CSOTD 12/31/18: Celine solution

It’s time again to wrap up another year of the Christmas Song of the Day. It’s hard to believe I’ve been doing this for five years (four years on this blog, one year on Facebook). In that time, I’ve shone a spotlight on 155 songs of the season that I feel deserve more attention than they get from mainstream radio. I hope you’ve enjoyed these forays into the vast universe of seasonal sounds, and God willing and the creeks don’t rise, I’ll do another set of ’em in December 2019. Perhaps this new year will be when I finally write about stuff the other 11 months, too. We shall see.

Frankly, my Christmas Song of the Day for December 31 got so much airplay in the years after it first came out that I never thought I’d feature it in a series such as this. But, if I’m lucky, I might hear it once a season these days.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a shame that Canadian chanteuse Celine Dion (born 1968) will probably go down in history for her overly bombastic song from Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On,” which, since it became a hit in 1997, has become the bane of talent-show judges around the world, among lots of other bad things. Why? Because, when she and her producers want to display it, Celine has a wonderfully versatile voice. I love her 2001 hit song “A New Day Has Come,” for example, and she did a live version of “River Deep Mountain High” on Late Show with David Letterman in 1994 that was truly thrilling. (It got the attention of none other than Phil Spector, who produced Tina Turner’s original version in 1966; Spector tried to produce her next album, but the sessions ended in failure.)

At the peak of her popularity, in 1998, Celine released These Are Special Times, an underrated Christmas album. I don’t think I really appreciated how good it is until a 10th anniversary reissue in 2008. Not only does it have her takes on songs you’d expect her to sing, but she does nice versions of others. The originals, though, are where she shines brightest.

One could certainly argue that “Another Year Has Gone By,” a tender celebration of a long-term relationship in the same vein as Shania Twain’s “You’re Still the One,” is only a Christmas song by association, because of its first line mentioning 25ths of December. The rest of the song could take place any time of the year. But, to me, it’s no less a Christmas song than “Celebrate Me Home” by Kenny Loggins, which has become a regular part of holiday playlists. Also, New Year’s Eve, which is certainly part of the Christmas season, is a traditional day to look back to see where one has been.

“Another Year Has Gone By,” co-written by another Canadian, Bryan Adams (born 1969) — yes, the same guy as “Summer of ’69” and a whole bunch of other 1980s and 1990s hits — has been known to make me get watery-eyed, because at this point in my life, I doubt I’ll ever be in a romantic relationship long enough to be able to look back at years of love. It hasn’t happened so far, so why should whatever time I have left be any different?

But I digress. “Another Year Has Gone By” is a really good song, even if it stirs weird feelings inside me.



CSOTD 12/30/18: Take the long way home

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 30 is one I first heard during the exploration of my holiday CD collection in 2016. I have a European various-artists compilation called Seasonal Greetings, which is filled with Christmas songs, both old and new, performed by indie and alternative artists. The quality of the tracks ranged from OK to amazing. Here’s one that I think is amazing.

The group Low was formed in 1993 in Duluth, Minnesota. Noticing that the club scene in that city was stuck in grunge, the new band consciously decided to go the opposite direction: It performed slow, quiet, sometimes dirge-like songs and almost forced the audiences to shut up and listen. After an independent EP, Low signed with the Vernon Yard label in 1994 and put out several critically acclaimed but poor-selling albums.

By 1999, Low was with a Chicago indie label called Kranky. As part of its output with Kranky, the band released a Christmas EP, which was reissued in 2013. One of the eight songs on it is the original composition “Long Way Around the Sea,” written by the band members from the point of view of the Magi who visited the Christ child. After they were warned by an angel not to visit King Herod after they gave their gifts, they went back to the East by another route — in this case, the “long way around the sea.”

The song is recorded at a tempo and with a solemnity that makes “Coventry Carol,” which covers some of the same territory, sound downright cheerful.

Today, Low still exists; it revolves around the married couple of Alan Sparhawk (guitar and vocals) and Mimi Parker (drums and vocals) with bassist Steve Garrington.  They record for legendary Seattle label Sub Pop and remain active in Duluth’s independent music scene. And they do some off-the-wall stuff; a few years ago, they did a cover of Rihanna’s piano ballad “Stay” and did it justice. But this song — it gives me the chills. Here’s “Long Way Around the Sea.”

CSOTD 12/29/18: Why come only once a year?

The story of Santa Claus endures for a lot of good reasons. One of them is that he’s a bit mysterious: From the time the legend was put into story and poetry, Old Saint Nick has done his main work only one day a year, on Christmas Eve night into Christmas morning. And then, this generous, jolly old elf is gone once again.

Over the years, a few songs have wondered why this great man can only show up once a year. And it’s not only because of his generosity; some women of song see Santa as the ideal man, with their other days, by implication, filled with boring guys who can’t possibly measure up. The women who sing these songs want more from Santa than simply to sit on his lap.

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 29 is just such a plea from a smitten would-be lover — “Stay a Little Longer, Santa” by Shemekia Copeland. Co-written by Copeland, John Hahn, and Dante Lattanzi, she slinks through the mid-tempo plea, telling Santa to “forget about that sleigh” and stay with her, because “I know how to make you very jolly.”

I noticed this song on my radio a couple years after I moved to Virginia. Once I found out what it was, I discovered it hiding in plain view in my CD collection. I’ve always loved when that happens.

Copeland (born 1979) was born in Harlem in New York City. Her father, blues guitarist Johnny Copeland, helped her get started by allowing her to tour with him. Johnny died in 1997; shortly thereafter, Shemekia signed with the blues label Alligator. She did four albums in quick succession before taking some time off and deciding to go in other musical directions.

In 2003, Alligator released a cool CD called Genuine Houserockin’ Christmas, filled with songs by artists on the label. It is one of the better albums of its type — a various-artists collection of people who all record for the same label.  Once I pulled it out again, after many years of not playing it, I discovered lots of great songs and performances. And right there among them is “Stay a Little Longer, Santa.”

CSOTD 12/28/18: The lesser-known follow-up

Noel Regney (1922-2002) and Gloria Shayne Baker (1923-2008), then husband and wife, wrote one of the most enduring modern Christmas songs in 1962, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Inspired both by the story of the Christ child’s birth and by then-current events — they wrote the song during the Cuban Missile Crisis, thus the final verse with the king imploring the people to pray for peace — it was first recorded by the Harry Simeone Chorale that year. After it was picked up by Bing Crosby in 1963, the song spread, and now has been recorded by hundreds of artists.

Regney and Shayne Baker wrote another Christmas song in 1964, again inspired both by the Christmas story and by current events, but that one has not endured; indeed, it has largely disappeared from view since 1967. That song is my Christmas Song of the Day for December 28.

The saga of the wise men visiting the newborn King is in the Gospel According to Matthew, chapter 2, verses 1-12. Many traditions about these visitors have been handed down over the years, most of which are not in the Matthew account at all.

Tradition holds that there were three of them, but we don’t even know that for sure; they had three gifts, but how many men were there to present them?  Also, they are often called “kings,” but that is not supported by the text, either; depending on the translation, they were “wise men” or “Magi.” In the ancient world, magi (singular form “magus”) were astrologers from Persia; they studied the stars for signs of great events. The term “magi” gave us our modern word “magic.” And the names of the Magi, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar? That tradition evolved during the period from 500-800.

I present this as prelude to “Three Wise Men, Wise Men Three,” which was written by Regney and Shayne Baker and includes most of the post-Biblical myths in the lyrics. It also mentions the tradition that two were white and one was black — a call for racial unity in yet more troubled times. Listen closely, too, and you can even hear some of the same chord changes that were in “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

The song was first recorded by Bobby Vinton on his album A Very Merry Christmas in 1964:

Two years later, The Regency Choir conducted by John McCarthy recorded a version that was issued on a 45 and on their album Three Wise Men.

In 1967, two more renditions hit the market: Jim Nabors did it on his Christmas album, and a fondly remembered version appeared on Music of Christmas by the Ed Sullivan Chorus and Orchestra. (Fortunately, as was true on his famous television show, Sullivan stood back, lent his name to the enterprise, and let others demonstrate their talent.) Interestingly, all four of these were on either Columbia or its subsidiary, Epic. After 1967, though, “Three Wise Men, Wise Men Three” appeared on some vinyl compilations, but it has been largely forgotten.

Here’s the Jim Nabors version:

Finally, here’s the Ed Sullivan Chorus and Orchestra version:

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear this vintage song on the radio again?

CSOTD 12/27/18: Spoiler alert — the ending is happy

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 27 is called “No Christmas for Me.” You’d think that it would be in the grand tradition of sad Christmas songs with a title like that, but this tale has a happy ending — in more ways than one.

This wonderful song was written and performed by Zee Avi (born 1985), who was born Izyan Alirahman on the island of Borneo and, with her family, relocated to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, when she was 12. She taught herself to play guitar at age 17, and she then went to London to study fashion design. After graduation, she returned to Malaysia and began writing songs using the pseudonym “Koko Kaina.”

In 2007, she started a YouTube channel and began to post her songs for the benefit of friends who couldn’t see her in person in Kuala Lumpur. Her first, an original called “Poppy,” was posted on September 30 of that year. Over a period of a couple months, Avi posted both originals and covers, again for the benefit of friends. On December 14, 2007, she posted what was supposed to be her last video, an original called “No Christmas for Me.”  On her video, which she shot in black and white, she described the song thus:

Don’t be fooled by the title, this one has a happy ending. All in the good spirit of Christmas. I wrote this one a few weeks ago, and recorded it last night. This song was inspired by everything I’ve experienced/read/watched/heard of from movies or stories, about one’s lover being far away for Christmas, be it serving in the army, college, another country, peace corps etc… In a way, it’s also about not losing hope. Although that’s just my opinion, so do share yours. The words in this one are simple and direct. I do hope everyone will enjoy it.

Well, “everyone” became a much larger universe than merely her Malaysian friends, for “No Christmas for Me” became a viral sensation. All of a sudden, Zee Avi’s last video had caught the attention of record labels in the United States! Patrick Keeler, the drummer for indie band The Raconteurs, sent the video to Ian Monotone, manager of the White Stripes (of “Seven Nation Army” fame), who signed her and placed her with Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records. A newly recorded version of “No Christmas for Me” became her first official release, on the album This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday, Vol. 1. The song caught my attention immediately, as I mentioned it in my review of the album for the 2008 Christmas CD Roundup in Goldmine magazine that year. I called it “poignant,” and it is.

Since 2008, Avi has made three albums, numerous singles, and some movie music. For the most part, after her brief foray into stardom in the Western world, she maintains her home in Malaysia, where she remains extremely popular. Every so often, she’ll post a new video, too.

Here’s the 2008 version of “No Christmas for Me,” which maintains the same charm as her original viral video:

And here’s that 2007 video that helped make her into a sensation:


CSOTD 12/26/18: Pray we now to that Child

I don’t believe that Christmas music should be hidden away immediately after December 25. Once upon a time, the 12 Days of Christmas started, not ended, on Christmas. So, as a compromise between tradition and today’s practice, I’ll continue to post a new song every day until the end of the month.

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 26 is a gorgeous medieval British carol that is somewhat known among choral singers, but is obscure to the general population.

“Lullay, My Liking,” or to use the original Middle English spelling, “Lullay, myn lykyng.” is a lullaby that dates to the 15th Century. In it, the singer describes an encounter with Mary shortly after she gave birth to the Christ child. She is rocking the newborn to sleep, thus the “lullay” sound; but with the joyful melody and angels singing in triumph, it’s hard to believe the Holy Infant can get any sleep at all!

The original tune to this gorgeous poem is long since lost. Some more modern composers have written music to go along with it; one of the more prominent is Gustav Holst (1874-1934), who also wrote a familiar melody to the poem “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which was my Christmas Song of the Day for December 8, 2016. Holst’s version of “Lullay, My Liking” alternates a four-part chorus on the refrain with a soloist on the verses.

My favorite recorded version of “Lullay, My Liking,” which includes a brass section in lieu of voices on several choruses, was by American soprano Eileen Farrell (1920-2002), who recorded it for her 1960 Columbia Masterworks album Carols for Christmas. When I was a member of the Wisconsin Master Chorale, we sang “Lullay, My Liking” for our Christmas 2003 concert with four different soloists on each of four verses.

CSOTD 12/25/18: Manger in the round

Merry Christmas! I hope the Christmas Song of the Day has made your season brighter in some way. As always, we’ll continue through the end of the month, because at least in my book, the Christmas season doesn’t end on Christmas Day.

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 25 celebrates the birth of the Christ child, mostly in the form of a round.

When I was young, we had regular music lessons in elementary school, and one of the cool things I remember learning about  was the round. To refresh your memory, a round is when one singer or group starts a song, and then another singer or group starts shortly thereafter by singing exactly what the first singer(s) sang. I remember doing it first with the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” It’s always interesting to hear how it comes together when multiple voices are singing the same thing at different times. As a singer, I’ve found that rounds can be very easy to sing, as long as you remain focused on your melody and don’t get distracted by what others are already singing. However, in choral singing, it’s often helpful to listen to the other parts, but this can make rounds more difficult than they ought to be.

All this serves as introduction to “Christmas Is a Birthday,” which to me is one of the highlights of Burl Ives’ 1965 album Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.

In 1962, Ives (1909-1995) suddenly started having hit singles after many years as a folk singer and actor. His renewed popularity as a singer landed him the role for which he is probably best remembered today, as the voice of Sam the singing snowman in the 1964 TV special Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Ives recorded many of the vocals on the soundtrack, including the song “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” which also was issued as a single that year (in a different recording from the TV show, and the most familiar today). The next year, his record label, Decca, built an album around the song, and both have become perennials. But not every song on the LP was created equal.

“Christmas Is a Birthday” was composed by veteran songwriter Dick Manning (1912-1991), who co-wrote such hits as “Hot Diggity” (for Perry Como) and “Allegheny Moon” (for Patti Page), with Gregory Paul Deutsch. The song was also recorded in 1965 by the Harry Simeone Chorale on their Kapp Christmas album, O Bambino/The Little Drummer Boy, which is the source for the re-recorded version of “Drummer Boy” that remains a Christmas radio staple. But there’s an understated beauty to the Ives version that makes it stand out to me. 

For comparison’s sake, here’s the Harry Simeone Chorale version, released more or less simultaneously: