Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Sap's Guide to Christmas Music Part I

Winter in Wine Country
I admit it.
I love Christmas music. It's true.
And I don't even celebrate Christmas.
But not just any Christmas music. Oh, I love the classical stuff -- give me Bach or Handel almost any day -- but the stuff I dig is the true Christmas classics. I'm talking "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire," shit. Gimme that groove any day of the year.
I blame it on my youth when, home sick from school, I would spend hours going through my parents' record collection. It was in those stacks where I discovered Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, Oscar Levant, Dinah Washington and Judy Garland, Bobby Short, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme Tony Bennett and then a whole host of 1950s folk singers, from Leadbelly to Pete Seeger.
Those days taught me to love all kinds of music, but at heart I'm a big ol' dyed-in-the-jukebox sap and so the one happy place where I return is to American popular standards. I used to know all the words to the songbooks of Gershwin and Rogers & Hart, Berlin and Hoagy Carmichael, to the great songs sung by the great popular singers of our time.
I've tried to see as many of them as possible; among the performers I've seen live are Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Sarah Vaugan, Etta James and Bobby Short. When I was a journalist, I interviewed both Bennett and Bobby Short, two of the nicest guys you'll ever meet.
For my money, some of the best American standards ever are Christmas songs. Three in particular are my personal favorites: White Christmas, The Christmas Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. They are more than just holiday tunes, but incredibly strong songs that have stood the test of time and thousands of interpretations from artists as different as Placido Domingo and James Brown.
Over the years, I've collected as many different versions of these songs as I could find and my collection numbers in the hundreds. I would say that the vast majority of them are awful, in particular most of the recent interpretations by pop singers.
Over the next week, I'd like to share some of my favorite renditions of these songs and a few other Christmas songs of note.
I'm going to start with Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which was introduced by Judy Garland in the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis. The song was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. Funny but true fact: this is the one song of the three I've listed here that wasn't written by a Jewish songwriter.
It is a lovely song and despite being a holiday standard, is also a very sad one. It is a big reason why I love it so much. Many interpretations of it are bright and airy but Garland's original stings with a deep longing melancholia that marks a number of other well-known versions.
I'm posting two of my favorites in my Vox stash that really hit the sentimental note hard. The first is the aforementioned version by Judy Garland from the Original Cast Album of Meet Me in St. Louis and the second by Etta James, whose sadly soulful take is perfect for a song about being far away from your loved ones for the holidays.
Tomorrow: White Christmas.

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