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Songs of the Season: Jingle Bells

Certainly one of the most widely known and popular (in the United States) of all Christmas songs. Sing along:

(This YouTube video – which bills itself as the “Original Jingle Bells Animation Clip” – includes clips from a variety of sources, including animated cartoons, Christmas movies and TV shows, with karaoke-style sing along lyrics overlaid. It’s quite well done, I think.)

I’ve got versions of “Jingle Bells” from a whole bunch of artists, though predictably more from the jazz and pop side of things than classical, folk or Celtic musicians. Even David Hasselhoff of “Bay Watch” recorded it (ugh). The jazz versions can be quite interesting – particularly the ones by Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Fats Waller. And more traditional/predictable versions, like those by Nat King Cole (and by his daughter Natalie) and Bing Crosby.

It’s odd how many artists have recorded versions. It’s a fun song, but for kids – it’s not really beautiful, but it is upbeat and easy to sing. Its real merit is as something we can sing, rather than as something to listen to on holiday evenings. In any case, we will hear it far too often, or at least the basic tune, in store muzak and commercials long before the holidays are over.

Nonetheless, here are a few versions I find reasonably listenable or interesting in other ways:

Ella Fitzgerald, “Jingle Bells” – from Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas

Diana Krall, “Jingle Bells” – from Christmas Songs

The Andrews Sisters with Bing Crosby, “Jingle Bells” – from White Christmas

Earl Scruggs, “Jingle Bells” – from A Very Special Acoustic Christmas

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Songs of the Season: O Little Town of Bethlehem

Funny to think that the “little town of Bethlehem” really exists. Not so funny that far from being a place for peace and joy – all that Xmas stuff – it has regularly been a battleground, a site for the ongoing violence in the Middle East:

The British wrested control of the city from the Ottomans during World War I and it was to be included in an international zone under the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. Jordan annexed the city in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It was occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Since 1995, Bethlehem has been governed by the Palestinian National Authority. (via Wikipedia.)

Bethlehem’s main source of income is tourism – especially during the Christmas season, with Christians from all over the world following in the footsteps of the Three Wise Men. The carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was written by one of these pilgrims – an Anglican (Episcopal) priest from Philadelphia, after his visit to Bethlehem in 1865.

It’s definitely an old chestnut, but it’s been burnished into various new shiny forms by a range of musicians over the years:

Sarah McLachlan, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – from Wintersong

Belle and Sebastian, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – from [Christmas Peel Session, 12-18-02]

Elvis Presley, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

And of course many of the “usual suspects” for Christmas music have covered it, like

Bing Crosby, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

The old fashioned versions are usually the ones I prefer – like the Bing Crosby, or one of the many versions by a big choir – but I do like the Sarah McLachlan. In general, a little bit of her – with that plaintive whine – goes a long way, but this is one of the nicer covers on her Christmas album, Wintersong.

Truthfully, though, this carol doesn’t do all that much for me – not listening to it like this. Sung live by a caroling troupe or a choir, at night, with Christmas lights twinkling, or in a church with organ accompaniment – well, that’s another story. And it’s another one of those that most carolers can manage – that I can manage when I am out caroling..

For more…

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Songs of the Season: Silver Bells

A contemporary Christmas classic – with city streets instead of woods and lanes, Salvation Army bell ringers outside department stores rather than sleigh bells jingling. First presented in 1950 in both a movie, sung by Bob Hope, and on record, sung by his frequent film partner, Bing Crosby. Crosby would record it a number of additional times – here’s one of those versions:

Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, “Silver Bells”

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

Silver Bells is a classic Christmas song, composed by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. The lyric is unusual for a Christmas song in that it describes the festival in the city and not a rural setting.

Silver Bells was first performed by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell in the motion picture The Lemon Drop Kid, filmed in July-August 1950 but released in March 1951. The first recorded version was by Bing Crosby and Carol Richards, released in October 1950. After the Crosby and Richards recording became popular, Hope and Maxwell were called back in late 1950 to refilm a more elaborate production of the song. (via Wikipedia.)

And here’s a few more versions:

Stevie Wonder, “Silver Bells” – on A Motown Christmas Carol and The Best of Stevie Wonder – The Christmas Collection: 20th Century Masters

Mahalia Jackson, “Silver Bells” – from Christmas With Mahalia

Elvis Presley

and finally by the aural egg nog, Johnny Mathis

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Songs of the Season: Winter Wonderland

A Christmas standard, written in 1934 and recorded countless times since then—Wikipedia identifies more than 100 different artists or versions, and no doubt there are even more. Everyone has recorded a cover of it—from Christmas stalwarts such as Bing Crosby to jazz musicians like Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong to recent pop, rock and R&B artists like Jesse McCartney, Radiohead and Babyface. Here’s just a few of these versions…

That’ll probably do. Despite all that variety, my favorite is probably one of the most common, standard versions: Johnny Mathis again.

For more…

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Songs of the Season: Joy to the World

Another popular traditional Christmas tune – this one dating back to the early 19th century – for which numerous versions are available…

Sufjan Stevens, “Joy to the World”

Boney M., “Joy to the World”

Eugene Ormandy, “Joy to the World”

The Supremes, “Joy to the World” – from Merry Christmas

Aretha Franklin, “Joy to the World” – a gospelized version from Joy to the World

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Songs of the Season: The Nutcracker

Christmas music is not just nor even mostly Broadway show tunes and pop hits like the ones I’ve been sharing. First and foremost, Christmas music is carols and what we usually call classical musical. Classical Christmas music goes back far – very far – and I’ll be sharing some of that music in the weeks to come, but the most well-known Christmas classical these days is surely…

The Nutcracker (Russian: Щелкунчик, Schelkunchik) is a two-act ballet, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The libretto is adapted from the story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E. T. A. Hoffmann. It was given its premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on 18 December 1892, on a double-bill with Tchaikovsky’s opera, Iolanta.

Although the original production was not a success, The Nutcracker has enjoyed increasing popularity since the mid-20th century, and is now performed by countless ballet companies primarily during the Christmas season. Tchaikovsky’s score has become one of his most famous compositions, in particular the pieces featured in The Nutcracker Suite, a selection of eight pieces from the complete score. (via Wikipedia.)

Some of the music:

Overture

ACT II – Selections
Coffee: Arabian Dance
Tea : Chinese Dance
Trepak: Russian Dance
Waltz of the Flowers
Dance of the Prince and the Sugar-Plum Fairy
Variation II: Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy

And a variation – bridging the divide between Christmas and Hanukkah:

Shirim, “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” – from Klezmer Nutcracker

For more…

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Songs of the Season: The Holly and the Ivy

Holly and ivy have been used as Christmas decoration since at least the 15th century. The appeal is obvious—like the Christmas tree, they are a way of bringing some green into the home, into the celebration, representing what has been buried under the snow and darkness of winter. As with the lights, the gifts, the presents, the communities, they stand for the hope of an end of winter and a return of the living world.

King’s College Choir, “The Holly and the Ivy” – from O Come All Ye Faithful

And here’s a “country style” version from Gene Mumford For more…

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Scenes of the Season: The dance from A Charlie Brown Christmas

It needs no introduction…

I always think of this as the “Snoopy dances” music, but really the main bit of music is apparently

Vince Guaraldi Trio, “Linus and Lucy” – from A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Original Sound Track Recording Of The CBS Television Special

As with White Christmas, the Charlie Brown Christmas special is required viewing for me—as for so many people—during the holiday season. Originally broadcast in 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas has been shown every Christmas since then.  I don’t know if it feels as much a part of Christmas for people in their 20s as it does for those those of us who are somewhat older, but I hope so… For people of my ilk, the sounds of it—the voices, the music, and for me especially that dance—are just about as much a part of Christmas as “Jingle Bells” and the visuals are almost as iconic as a Christmas tree.

A Charlie Brown Christmas is the first prime-time animated TV special based upon the comic strip Peanuts, by Charles M. Schulz. It was produced and directed by former Warner Bros. and UPA animator Bill Meléndez, who also supplied the voice for the character of Snoopy. Initially sponsored by Coca-Cola, the special aired on CBS from its debut in 1965 through 2000, and has aired on ABC since 2001. For many years it aired only annually, but is now telecast at least twice during the Christmas season. The special has been honored with both an Emmy and Peabody Award…. (via Wikipedia.)

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Songs of the Season: Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow

Written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn in 1945, this song is – according to Wikipedia – one of the biggest sellers of all time. Another fun fact: “Frank Sinatra’s performance of the song was the 25,000,000th download from Apple’s online music service iTunes”…

Frank Sinatra, “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow”

Ol’ Blue Eyes… eh. I like this Rat Pack version better:

Dean Martin, “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow”

And in fact the Rat Pack released a whole album of holiday standards: Christmas With The Rat Pack. It includes the Dean Martin version, but not the Sinatra – which can be found on various collections and on Christmas Songs By Sinatra.

And of course, the Crooner’s got a version too: Bing Crosby, “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.”

My reason for picking this as one of my “Songs of the Season” and posting it early on? Simple – I really would like a “White Christmas” (though maybe via a trip to the snow rather than freak weather in the City) – consider this my prayer to the Snow Demons, a la Calvin.

For more…

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Songs of the Season: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

I don’t know if it is “beginning to look a lot like Christmas” where you are—or even what exactly that might mean for you. In Australia, Christmas is in mid-summer. In San Francisco, we almost never get snow—and when we do it’s a dusting that is gone in a moment—so a “white Christmas” is always out of the question. There are still the lights, though —in the windows of houses, in shops, and in public spaces—gift wrapping the buildings of Embarcadero Center or strung in trees and across streets. And there’s the early darkness, and the crisp twinkle that the cold night air gives to things…

Since it is finally December, though, it is at least beginning to look like Christmas on our calendars, and so I thought of this song… Another of the more modern staples of the Christmas season – and even though it is a fairly recent version, not dating from my childhood, again it’s the Johnny Mathis version of which I am particularly fond. I just love his voice, like aural egg nog.

Johnny Mathis, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”—from Johnny Mathis Gold: A 50th Anniversary Christmas Celebration

Mathis included it on his 1986 album, Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis, and it subsequently featured in Home Alone 2: Lost in New Yorkthe one where Kevin ends up alone in a hotel at Christmas time. The other obvious version is

Bing Crosby, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”—from White Christmas

For more…

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Songs of the Season: Sleigh Ride

I freely admit it: I am cheesy and sentimental, particularly when it comes to Christmas – as you will see over and over in coming weeks.

I have 100s of Christmas songs in my collection of MP3s, with in some cases dozens of versions of the same song. For this song, I have versions by Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall, Bing Crosby, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Barenaked Ladies and others – even one by Air Supply. But so often it is the versions of these Christmas songs by the old stalwarts to which I turn…

Johnny Mathis, “Sleigh Ride” – from Merry Christmas

The truth is, of course, that it’s pure nostalgia – the Mathis version is the one I heard the most as a child, which has the most resonance for me. It’s like aural egg nog – the taste of the season, even if in this case it is a bit more like a nicer pre-made egg nog rather than my mom’s homemade version (spiced with, among other things, bourbon). The most charming of the many other versions for me is

Ella Fitzgerald, “Sleigh Ride” – from Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas

For more…

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Songs of the Season: Snow – from White Christmas

Another cinema guilty pleasure – a favorite holiday movie, one I make sure to watch at least once ever Christmas. We’ll be hearing and seeing more from this movie over the next few weeks, but here’s a charming scene with all four of the stars singing the virtues of our favorite seasonal precipitation:

And here’s a plain audio version

Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen, “Snow” – from Holiday Inn & White Christmas – O.S.T.

The 1954 movie was directed by Michael Curtiz (who also directed Casablanca) and features music by Irving Berlin, including of course the famous title song. I’m sure it will be shown repeatedly on one or another TV channel during the weeks leading up to Christmas – I’ll try to alert you.

For more…

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zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.

 

What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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