December 10, 2003
Christmas time is here, by golly

There was an interesting article in the Chron recently about Christmas music and how there have been almost no songs added to the popular canon in the past 20 or so years. One bit caught my eye:

Sure, there are plenty of carols, the religious songs of the season; some of those date back centuries. And lots of good secular tunes and novelty songs. There are just no up-and-coming standards of tomorrow.

Experts say that's because music styles have shifted from lyrics-based ballads to upbeat dance music. Composers have a hard time getting big names to record new pieces. And publishers just aren't interested in sentimental holiday songs anymore.

Even the well-known tunes of the "golden age" of holiday music, the 1940s, "probably wouldn't make it with the flavor-of-the-day corporate mentality that exists out there today," said James Richliano, author of Angels We Have Heard: The Christmas Song Stories, which details the history of many.


Also, we don't have a common music culture in America anymore, said N. Lee Orr, coordinator of music history and literature at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "We don't have a music that binds us together the way swing or Frank Sinatra did," Orr said.

Now there's rock 'n' roll, hip-hop, rap, country, techno, Latin, funk, folk, gospel, jazz, New Age and international -- the list goes on.

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but the reason for the "common music culture" of the 1930s-50s was the fact that there was a dominant culture in America overall, one which was white middle-class suburban. The music reflected that culture, and the market catered to it. There was plenty of other styles of music that reflected the less dominant cultures - blues, country, and bluegrass, to name three - but the marketplace was not conducive to their reaching an audience outside of their cultures. The splintering of popular music into multiple genres is a natural outgrowth of opportunity and diversity, and if it means there won't be an "(I'm Dreaming of A) White Christmas" of my generation, I consider that to be a small price to pay.

Meanwhile, PG talks about Christmas music that she likes here and here. The CDs that always make it into my player at this time of year include the Asylum Street Spankers' A Christmas Spanking, the Squirrel Nut Zippers' Christmas Caravan, Asleep At The Wheel's Merry Texas Christmas, Y'all!, and the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas. I suppose one of these years I ought to check and see what else is out there, but any new CD will be hard pressed to displace one of those four.

Of course, there's plenty of Christmas music to hate, which the Crooked Timber folks have been talking about. I don't really have a strong dislike for any one song, but there are a few, mostly the longer and more repetitive ones ("The Little Drummer Boy", "Deck The Halls", "The Twelve Days of Christmas") that I can do without. I must say, I'm in awe of this list of bad Christmas songs, put together by a guy who obviously knows his stuff. "Even Squeaky Fromme Likes Christmas"? "Amazing Grace" performed by Donald Duck? We are not worthy.

Finally, no discussion of Christmas music is complete without a reference to this story about Mel Torme and some clueless carolers.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 10, 2003 to Music | TrackBack

I'm partial to Mojo Nixon and the Toadliquors "Horny Holidays" and anything by John Valby, but that shows how twisted my mind really is. Johnny Winter's version of "Please Come Home for Christmas and Keith Richards version of "Run, Run Rudolph" are always welcome as well.

I openly hate most Christmas music, since it tends to run towards sappy, drippy, or maudlin. I don't need to hear Mariah Carey screech "O Holy Night" any more, thank you.

Posted by: William Hughes on December 10, 2003 10:03 AM

I forgot to mention this true story:

About five years ago, I was in a supermarket during Christmas season, and I couldn't quite make out one of the carols that was being played.

I swear I heard a call and response that went:

"F*9k You!"
"Merry Christmas!"

Now, if there was a song with such lyrics, I would certainly want to buy the album. :-)

Posted by: William Hughes on December 10, 2003 10:09 AM

Many, many years ago, I worked over the Christmas holidays in an enterprise that piped in Christmas music for the occasion. To my regret, I learned that there are only about 20 standard Christmas carols which, at 2 - 2 1/2 minutes apiece, means they got repeated once an hour every day for two or three weeks. What I also learned is that, upon hearing "Silver Bells" for the 100th time or so, it feels like little hammers are being driven into one's skull.

Posted by: David in NY on December 10, 2003 10:21 AM

I would have to argue that Mannheim Steamroller's Christmas music is deserving of inclusion in the "popular canon" representing current times.
Also, check out Trans-Siberian Orchestra for some really great modern Christmas music. Who would have thought you could mix rock guitars and a full choir and get such great results - and all the music is original. Check them out live in concert if you ever get the chance.

As for my CD changer, at this time of the year I load it up with my sentimental favorites - albums I grew up listening to that bring back memories of childhood on Christmas morning:

Ray Conniff Singers - We Wish You A Merry Christmas
Bing Crosby Christmas
Elvis Presley Christmas
Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Christmas
Vince Guraldi (Charlie Brown) Christmas
Tony Bennett - Snowfall

Posted by: Mike Thomas on December 10, 2003 10:41 AM

I'm actually a big fan of a lot of Christmas music, if it's sung properly... it's just so rarely sung properly. And for elevators and store PAs it's always the blandest versions that are chosen, to avoid offending anyone's sensibilities. What I wouldn't give to hear Leon Redbone and Dr John's duet on "Frosty the Snowman" sometime while shopping at the mall.

But I beg to differ with the articles you cite. They don't seem to realize that their definition of "standard" is what creates the false sense that no new songs have entered the canon. For example, I'm sure they don't include in their canon novelty songs such as "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" which is legally mandated to be played every third song on the radio from December 12th through the 25th (you've got three more days of silence... enjoy them) or new sappy hits like Wham's "Last Christmas" or Mariah's "All I Want for Christmas is You," despite their incessant airplay. There have been no new standards since the 50s because the commentators define "standard" as "the kind of song they used to write back in the 50s" rather than "a Christmas song everyone knows and is played every year."

Posted by: Jeremy Robinson on December 10, 2003 10:49 AM

I was in a menswear store yesterday (trying to convince the tailor that I was right and that just moving the buttons isn't going to make the jacket fit any better, that it really needed to be taken in slightly), and was astonished to hear Saint Etienne's bouncy "I Was Born on Christmas Day" get piped in over the Tannoy, as the only place I've ever heard that song before is in the comfort of my living room, listening to Saint Etienne's best-of CD.

Posted by: Frankenstein on December 10, 2003 11:07 AM

Jeremy, the Chron article I linked to specifically mentions "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" as a possible future standard.

That said, I think what we have here is an issue of semantics. The article seemed to define a standard as something that regular folks can sing on their own. I agree that there are a number of recent Christmas songs that one can hear over and over (and over and over) on the radio, but how many of them can be sung a capella by a group of wandering carolers? By that definition, I agree with the article.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on December 10, 2003 11:53 AM

I'll agree with Mr. Thomas about Mannheim Steamroller; I've got three of their CDs and am always on the lookout for new ones related to Christmas. Chip Davis has an ear for innovation.

Posted by: Linkmeister on December 10, 2003 12:27 PM

Maybe you gotta live here (on second thought, no maybe about it), but Christmas ain't complete without hearing The 12 Days of Christmas Local Style.

Posted by: Linkmeister on December 10, 2003 12:38 PM

I bow to the definition and withdraw my objections...

Does it count if I can sing all the lyrics to the Bob & Doug Mackenzie version of "Twelve Days?"

Posted by: Jeremy Robinson on December 11, 2003 8:54 AM

The Mackenzie version of "Twelve Days" is a classic and fully exempted from any scorn I might otherwise heap on overplayed carols. Anyone who says differently is a hoser. :-)

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on December 11, 2003 9:12 AM

Can anyone point me to a list of popular (secular) Christmas songs from 1939 or earlier? I'm having quite a time researching dates for songs I'd like to use in an upcoming production. Thanks very much in advance!

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Posted by: Mayonashia Jones on November 14, 2006 6:37 PM