Bing Christmas

If you like popular Christmas music, you probably like Bing Crosby.  It’s hard to think of a performer who is more identified with the holiday than Der Bingle.

Everyone knows about the Crosby version of White Christmas.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records, his 1942 recording of the song remains the biggest selling record of all time, having sold more than 50 million copies worldwide.  And if you grew up during the ’50s and ’60s, you remember the family getting together to watch Crosby’s annual Christmas show, in which the Old Groaner — whose actual first name was Harry — and his family and friends sang traditional carols and encouraged those at home to sing along.  But Crosby had a series of big hits with Christmas songs, including a classic swing version of Jingle Bells recorded with the Andrews Sisters, above, and the irresistible Mele Kalikimaka (The Hawaiian Christmas Song), below.  And that’s not even including the definitive Crosby treatment of I’ll Be Home For Christmas, either.

During this baking weekend, I’ve got my holiday music playlist on the iPod to keep me going as I mix, cut, and bake.  It just wouldn’t be the same without the offerings of the crooner from Tacoma, Washington.

About Jingle Bells

If you listen to holiday music, you’ve heard Jingle Bells.  It’s been recorded by just about everyone.  Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters sold more than one million copies of the song in 1943.  It’s even been barked out by dogs. In fact, during 1890-1954, Jingle Bells was one of the top 25 most recorded songs in America.  So . . . who wrote Jingle Bells?

His name was James Lord Pierpont.  He was an organist and choir director, and he wrote the song for a Thanksgiving church service during the 1850s.  Precisely when and where he wrote the song — both Medford, Massachusetts and Savannah, Georgia claim it — is unclear, but the sheet music was first published in 1857.  It was originally entitled The One Horse Open Sleigh.

It’s amazing that a song written before the Civil War could still be popular more than 150 years later.  How often do you hear anyone singing Camptown Races?  And who even rides in horse-drawn sleighs these days, or uses words like “upsot”?  But Christmas is a time when tradition reigns.  People eat traditional foods, sing traditional songs, and put up Christmas trees and Christmas stockings, just as they did 100 years ago.  We like those traditions because they connect us to our past and help us to remember our childhood.

Even though its context is traditional, Jingle Bells remains fresh and appealing. It’s got a bouncy rhythm and words that are easy to remember.  And, although people tend to forget it, Jingle Bells tells the story of young men vying for the affection of Miss Fannie Bright, who apparently liked horses and sleighs. It’s even got some pratfall humor — consider the third verse, which unfortunately almost no one ever sings:

A day or two ago,
The story I must tell
I went out on the snow
And on my back I fell;
A gent was riding by
In a one horse open sleigh,
He laughed as there I sprawling lie,
But quickly drove away.

With a verse like that, I’m guessing that James Lord Pierpont might not mind that many boys at heart hear the Jingle Bells melody and think of Batman, the Batmobile, and Robin laying an egg.

Following In Bing’s Footsteps

Let’s say you are a successful modern recording artist.  Your agent or manager or record company comes to you and asks you to do a Christmas CD.

A Christmas CD sounds attractive for lots of reasons.  You wouldn’t need to write any new songs.  Flip through the pages of the American Christmas music songbook, pick out the songs you want to record, hire some studio musicians, book a week of studio time, and you’re set.  It’s cheap, and straightforward, and your dedicated fans will probably buy just about anything you produce.

And yet . . . if you were a real artist, and not just a fad act looking to make a quick buck, doing a Christmas CD should fill you with trepidation.  It’s daunting to follow in Bing Crosby’s footsteps and sing the same songs he put his stamp on.  And unless you want to go to the fringes of Christmas music and fill your CD with novelty numbers like All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth and Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, that’s exactly what you’re going to have to do.  How do you bring something new and fresh to songs that have been sung thousands of times by different artists and are as familiar to listeners as Happy Birthday?

I love to listen to Christmas music when December rolls around, and one of the things I like about it is hearing how different artists have tackled the standards.  You wouldn’t think anybody could produce a White Christmas that could contend with Bing Crosby’s definitive treatment, but the Drifters’ doo-wop version, Oscar Peterson’s jazzy take, and Linda Ronstadt’s duet with Rosemary Clooney are each as enjoyable and memorable, in their own way, as Crosby’s rendering.  In fact, you could argue that the very familiarity of Christmas songs has caused artists to experiment and push the boundaries of the music — often to good effect.  Christmas music is flexible enough to work with the Windham Hill approach, jazz stylings, choral backing, rock ‘n’ roll, and other genres.

We should applaud artists who release Christmas CDs.  Some of them will suck, for sure . . . but every now and then someone will rise to the challenge and hit upon an arrangement or approach that gives a new perspective to an old favorite, and add to the long roster of holiday classics that we can enjoy, again and again, in holidays to come.

Bizarre Classic

Each day I hear this Christmas song on the radio at least once. It has to be one of the most bizarre pairings in musical history ! Bing Crosby was a musical star of our parents generation in his seventies, while David Bowie was a musical star of our generation in his thirties when they recorded this Christmas song in 1977.

I mentioned it to a younger friend of mine that I really liked this song and she said “yeah, it’s cool” so I guess that means it stands the test of time and is a classic. A “pretty thing indeed”.

Holiday Mix

Christmas is less than two weeks away and the signs of the approaching holiday are everywhere.  The Christmas decorations have been taken from the basement and put in their familiar locations.  This weekend we will get our tree, trim it with the ornaments we have collected over the years, and hang our stockings on the chimney with care.   At the office, Christmas cards are arriving and being displayed on doors, and people have started to add seasonal touches to their clothing.  Women get to wear festive sweaters and scarves; men make do with holiday ties and socks (of which I have a decent assortment).

And, of course, a big part of the holidays is the music.  As I’ve mentioned before, I love Christmas music, and it is well-represented on the Ipod in the Holiday Mix playlist, which is 293 songs and 15.8 hours long.  I like mixing up music and I’ve tried to do that with my Christmas music playlist — instrumental music with vocal, traditional carols with pop songs and James Brown, jazz-influenced treatments with the Salvation Army band, classically trained tenors with ’50s crooners and torch singers.  The first 20 songs on the Holiday Mix playlist are as follows:

Christmas Time Is Here (Instrumental) —    Vince Guaraldi,   A Charlie Brown Christmas
The Christmas Song —   Linda Ronstadt,  A Merry Little Christmas
Gruber: Stille Nacht (Silent Night) —    José Carreras, Christmas Favorites From The World’s Favorite Tenors
Sleigh Ride —    Leroy Anderson,  Season’s Greetings-Disc 1-20th Century Masters The Millennium Colleion
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen —    Bing Crosby,  White Christmas
Jingle Bell Rock —   Bobby Helms, Season’s Greetings-Disc 2-20th Century Masters The Millennium Collection
O Come, O Come Emanuel —   Robert Shaw Chorale, A Festival Of Carols
The Holly & The Ivy —    Mediaeval Baebes, Mistletoe & Wine: A Seasonal Collection
Blue Christmas —    Elvis Presley, Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits
Go Tell It On The Mountain —   Mahalia Jackson,  Christmas With Mahalia Jackson
II – Redemption : Alma redemptoris —    Edward Higginbottom,  Nativitas
The Spirit Of Christmas —    Rosemary Clooney, Rosemary Clooney: White Christmas
What Child Is This? —    Oscar Peterson,  An Oscar Peterson Christmas
A Holly Jolly Christmas —    Burl Ives, Season’s Greetings-Disc 1-20th Century Masters The Millennium Collection
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas —    The Carpenters, Christmas Portrait
O Holy Night (Cantique De Noel) —   Mormon Tabernacle Choir,  Christmas With The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Let It Snow —   Dean Martin, Christmas With Ol’ Dino
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71A – Danses Caracteristiques: Marche —    Alberto Lizzio: London Festival Orchestra, Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Swan Lake (Ballet Suites)
Feliz Navidad —    José Feliciano,  Feliz Navidad
Please Come Home For Christmas —    James Brown,  Funky Christmas

Baking Day

Today I will be doing some Christmas baking.  It is a crisp, frosty day outside.  Kish is up in Vermilion visiting her Mom.  The Browns stink, so there will be no NFL-based distractions.

I’ve bought the ingredients and temporarily parked them on the kitchen island.  Nuts, flour, sugar, brown sugar, spices, coconut, eggs, butter, and milk, among others — just waiting to be chopped, sifted, beaten, and stirred into something good.  I’ve retrieved the familiar Christmas cookie implements from their storage places.  The oft-floured wooden rolling pin, seemingly straight from the hands of the angry wife in some 1950s sitcom.  The electric mixer, with its variable speeds and whirring efficiency and metal popouts.  The motley collection of mixing bowls, each a lone survivor from formerly matched sets.  The cookie cutouts that have been gradually accumulated over the years, some of which have been donated by our respective families.

My baking day procedure is time-honored and as comfortable as an old shoe.  I play familiar Christmas music, featuring liberal selections from A Charlie Brown Christmas, Bing Crosby, church choirs, and other classics, that puts me into a sentimental, holiday mood.  Recipes that require refrigeration are tackled first, so that they can chill while other baking goes forward.  As different concoctions are prepared and taken from the oven, the kitchen island fills up.  Icing is the last step in the process.   And then, after all of the baking is done, platters and gift boxes are prepared by walking around the island, selecting a finely calibrated assortment of baked goodies that are carefully placed on wax paper in colorful holiday boxes.

I always try to bake Christmas cookies early in December.  Baking cookies that I will give away to friends and family never fails to put me in a jolly holiday mood.