CSOTD 12/31/17: At least I bring you hope

Another year of the Christmas Song of the Day ends today. I hope that this year’s selections have broadened your holiday horizons and somehow made these days more special.

To close out the year, how about a mostly forgotten, yet beautiful, song called “The Closing of the Year”?

Frankly, the song never had much of a chance, even though it was released as an official single, at least in 45 rpm form, during the Christmas season of 1992. It came from the largely forgotten movie Toys, which starred Robin Williams as a toymaker trying to prevent his brother from taking over their shared toy factory with war toys. The film was both a critical and box-office flop – Barry Levinson was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Director – and its soundtrack album didn’t fare any better.

But “The Closing of the Year” still should have become more popular. Written by Trevor Horn and Hans Zimmer, who had worked together with the band The Buggles (“Video Killed the Radio Star”), the single was credited to “The Musical Cast of Toys Featuring Wendy and Lisa.” Wendy and Lisa were former members of Prince’s band The Revolution; the song also included a children’s choir and, about two-thirds of the way in, an uncredited solo vocal by Seal, who had just broken through with his hit “Crazy.” 

Perhaps the song was too idiosyncratic to work in 1992. Not helping the song’s chance at success is that it’s difficult to find on hard copy today; the Toys soundtrack contains two versions, neither of which is the correct single mix. One of the only places to find the single version is on the equally idiosyncratic 1996 Geffen Records compilation Just Say Noel.

Because I already collected Christmas music in 1992, I bought the 45 sound unheard. I liked it, but I have only rarely heard it on the radio in the 25 years since. To close 2017, here’s “The Closing of the Year”:


CSOTD 12/30/17: Season’s eatings

One of the best, and one of the worst, parts of the Christmas season is all the opportunities to eat. The holidays are when waistlines go to waste and where diets go to die. The Christmas Song of the Day for December 30 celebrates one of the best parts of a holiday smorgasbord – “Christmas Cookies.”

Aaron Barker (born 1953) wrote this tribute to baking, and eating, at the holidays in 1999. It ended up with George Strait (born 1952), one of the most consistent hitmakers in country music history. Strait had at least one #1 country hit every year from 1982 through 2000, a 19-year streak that is a record for any Billboard chart. Several of those chart-toppers came from Barker’s pen, including “Baby Blue” (1988) and “Love Without End, Amen” (1990).

In 1999, Strait recorded his second Christmas album, Merry Christmas Wherever You Are. As an exclusive for the Target department-store chain, he recorded an extra song and contributed it to A Country Christmas 1999. That song happened to be “Christmas Cookies.” The next year, it appeared on the more widely issued A Country Superstar Christmas III. 

To everyone’s surprise, by the middle of the decade, not only had it become a country Christmas hit, but pop Christmas radio picked up on it as well. The half-sung, half-spoken tribute to his mate’s excellence in the kitchen (and elsewhere) became the closest to a true crossover hit George Strait ever had.

Over the past several years, “Christmas Cookies” has started to disappear from pop radio. It’s a fun little change of pace that ought to stick around.

CSOTD 12/29/17: Gone and left no traces

By 1968, Jimmy Webb (born 1946) had become one of pop music’s most sought-after songwriters. From a modest start as a staff writer for Jobete Music, one of Motown’s publishing firms, he all of a sudden had songs all over the charts – “Up-Up and Away” by the Fifth Dimension, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” by Glen Campbell, and “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris. This led to a meeting with Frank Sinatra and the Christmas Song of the Day for December 29.

Sinatra (1915-1998) was in the last throes of a mid-1960s renaissance, during which he had his first #1 single in years (“Strangers in the Night”) and was a relevant pop singer again. He also became more open to singing good new songs by up-and-coming writers. In 1968, Sinatra met with Webb to possibly collaborate on an entire LP of Webb songs. But the composer later related that he made the mistake of bringing his father along, and the elder Webb and Sinatra spent so much time talking about the good old days of entertainment that the album project never came up! 

Webb did give Sinatra first dibs on a new Christmas song he’d written, “Whatever Happened to Christmas?”  It turned out to be one of the highlights of the 1968 album The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas, which also includes contributions from his three children (Frank Jr., Tina and Nancy). 

“Whatever Happened to Christmas?” is a melancholy song, in the same vein as the original version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” before the lyrics were altered to make it more upbeat. In it, Webb, as interpreted by Sinatra, wonders where the season went and ties it in to losing someone. It’s a great performance; in all the years since, cover versions have been few (Aimee Mann tackled it in 2006 and did it justice). This might be as close to a cry-in-your-beer saloon song as Christmas music ever gets.

CSOTD 12/28/17: A girl with no name

I don’t know about you, but I find this movie quote, from the 1941 classic Citizen Kane, to be one of the saddest yet most profound in film history. Uttered by the character Mr. Bernstein, a friend and employee of Charles Foster Kane at the New York Inquirer, he told an interviewer in the film:

A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.

Though the encounter lasted longer, the Christmas Song of the Day for December 28 is about a similar circumstance.

“His Favorite Christmas Story” came from short-lived Christian rock band Capital Lights, which was signed to BEC Recordings in 2008 but was no more by 2012. They had begun life as a so-called “screamo” (emo with screamed lyrics) band called AfterEight, but changed their style to more traditional hard rock with a Christian bent when their original lead singer left.

When they signed to BEC in 2007, they changed their name to Capital Lights. Their first album under the new name, This Is an Outrage!, followed in 2008 to good reviews. But their most enduring recording is the Christmas song they did that same year, which appeared on the label compilation X Christmas.

“His Favorite Christmas Story” was written by lead singer Bryson Phillips with fellow band members Brett Admire, Jonathan Williams, and Michael Phillips. The song tells the tale of a traveling man – perhaps a saleman or truck driver – who, on a lonely Christmas Eve in 1937, gathered the courage to ask a pretty girl to dance as the night turned into Christmas Day. As life goes on, he eventually settled down, but apparently never married; the memory of that close encounter at that Delaware dance was too strong. Finally, the man is near death, and though you can see the ending coming a mile away, it doesn’t make it any less poignant when it comes.

I have to admit that this song still hits me pretty deeply when I hear it. Here’s “His Favorite Christmas Story” by Capital Lights.

CSOTD 12/27/17: Living in the past

Most of the time, I like to shine the spotlight upon lesser-known songs that deserve more attention. For my Christmas Song of the Day for December 27, here’s a really neat version of a holiday standard.

The band Jethro Tull made its first records in 1967. One of its early single B-sides was its “A Christmas Song,” which I featured more than three years ago. That track was first issued in England in 1968 and the U.S. in 1972. More than 30 years later, Jethro Tull finally made a full-length Christmas disc, with the appropriate if unoriginal name of The Jethro Tull Christmas Album. It combined re-recordings of seasonal songs Tull had done in the past with some brand-new songs and traditional carols. Among the latter was a new arrangement of a tune from the 1800s that paid tribute to its first hit single.

In 1969, “Living in the Past” became Jethro Tull’s first and biggest hit in the U.K. when it peaked at #3. It was issued at the time in the U.S., but failed to chart; re-released in late 1972 in the wake of a career-spanning 2-LP set, also titled Living in the Past, it got to #11 on the Billboard Hot 100. One of the song’s most unusual features is that it is in a time signature of 5/4. (The vast majority of hit songs are in 4/4.) Ian Anderson, Tull’s founder and most constant member, arranged “We Three Kings of Orient Are” to match the rhythm of “Living in the Past,” giving it the title “We Five Kings.” Here is the really neat final result.

CSOTD 12/26/17: Murray Christmas

Ever since I started the Christmas Song of the Day feature, I have refused to adhere to the new normal. In other words, Christmas doesn’t disappear on December 26 here as it does on corporate radio stations. When I was a lad, the 12 Days of Christmas started on Christmas. I will make one compromise to today’s reality: I will continue to December 31. So if you’re like me, keep reading until New Year’s Eve.

My Christmas memories go back a long way. My earliest are from 1966, when I was five years old. I remember the Christmas Eve Blizzard that year in southeastern Pennsylvania and my dad fighting snow and strong winds to get the Christmas tree in from the carport. (At that time, our family tradition was that “Santa” decorated the tree after we all went to bed on Christmas Eve.) I’ve got many other memories, mostly good, from Christmases since. Situations and times change, but the Christmas Song of the Day for December 26 sums up this time of year as well as any – “This Season Will Never Grow Old.”

Before researching today’s blog entry, I thought that it was first performed by Anne Murray (born 1945). She recorded it for her 1993 CD The Season Will Never Grow Old, which was that year’s exclusive Christmas CD for Hallmark Cards. 

From 1985 through 2008, Hallmark stores commissioned a Christmas album of all-new recordings, first on LP and cassette and later on CD. Though all the performances were new, most of the songs were tried and true Christmas classics, which is why “This Season Will Never Grow Old” really stuck out.

However, Murray didn’t record it first. The song was written and first done by fellow Canadian Rita MacNeil (1944-2013) on her 1988 Christmas album, Now the Bells Ring. In Canada, MacNeil was an “overnight sensation” a decade and a half in the making; her first album was issued in 1975, but she didn’t begin to attract notice until she was a featured singer in Canada’s exhibit at Expo ’86 in Vancouver. By 1990, she was so popular that she sold more albums in Canada that year than Garth Brooks did – and that was the year Brooks released the song “Friends in Low Places.”

MacNeil, who wrote most of her own material, was never very popular outside her home and native land, but Murray recorded several of MacNeil’s songs, including “Flying on Your Own,” which was on her 1988 album As I Am. Murray, deciding she wanted to do a different Christmas song for her Hallmark CD, chose another MacNeil conposition, and Hallmark ended up essentially naming the album after the song.

Here’s Anne Murray’s version of “This Season Will Never Grow Old.”

And here’s the original by Rita MacNeil, which I don’t think has ever been released in the States.

CSOTD 12/25/17: God in three persons

Merry Christmas! I hope that the Christmas Song of the Day feature has somehow made your holiday season a little brighter. I try to write about recordings that are deserving of greater attention than the usual radio fare, and today’s feature is one of them.

From the earliest days of recorded country music, the spoken-word recording was a staple of the genre. Among the more famous ones are T. Texas Tyler’s “The Deck of Cards,” which was recorded by numerous artists; Red Sovine’s trucking tales including “Giddyup Go” and “Phantom 309”; and Bill Anderson’s 1963 hit “Still,” which has sung choruses but otherwise is entirely spoken. As recently as 1977, Donna Fargo hit #1 on the country charts with a spoken-word hit called “That Was Yesterday.” But they’ve largely disappeared, gone the way of sawing fiddles and Western Swing. Today I wish to spotlight a spoken-word Christmas recording that I almost never hear on the radio, but perhaps ought to be spun more often. It’s called “The Christmas Guest.”

In the story, an old cobbler named Conrad dreams that he will be granted his greatest wish: On Christmas Day, the Good Lord will come to visit. So he sat and waited for His arrival. Meanwhile, Conrad’s Christmas is interrupted three times by weary travelers, whom he helps, even as he awaits his Lord to come. At the end of the day, Conrad, fearing that the Lord did not come, gets a surprise when he asks where he was.

It’s an old tale that, in something close to its eventual form, was written in prose by a French musician, author and pastor named Ruben Saillens (1855-1942). He wrote a story called Le Père Martin in 1883. Thinking it was in the public domain, legendary author Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) adapted the tale to Russian in 1885, keeping the main character of Martin. The Tolstoy version, entitled Where Love Is, God Is, was translated into English by Nathan Haskell Dole (1852-1935) in 1887. When that version was re-translated into French, Saillens discovered that his copyright had been violated. When Tolstoy was informed, he is known to have apologized profusely. Another English translation of the Tolstoy version exists under the name Papa Panov’s Special Christmas to reflect Tolstoy’s Russian roots. Because Tolstoy’s works entered the public domain upon his death, later versions of tbe story are based on Tolstoy.

By no later than 1956, a prose version called The Story of the Christmas Guest was in print in Christmas-card form, and the shoemaker’s name had become Conrad. This version ended with a short poem, which was adapted (though not taken verbatim) in the later full-length poem.

“The Story of the Christmas Guest” then became a full poem in the early 1960s, published in small booklet form by the Gibson Greeting Card Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. Helen Steiner Rice (1900-1981) adapted the story, which was said in the first printing of the card booklet to be “From an old German Legend and poem” (caps in original). Rice’s poem was copyrighted in 1965.

Possibly because no notice of copyright appeared in the first printing of the Gibson card, it was assumed to be in the public domain. Thus, in 1969, Grandpa Jones (1913-1998), best known for his recurring presence on the television show Hee Haw,  became the first to record the poem, under the shortened title “The Christmas Guest.” That year, the recitation was issued on the Monument label, both as a 45 and on a various-artists LP called Country Christmas. Even though only a few minor changes were made to Rice’s original, the composer of the Jones version was listed as “(Arr. Grandpa Jones)” on the 45 rpm label. Jones’ version was reissued in 1972 and 1975, with an amended composer credit to Grandpa Jones and Billy Walker.

Others have recorded “The Christmas Guest” in the years since. Johnny Cash did a version on his 1980 album Classic Christmas; Reba McEntire recorded it in 1987; and Andy Griffith named his Christmas album The Christmas Guest after it. All of these versions give credit to Jones and Walker as the composers.

Of course, the true inspiration for “The Christmas Guest” goes back to the Gospel According to Matthew (chapter 25, verses 34-40):

Then shall the King say to those on his right hand, Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from [the] world’s foundation: for I hungered, and ye gave me to eat; I thirsted, and ye gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was ill, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came to me. Then shall the righteous answer him saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungering, and nourished thee; or thirsting, and gave thee to drink? and when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in; or naked, and clothed thee? and when saw we thee ill, or in prison, and came to thee? And the King answering shall say to them, Verily, I say to you, Inasmuch as ye have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it to me.

Think of these words as you listen to Grandpa Jones’ original 1969 version of “The Christmas Guest.”