 2007

12th Night

Christmas music new to me this Season:

Christmas Here With You by the Four Tops. Lovely mid-'90s slick pop African American middle-class soul arrangements of classic songs and one nice original -- the title song -- and featuring Aretha Franklin in dramatic cameos on three tunes.

A Christmas Pops collection from the dollar bin with three fine & lively tunes called "Sleigh Ride" -- the mid-century American hit, originally written for orchestra by "light classical" star Leroy Anderson; and one each by Leopold Mozart and his son Wolfgang. Interesting! I hadn't known that the Mozarts had written tunes with that name.

A stirring and gorgeous collection of traditional carols and spirituals magnificently sung by Jessye Norman in lively and full-bodied arrangements by Bruce Saylor. Funny: Even though Saylor wrote all the arrangement, the CD booklet does not picture him, but the conductor -- and Norman, of course.

In a soulful take on "The Little Drummer Boy," Lou Rawls saltily brought out the pained empathy by the drummer for the baby Jesus in the line "I am a poor boy too." Which is another beautiful aspect of the story of the birth in a stable. God is poor and homeless.

* * *

Read Jody Rosen's lively & graceful book on Irving Berlin’s great hit song “White Christmas” last week-end: highly recommended for the remarkable story of an interesting and pretty song and for the description of the Irving Berlin's various milieux, as well as for Jody's beautiful description of the ambivalence of Christmas, and how people's expectations for joy and harmony are never completely fulfilled.

Jody is also bang-up on the melancholy undertow of Berlin's tune, which is prefigured in such moody traditional carols as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" (my favorite carol when I was a kid) and "Greensleeves" (a/k/a "What Child Is This?"). For decades Bing Crosby's recording of Berlin's perennial seasonal hit was the best-selling record in history -- not just the best-selling Christmas record, but the best-selling anything record.

"White Christmas" introduced a note of sentimental self-pity that was new to Christmas songs, a note which led to its wild popularity during World War 2. There had been secular Christmas hits before, notably Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, which sold 400,000 copies of sheet music in its first month in public, in November and December of 1934. But the 1934 hit failed to spark a trend in Seasonal Pop; it was left to "White Christmas" to lead the way.

Jody's great on the story of Jewish-American assimilation through the vehicle of showbiz, but I do think he overstates the dominance of the pop song field by Jews, admitting only Cole Porter to the rank of dominant songwriters of the classic Tin Pan Alley era. Hoagy Carmichael and the Anglicized Italian-American Harry Warren (born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna) surely belong on the list, as well as Fats Waller and maybe Duke Ellington.

A lovely tune which I don't tire of, but it was never one of my favorites. I've never been a weather fetishist, and there's something off and non-war-zone about those Christmas cards mentioned in the lyrics. Do very many single men send Christmas cards at all? Still, the song's flexibility must be a strength -- hundreds, or maybe thousands, of cover versions can't be wrong.

The saddest version I know is from a WW2 radio broadcast by the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band. It comes as part of a heartbreaking medley for the big band augmented by a string section.

First up is "Silent Night" -- another darkly hued song -- in a hushed, lovely arrangement.

Then comes a wishful song called "I'll Be Home for Christmas," only it's not the same song as the famous one, it's a different song with the same title and the same theme, but not the same words or music, and not as memorable as the rival song on either account, but still effective. Sung smoothly by the band crooner.

Next is a rousing, swinging "Jingle Bells," the original and primal all-American Christmas Party song.

And last, a hushed, string-laden instrumental arrangement of "White Christmas," signifying that the "Jingle Bells" party is but a dream of a better time and place. The sober reality moment, the wind-out-of-the-sails moment, the party's-over moment. Berlin's song cuts deep, deeper with the words only echoing in memory and not being sung in the moment.
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