As another holiday season has us in the grip (or gripe), I am reminded once again of the thing that still makes me tingle (and ring-ting-a-ling-a-ling, too). Seasonal music! The stuff that snuggles like a treasured knitted scarf. Those tunes that hibernate in your head only to spring, like Rudolph and his happy feet, at the first whiff (or taste?) of eggnog, pine and fruitcake.
Christmas music, long the Hallmark of Bing, Nat, Johnny, Rosie, Perry, Andy and Alvin got hip-ish when Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and others of their elk (er, ilk) started rocking around the Christmas tree. Then there were all of those Celtic, Brit-ic, medieval-ic rediscoveries. A British invasion of another sort. And today’s new age-ic global village brings its own brand of seasonal confection.
Now I’m not talking about Christmas novelty songs spawned by the likes of Dr. Demento, Stan Freberg and Root Boy Slim (“Christmas at K-Mart”). I am talking about the real thing here–timeless carols, “newly “interpreted” classics,” spiffed up and re-packaged to drive the dark away. Some of my happiest childhood memories are of listening to Christmas music. At our house in the mid-1960s, the latest Firestone Christmas music album was as eagerly anticipated as the Sears “Wish Book.” Hymns and jingles sung by the likes of Rise Stevens, Roberta Peters, Burl Ives, Robert Goulet, Mitch Miller and his gang, the Vienna Choir Boys, the New Christy Minstrels and the Young Americans. Stars of stage, studio and the small screen. Ghosts of Christmas past. For a buck a pop, these records, with their colored wrapping paper and big red bows screamed Christmas like nothing else. And I loved them.
Firestone stopped the series at No. 7. Maybe they felt they had nothing left to say? Maybe they felt that the whole series was a little played out (pun intended)? Besides, the times were changing. In the years covered by the series, 1962-1968, there had been three assassinations, marches for civil rights, an unpopular war, the Summer of Love. The world was too much with us. Time to put away childish things.
And yet, every year about this time I can’t help but scan the web for the latest in seasonal grooves. And then I find myself wondering, as I wander, what if Firestone were willing to issue an 8th and final “Best of Christmas” collection? Like Dylan’s basement tapes, masters from the vaults, what Christmas classics would I want to bring back, re-package, find new audiences for? So after some humming and hawing, my “Best Of” list, in Letterman order–plus two bonus tracks, in the spirit of giving. Firestone, are you listening?
10. “Good King Wenceslaus” – The Ames Brothers. From “There’ll Always Be a Christmas,” 1957, Taragon label. One of my all-time favorite carols and my all-time favorite cover. Dig the counter-tenorish “mark my footsteps my good page.” Nothing said Christmas at 6922 N. 29th St.like this recording. It still gives me chills.
8. “Let it Snow” – Jo Stafford. Nothing says cool like Jo Stafford, who passed away this last July. Hip, sophisticated and oh-so-smooth.
7. “Sleigh Ride” – Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. “Giddy-yap giddy-yap giddy-yap let’s go/Let’s look at the snow.” For a few hot minutes, I could imagine what it would be like to live in the New England countryside. And then I would come back down to earth. Great sound effects.
6. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – Ray Charles and Betty “Bebop” Carter. It just does not get any better than this.
5. “Caroling,Caroling/Happy Holiday” – Johnny Mathis. I’ll take anything by Johnny Mathis. He could sing the phone book and I would like it. An old style crooner with heart and soul.
4. “My Favorite Things” – John Coltrane. It gets on the list because of its lyrics (“snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes”). And Coltrane spent a career recording multiple versions. I never tire of it. A 1960 release that introduced the Coltrane quartet with drummer Elvin Jones, pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Steve Davis. Yes, I never get tired of this record.
3. “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting…”) – Nat King Cole. Mel Torme wrote it but Nat owned it. ‘Nuf said.
2. “Wexford Carol” – Cambridge (Mass.) Revels. From “Christmas Day in the Morning.” I have never heard a version of this song that I didn’t like but picked this one because of its old-timey feel and spirit. Percussive and pure.
1. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Judy Garland. Introduced by Garland in the holiday classic “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Judy at her most limpid and luminous; future first husband Vincente Minelli at his most Minelli-ish. MGM really knew how to make movie musicals.
“Christmas Time is Here” – Vince Guaraldi. From the TV evergreen, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Still holds up after all these years.
The album “Light of the Stable” – Emmylou Harris. As crystalline pure today as it was when it was released almost 30 years ago. A classic from start to finish.
So click, spin or play your way into the holidays. And post a comment below with YOUR list of holiday favorites—be they musical, audio-visual, literary or memories of the most notable gifts ever given or received. Hanukah tunes? Eid? Kwanzaa?
And have yourself a merry little. . .