Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Tuneful Tuesday: Songs for Not Quite Advent

For anyone who owns as much Christmas and Advent and Chanukah music as I do, it's hard to keep from playing it all year round. But, then it wouldn't be special, so we have a rule that we can't start playing it until the day after Thanksgiving. Most years this is only a couple of days before the First Sunday of Advent, but this year is different. So this week's Tuneful Tuesday is going to be Songs for Not Quite Advent.

What is Tuneful Tuesday? That's the name I made up for what I'll be doing on Tuesdays for a while. Some people liked my Tunes for November posts (and those who didn't were nice enough to keep quiet). Tuneful Tuesdays will be much shorter; I'll limit myself to fewer than a baker's dozen of annotated songs.

The Christmas songs I've chosen deal primarily with two activities that many people are doing right now: shopping, and looking forward to traveling home for Christmas. Comments are welcomed.

1. Christmas Is Coming -- Traditional.
I have only 5 renditions of this well-known tune. Of the instrumentals, I have to give the prize to Dakota Dave Hull and Judy Larson for their unusual rendition on their album The Goose Is Getting Fat. (Onkel Hankie Pants says this is the world's best background album for a Christmas gathering.) My favorite vocal rendition is by Anne Hills and Shinobu Sato on the disc On This Day Earth Shall Ring. This is a very short song, which is probably why relatively few people record it. But it addresses the important topic of charity as well as the anticipation of Christmas dinner, and, since it's included in a lot of Mother Goose books, is one of the first Christmas songs we learn.

2. It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas --Meredith Willson.
Oddly enough, I have only three renditions of this song by the composer of The Music Man. And two of them are by Bing Crosby! There are lots and lots of Crosby Christmas compilation albums out there; the one this is on in my collection is Merry Christmas. This song is like a time capsule of an idealized '50s Christmas, with the town Christmas tree, shopping at the Five and Ten, and while both "Bonnie and Ben" can wish for Western gear, only "Janice and Jen" want dolls -- although I'm a little surprised at the "dolls that can talk and can go for a walk," as Betsy Wetsy was about the limit of my ambitions (the song was written in 1951). It's beginning to look a little like Christmas here -- some people have lights on their outdoor trees and candles in the windows. (What can I say, I live in a place where 90% of the houses are white clapboard, even though there's no ordinance requiring it, and that's what people do.) For a little more information you can go here. You can also look at this photo of a 1950s Christmas -- my brother and me in the house my parents were building, I think this was taken while my Dad was in Korea.

3. A Christmas Carol -- Tom Lehrer.
There may be someone other than the author who has recorded this, but I haven't found it. So here's my little twice-removed brush with fame: one of my oldest friends, The Left-Handed Decorator, happens to have a fair number of well-known relatives in her past. But something that impressed the rest of us in our early adolescence was that Tom Lehrer had been her father's math instructor at Harvard! Snarky little would-be intellectuals that we were, we played the Tom Lehrer albums quite a bit and could sing along with most of his satirical songs. If you are totally disgusted with the commercialization of Christmas, this song is for you:
"Hark, the Herald Tribune sings,
Advertising wondrous things;
God rest ye merry merchants,
May ye make the Yuletide pay"
always runs through my head at this time of year when I read articles on how it's our civic duty to spend, spend, spend. (Note to the young: the Herald Tribune was once the major New York competitor of the New York Times.) I believe there's a CD boxed set of all Tom Lehrer's work, but I own this one on Bah, Humbug! The Alternative Christmas Album.

I'll Be Home for Christmas -- Walter Kent, Kim Gannon, and (maybe) Buck Ram.
My father, who had his own way of remembering songs, used to sing this
"I'll be home for Christmas
In 1943."
Although the song was recorded and became a hit in that year, I've not found any evidence that this was other than his own idiosyncrasy. It's a very popular song all right -- I have 22 renditions! I won't list all of them. My favorites all share one characteristic: they include the introductory lines
"I'm dreaming tonight of a place I love
Even more than I usually do
And although I know it's a long road back,
I promise you..."
I like me some intros! The top choice is by Neal and Leandra (really, just Leandra on this one), a Minnesota couple who have put out two really good Christmas albums, mostly original, and are favorites in my family. This song is from Listen to the Angels. They are especially favorites of Sisterknits, the only one of our children who will be home with us this year.

5. Christmas Time's A-Comin' -- Tex Logan.

Something sweet and cheerful now -- it's hard to listen to this without wanting to sing along or at least tap your foot. Oddly enough, the writer of this song has something in common with the writer of #3 -- a high level of education in a field other than music. In fact, Logan surpassed Lehrer in this respect as Tom Lehrer never completed his Ph.D. Tex Logan was an electrical engineer for Bell Labs who had a Ph.D. from either Columbia or MIT, depending on which website you believe. He was also a fine bluegrass fiddler who played with such groups as the Greenbriar Boys and the New Lost City Ramblers as well as older bluegrass musicians like Bill Monroe. This is an interesting song musically as it seems to have two choruses; the simple
Christmas time's a-comin; (3x)
And I know I'm goin' home
and the more complex
Can't you hear them bells, ringin', bringin'
Joy to all, hear them singin'
When it's snowin'
I'll be goin'
Back to my country home.
I have four recordings of this one, sadly, none by Bill Monroe, but my favorite is that by Emmylou Harris on Light from the Stable. In fact, if any song has been recorded by Emmylou Harris, it is likely to be my favorite rendition.

6. Christmas Songs -- Ann Reed.
I don't think anyone else could do this piece as well as the writer, and I don't think anyone has. It's a very funny musical rant about the omnipresent Christmas music in shopping malls and stores (and it's nearly all so generic or at least trendy-pop!) Having never worked retail, I have no standing to complain. Sisterknits, however, works at the Great Big Mall and she knows whereof Ann Reed speaks, or sings. The old style, where every store had the same Muzak, was pretty bad. But the new style is even worse for the employees -- each store seems compelled to have its own CD of Christmas music which cycles through several times per work shift. Not even shuffled! Ann Reed, like Neal and Leandra and Dakota Dave Hull and Judy Larson, is a Minnesota treasure. The album is called Not Your Average Holiday CD and is well worth getting for her fine guitar playing and inventive ways with standard songs as well as this funny one.

7. We Need a Little Christmas -- Jerry Herman.
Here's a Christmas song you're likely to hear any time of the year that the musical Mame is playing, for indeed it's from that show. If I remember rightly, things have not been going well for Auntie Mame and her nephew, and she decides they need to have Christmas early. (It doesn't appear to be that early, maybe a few days.) And every once in a while, Sisterknits and I need a little Christmas and break our rule for maybe a couple of hours or even a day. So sue us. I don't have the original Angela Lansbury recording (but you can hear and see her sing it in concert on YouTube here) so I choose Dinah Shore's version, from an EMI set called Happy Holidays.

Please Come Home for Christmas -- Charles Brown and Gene Redd.
A song for anyone who has the blues at Christmas, or remembers what it was like to feel that way. You can find the original version by Charles Brown on Billboard's Greatest Christmas Hits 1955-Present, and there are several other great versions out there, but my favorite is in Cajun French. It's the one by Belton Richard that's included on Alligator Stomp: Cajun Christmas. That's a great disk overall, unfortunately it appears to be out of print but you may be able to find a used or remaindered copy at a slight premium.

9. Santa Baby -- Joan Javits.

From my observations, you either love this song or hate it. I fall on the love side. But not sung by just anybody; it's almost got to be Eartha Kitt's original version. (It's available on the earlier Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits 1935-1954.) Until recently I wouldn't have added "almost," but then I found the London Gay Men's Chorus version on their Make the Yuletide Gay. Even though we know we shouldn't, we all fall prey at times to sheer greed, and might as well acknowledge it. As I'm making my Christmas list, I'm not asking for things like platinum mine deeds, cars or Tiffany baubles, but wanting more books, more music, more kitchen gadgets, magazine subscriptions, fine slippers...I'm no better than the singer, who's no better than she should be! And that's why we need Christmas.

10. The Compleat Nutcracker Sweet -- Petr Ilich Tchaikovskii, arranged by Philip Aaberg.

It wouldn't be Christmas without those artistic performances that everyone goes to, and that often pay the bills for the rest of the year. The Nutcracker is the only ballet most people ever see, I would guess. In case you're not seeing it this year, you can get quite a bit of the music condensed into 5 minutes and 34 seconds with this recording, found on A Windham Hill Christmas: I'll Be Home for Christmas. So far this year, I'm scheduled to attend the local ecumenical Lessons and Carols service next Sunday, if my cold doesn't get worse; and a jazz concert next week in which my ex-sister-in-law is appearing, and I don't know if that will include any holiday tunes at all. But the MPBN magazine came today with lots of good things to watch and listen to during December.

11. I'll Be Home for Lefse -- Leroy Larson and the Minnesota Scandinavian Ensemble.

Last year, this was the song that made me cry. Not that I'm not happy to be back in Maine, but after 32 years immersed in Scandinavian-American culture, well, you yust get used to it, you betcha. Although Onkel Hankie Pants' family is pure Danish, and don't make lefse, we had a friend of Norwegian extraction who used to bring lefse (rolled up around butter and sugar) for coffee hour after church during this season. I haven't learned to make them yet, but last year I did make rosettes and fattigmand for the first time (although the Danes call fattigmand, klejner.) I believe this song is original to the group, another Minnesota musical treasure. It appears the principal place to buy the album is in Iowa, though, at the Vesterheim museum in Decorah.

So, that's all for today and all the tunes for this week. By the way, I just checked. I have 4,220 items in my Christmas-Advent-Chanukah-Winter Solstice collection (though, to be fair, this includes classical music where each movement or aria is a separate track.) Is this excessive, do you think?


celeste said...

omg! ann reed has a christmas CD? I must have! *love* ann reed.

Christine said...

Re Tom Lehrer
You might be interested in perusing the posts in our awesome Community ~