CSOTD 12/12/17: Hey jealousy

Over the years, we’ve been treated to such colorful holiday fare as “White Christmas” and “Blue Christmas.” My Christmas Song of the Day for December 12 is about another color of holiday – “Green Christmas.”

The group Barenaked Ladies is not bare, nor naked, nor even ladies; they are a male Canadian quartet that came up with their unique name during a spate of boredom at a Bob Dylan concert two of the founding members attended. During the 1990s, the group broke out of its native Canada and became popular in the United States as well; in 1998, their quirky single “One Week,” the rapid-fire lyrics of which mention everything from Bert Kaempfert and LeAnn Rimes to Kurosawa and the Smoking Man from The X-Files, hit #1 on the Billboard singles chart.

Barenaked Ladies never achieved those same heights again on the charts. But that was hardly their final triumph: Today, they are likely best known for their theme song of the popular TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory. 

In 2000, they contributed a new song to the soundtrack of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the critically-panned live-action film starring Jim Carrey in the title role. “Green Christmas” tells a tale of someone paying lip service to the holiday season but not really celebrating. 

I remember wondering why this was a “green Christmas” when I first heard the song. Most parts of the southern U.S. have a green (i.e., snowless) holiday, but the song still had references to skating and gloves. It didn’t seem to bemoan overcommercialization of the holiday (another possible way to interpret “green Christmas”). Then I finally heard the words of the bridge in context. The singer is green with envy! 

All of this activity is happening all around him, but he is envious that he can’t be a part of it. There are few sadder lines in Christmas music than “All this mistletoe, no kiss,” especially if one really longs to partake. Oh yes, the “green” can also refer to the color of the Grinch’s skin, and perhaps envy rather than hatred is his problem with Christmas.

Barenaked Ladies recorded the song three times in quick succession, and I can’t decide which I prefer. The first one, the soundtrack version, is more electric than later versions. They then remade it acoustically for the various-artists collection Maybe This Christmas Too? in 2003. A third recording appeared on their 2004 album Barenaked for the Holidays.

Here’s the 2000 original:

And here’s the third version, from 2004. (I couldn’t find the second version on YouTube.)


CSOTD 12/11/17: Yes, he’ll be there

Sometimes, I have to hear a song outside the context of its album to be really moved by it. Such is the case of my Christmas Song of the Day for December 11.

In 2007, country singer Mindy Smith (born 1972) released her third album, a Christmas collection called My Holiday. I reviewed it for Goldmine magazine that year and gave it five stars out of five. But I didn’t mention today’s song as a highlight.

After I moved to Virginia, I remember driving, probably en route to work. As I listened to one of the less corporate locally-owned stations, I heard a gorgeous song based around a thought that I’m sure a lot of kids (and kids at heart) have had: How is Santa going to know where I am if I’m not at home for Christmas? Of course, the Shazam app came out, and lo and behold, this moving song was on that aforementioned CD by Mindy Smith. I had mostly overlooked it then, but now it shone bright like a beacon, to paraphrase a lyric from the song.

“Santa Will Find You,” written by Smith and Chely Wright, the latter a popular country singer in the 1990s, is a hopeful song. No matter where you are, be it apart from family, visiting relatives, or lonely, the great man knows where you are. Perhaps it was a message I needed at the time that was less urgent a few years earlier. To quote the lyric, “With the spirit of Christmas, you’ll never be lost if you truly believe in your heart.”

CSOTD 12/10/17: In the wreath upon the door

Almost everyone who has sung choral music during the holidays has at least a passing acquaintance with the Alfred Burt Carols. These are 15 poems that Burt (1920-1954) set to music and sent to family and friends on annual Christmas cards. Only one of them was performed in public before Burt’s early death from non-smoking-related lung cancer at the age of 34, but since then, they have been recorded frequently. Despite that, only a couple have truly penetrated the public consciousness – “Caroling, Caroling” for sure, and possibly “The Star Carol” and “Some Children See Him.” My Christmas Sing of the Day for December 10 is one of my favorites of the others.

“Bright, Bright the Holly Berries” is as joyous a celebration of the sinple joys of Christmas as one is likely to find. The lyrics, written by Wilha Hutson, are filled with seasonal snapshots: Berries; snowy meadows; mistletoe; children; tinsel; angels; and finally, the coming of the Christ child. And each verse is summed up by the repeated lines, “This is Christmas, this is Christmas, this is Christmas time.” (Because of that refrain, the song is also known as “This Is Christmas.”)

Unlike, say, Nat King Cole with “Caroling, Caroling,” no one version of “Bright, Bright, the Holly Berries” has captured the public’s imagination, which is why it remains obscure. I’ve heard a few versions I like over the years, but I prefer the one by The Singers Unlimited (Len Dresslar, Don Shelton, Gene Puerling, Bonnie Herman). 

The group, composed of two former members of the Hi-Lo’s and two professional jingle singers (Dresslar sang the Jolly Green Giant song, and Herman sang the first version of the State Farm Insurance “good neighbor” song), formed as a jingle-singing quartet, but they quickly branched out beyond that. Released in 1972, here’s The Singers Unlimited’s take on “Bright, Bright, the Holly Berries.”

Their version has only two of the three verses. Here’s Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians from their 1959 album The Sounds of Christmas with all three, plus a coda that isn’t part of the song.

CSOTD 12/9/17: Swiftly to the tear ducts

In the vast universe of Christmas music, very few songs are almost guaranteed to make me cry. I’ve written about some of them in the past; they include “The Gift” by Aselin Debison, “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon, and “The Heartache Can Wait” by Brandi Carlile. My Christmas Song of the Day for December 9 is another one.

I won’t spend a lot of time talking about the phenomenon that is Taylor Swift (born 1989). I will mention this recent tidbit: The week it came out, her album Reputation debuted at #1 on the Billboard top 200 chart, which was not a surprise. But in so doing, it outsold the other 199 albums on the chart combined, according to Forbes magazine.

Way back in 2007, she was an up-and-coming teenage country singer who mostly wrote her own songs and was already starting to cross over to the pop charts. That year, in an amazing act of foresight, the Target department-store chain worked out a deal with her then small label, Big Machine Records, to release a six-song EP as part of Target’s annual “Sounds of the Season” exclusive Christmas CD series. Most of those were available for only one year, but that EP, now known as The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection, has been certified platinum by the RIAA, and more than a decade later, Target – which still has the exclusive on physical copies of the EP – still sells it in many of its stores at Christmas, long after it has stopped doing seasonal exclusive CDs.

The year The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection came out, I was already a fan. Her very first radio single, “Tim McGraw,” which came out in the fall of 2006, was one of my favorite country songs of its era. Then I also enjoyed her next two singles, “Teardrops on My Guitar” and “Our Song.” So I was pretty excited that Swift was part of Target’s exclusive series in ’07.

Back then, I wrote an annual “Christmas CD Roundup” for Goldmine magazine. It started as mostly a list of both new and reissued holiday music, but by 2007, I actually listened to every CD that ended up in the article and gave them a one- to five-star review. Eventually, I popped the Swift disc on and started to listen. 

The first song, a remake of “Last Christmas,” was OK (of course, her version is now a staple of generic Christmas radio). But then the second song came on…

“Christmases When You Were Mine,” written by Swift with help from Liz Rose and Nathan Chapman, is a tale of lost love. Right from the first line, “Please take down the mistletoe,” it started to tug at my heartstrings, and by the time she sang the line “When you were putting up the lights this year, did you notice one less pair of hands?”, I was in full-blown waterfall mode. The song is just Swift and an acoustic guitar, and it hit me in places where I didn’t know I could be hit. I think I might have had to stop the CD before I could continue.

Two years earlier, I had been in my first relationship that lasted more than a couple dates. It was serious enough that friends and family members started asking us, “So, do you two have any plans?” That Christmas of 2005, we spent a lot of the holiday together. As she was relatively short and I am taller, we worked together to trim her Christmas tree with both her and my ornaments. We did lots of other things, too; among other things, we spent time with her parents and my mother. 

But in the late winter of early 2006, the relationship ended. I took it really hard. To make it worse, every so often, the scars that hadn’t fully healed would get picked open again; for example, on New Year’s Eve of 2006, I found out that, less than a year after we broke up, she was already engaged to another man. Even in 2007, hearing “Christmases When You Were Mine” for the first time took me back and affected me deeply.

As I re-listened to the song in preparation for this Christmas Song of the Day entry, the thing still gets to me. Here’s the original studio version:

And here’s a live version, with just Swift and her guitar, that aired on the Today Show on December 25, 2007.

CSOTD 12/8/17: Reminiscing for soldiers

The first time I heard my Christmas Song of the Day for December 8, I had no idea of its fascinating back story. The version I heard, and still enjoy above the other relatively few renditions out there, was a stand-alone single released by Bobby Vinton in 1970 and again in 1974.

Most of you have likely never heard “Christmas Eve in My Home Town,” but if you know a veteran of either the Korean or Vietnam conflicts, they probably know it well. For many of them, it brings back the same memories as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” does to World War II vets.

“Christmas Eve in My Home Town” was conposed by two veterans, Stan Zabka and Don Upton, both of whom were working as pages for NBC at Rockefeller Center. With the Korean War ongoing, Zabka returned to service and was assigned to a military broadcast team in Europe. He took some of his unrecorded songs with him and tried to get them onto Armed Forces Radio, but was rebuffed.

Then Eddie Fisher – officially Private First Class Eddie Fisher, as he was in the midst of a two-year deployment, most of which he spent entertaining the troops – came to Frankfurt, West Germany. Zabka managed to get Fisher into a small studio at the nearby Wiesbaden military base, and with a 12-piece band playing a Glenn Miller-like arrangement, Fisher recorded “Christmas Eve in My Home Town.” The song did get onto Armed Forces Radio, and it became a big hit among overseas soldiers. A 45 of this version exists on the RCA Custom label; based on the matrix number on the 45 (MO9W-5703), it was issued in 1961 on the occasion of its 10th anniversary.

But no Fisher version was forthcoming Stateside. He recorded it for RCA Victor two years later, on November 14, 1953, and a single apparently was scheduled for late 1954 with the catalog number 47-5923, but it was canceled, possibly because Fisher already had two Top 10 singles on the charts (“I Need You Now” and “Count Your Blessings [Instead of Sheep]”). Fisher’s 1953 studio version wasn’t released until the CD era. And, for the most part, the song was forgotten.

But by 1966, another war was raging, and Zabka by then was an associate producer for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson when it was still in New York. Kate Smith, who was in the midst of a late-career revival, recorded “Christmas Eve in My Home Town” for her 1966 Christmas album, released on RCA Victor, and during the season that year, she performed it on Carson’s show. As a result, the “new” song gained new relevance, and it was recorded a few times between 1966 and 1972, including by Vinton, Jim Nabors, and the Living Strings.

Again, though, it has disappeared into the vast pile of forgotten Christmas songs, a fate it doesn’t deserve. Here’s the Bobby Vinton version of “Christmas Eve in My Home Town.”

CSOTD 12/7/17: Judy, Judy, Judy

During her career as a performer on film, on stage, on television, and in the recording studio, Judy Garland (1922-1969) never recorded a Christmas album. She introduced “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, but except for some live performances and a film recording of “Silent Night” in 1937, the rest of her Christmas output consists of two sides of a 1941 single. One of those two songs is my Christmas Song of the Day for December 7.

When Garland recorded “The Birthday of a King” for Decca Records on July 26, 1941, it was already more than 50 years old.  William H. Neidlinger (1863-1924) wrote the song in 1890; at the time, he served as organist at St. Michael’s Church in New York City. Unusually for a 19th Century hymn, he wrote both the words and music. Also unusually for church music of its time, it was written for a soloist (a baritone in the original published score). Only later was it arranged for multiple voices.

In 1904, “The Birthday of a King” was recorded by Frank C. Stanley for the Victor label, making it one of the first Christmas songs committed to wax. Tenor Lambert Murphy released a version in 1912, and an all-star group called the Trinity Choir, with Murphy as one of the tenors, issued a choral version in 1923.

Garland’s 1941 version of “The Birthday of a King” wasn’t a hit. Indeed, the song is largely forgotten today; even though it’s out of copyright, not many hymn books include it becauae it wasn’t designed for congregational singing.  I was reminded of the song last Sunday at church when our organist played it as incidental music during the Lord’s Supper. Listen as Judy Garland sings “The Birthday of a King.”

CSOTD 12/6/17: Henry VIII rules

In 2012, a wonderful compilation of Christmas music was released by Hear Music, the former record label of Starbucks Coffee before it regrettably decided to get out of the music business. Entitled Holidays Rule (Christmas Rules outside the United States because “holiday” has a different meaning overseas than in the U.S.), this eclectic collection by both veterans and newcomers is filled with gems. I’d have to think about this some more, but it may be the last great Christmas music compliation consisting of all or mostly all new recordings. I have many favorites on the CD, but my Christmas Song of the Day for December 6 is one that I had heard only in passing before this album was released.

In addition to his role as ruler of England, King Henry VIII was a passable poet and musician. For generations, it was said that he wrote the song “Greensleeves,” the melody of which was used for the familiar Christmas carol “What Child Is This,” but this has been disproven. Quite a few of his love poems have survived, though, and one of them evolved into the seasonal song “Green Grows the Holly.”

In the original version, entitled “Green Growith the Holly,” the king used holly and ivy as symbols of his undying love:

Green growith the holly,

So doth the ivy.

Though winter blasts blow ne’er so high,

Green growith the holly.

As the holly growith green 

And never changeth hue, 

So I am, ever hath been, 

Unto my lady true. 

There was more to it, but you get the idea.

Holly, ivy and other evergreens (pine, fir, mistletoe) have long been used as decorations during the winter, long before Christmas was celebrated; because they stay green, they show that life goes on even during the bleakest days of the year. (“The Holly and the Ivy,” which was first collected in the early 1800s, is a more familiar carol that uses the characteristics of the holly plant to tell the story of Christ.)

Over time, “Green Growith the Holly” became “Green Grows the Holly,” and attempts have been made to alter the lyrics to make them tie more directly to Christmas. But it remains largely unknown except to fans of Renaissance music and those who record it.

Perhaps that unfamiliarity led Arizona-based indie-rock group Calexico to record it. Calexico – named after a city in California – has been around since the mid-1990s, but began to garner critical acclaim in the early 2000s. Their sound is a polyglot of diverse influences, both from American and Mexican sources, which makes them hard to pigeonhole beyond the broad categories of “indie rock” and “Americana.” I first became aware of Calexico when they did a combined EP with the Miami-based group Iron And Wine. But I have to admit that their 2012 version of “Green Grows the Holly,” with its haunting vocal and especially the mariachi-style trumpet, caught me off guard. Perhaps it will do the same for you.