Sunday, 25 November 2012

Do You Hear What I Hear?: An Alternative Christmas Selection

by Dave Allen

I’ve written this, in part, in response to the interesting Point piece about Christmas music, 'Top 5 Christmas Covers'. I might have called it 'The Least Likely (to be) Christmas Covers….'.
Around 40 years ago, ‘Prog Rock’ bass guitarist Greg Lake enjoyed a solo seasonal Top Ten hit which reminded us that, “the Christmas we get we deserve”. At a personal level, whether you choose secular or spiritual, family or ‘freedom’, is your business but, if Greg was right, then the collective Christmas we “deserve” in this country appears to one of economic alternatives – giving to charities or, more probably, paying for expensive presents and feasts.
The latter ‘option’ is supported with an unprecedented array of lavish and imaginative television advertisements, the majority of which include soundtracks, which are more or less seasonal. So, for example, while M&S open with a snatch of Rod Stewart urging “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, they conclude with a “Celebration” from Kool & the Gang.
The soundtrack to our collective Christmas seems to me always the strongest affirmation of Greg Lake’s theory. For years, the most common complaints around Christmas have been that it starts too early and is too commercialised (see here). But right behind those come the annual complaints about the music, as we are bombarded again by the obvious songs on the radio, in the stores and on the CDs that come free with newspapers or present themselves in the shrinking music stores.
There seems little variety – but there is. Every Christmas, I take great pleasure in assembling playlists of seasonal music to entertain friends and family and I’ve done so for many years. If some of it is pretty unremarkable, well, that’s the case too with most styles and genres of music – especially the ‘popular’ stuff. But there is an enormous amount of intriguing Christmas music out there and among the variety that I enjoy are recordings by Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Charlie Parker, Low, the McGarrigle/Wainwright family, Chuck Berry, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller and BB King.

I’ve tried in that list to mention familiar names but in truth there are many recordings by less well-known artists and if you’re willing to search, then try the traditional British sound of John Kirkpatrick, the quirky Surfjan Stevens, old-timey American Leon Redbone, soulful Aaron Neville or the exquisite instrumental guitar of John Fahey. There’s also some fabulous Christmas Doo Wop from the late 1950s, including a special favourite, the Marcels’ “Merry Twist-mas”.

I have named quite a few black popular acts and this is no coincidence. Many of the first Christmas recordings were religious vocal performances in the best western tradition – for example “Cantique de Noel” by Enrico Caruso (1916). To a large extent, popular Christmas music was an inter-war American phenomenon, supported by many ‘specials’ on the range of radio stations. Henry Hall’s BBC Dance Band offered us a couple of recordings, but the American market was far bigger and, in the 1930s, included “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, “Winter Wonderland”, “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer”, then, in 1942, “White Christmas”, which matched the nostalgic public mood of America’s first Christmas in the War. The market was open and it has rarely closed since.

But while these examples date mainly from the mid-1930s onwards, they were pre-dated by a vibrant black market, not only of religious spirituals and gospel songs but blues by most of the major artists – I’ll suggest as a perfect example Victoria Spivey’s “Christmas Morning Blues”. This black American tradition has persisted through the decades, including the artists I identified above and into more recent Hip Hop and R&B albums on Death Row Records or from Destiny’s Child.

After the War, most top American ‘pop’ stars made their Christmas album including Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis and Nat King Cole. From the 1970s, commercial pop exploited the Christmas market through Slade, Wizzard, Elton John, Cliff Richard and, of course, Band Aid, which placed charity firmly in the commercial field. But one decade was something of an exception – the 1960s. In later years, Bob Dylan, Lennon, McCartney, Bowie, Roy Wood and others made Christmas records but in the ‘swinging’ decade, arguably the period of greatest innovation and iconoclasm, very few of the biggest acts acknowledged the season – or at least very few of the white/rock acts. The black artists continued to record Christmas albums, including one of the greatest when (white) producer Phil Spector assembled his Christmas Gift to You starring his delightful black ‘girl’ groups.

My ‘gift’ to you is to suggest you ignore mainstream commercial culture this month and go searching around Spotify or ITunes – and do have yourselves a Merry Little Christmas.

Dave Allen is an Old Portmuthian. Read his article on The Beatles in Portsmouth and his review of Bob Dylan's new album Tempest, as well as his article on American writer, Jack Kerouac and singer Woody Guthrie. Visit his blog at
Also: Patrick McGuiggan offers his Top 5 Christmas Covers

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