Last year I compiled performances of the traditional African-American spiritual “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” in observance of the day. I chose videos featuring performances by the Fairfield Four, Hall and Oates, and Odetta. Having had a year to reflect, I stand by my choices. I’ve posted the link above in case you want to revisit them today.
This year I thought I would pick a few secular pop songs that seize on Christmas in one way or another — for their own artistic purposes, of course. I have notes on so many songs to choose from I think I will have to continue in the same vein next year. I’ve arranged the videos below in chronological order reflecting the original appearance of the song on record.
First among them in my pantheon is Elvis’s performance of Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby.” Brown worked up the song as a member of Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers in 1947. Elvis’s version of the song originally appeared on Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas (1971). What can you say? It’s a slightly profane Christmas, but a wonderful world, indeed. (Elvis’s shout out to “James” is to guitarist James Burton.)
Just to let you know where she’s going, Joni Mitchell opens “River” with “Jingle Bells” transposed to to a minor key. The song captures a feeling of desolation that belies the joy of the holiday in a way that many of us have felt around this time of the year. The song tacitly contrasts its own expression of sorrow with the seasonal “songs of joy and peace.” Originally appearing as track 8 on Joni’s aptly named album Blue (1971), the song has nevertheless become an improbable Christmas classic in its own right, with hundreds of covers.
“If We Make It Through December” appeared on Merle Haggard’s Christmas Present (1973) and then, a few months later, on Merle’s album of the same name. Combining desperation with guarded optimism, the song seems plucked from heartbreaking life: “Wanted Christmas to be right for daddy’s girls.” Suzy Bogguss recently revisited the song for her disc Lucky, devoted entirely to songs by Haggard. I love the way Suzy slows down the tempo in her version of the song, performed live in the video below.
Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” (1980) is something like a short story set to music. It drops us into an intimate encounter that resonates with our own experience. One doesn’t need to be told that the song comes straight from life, but it adds to the interest. Fogelberg’s old girlfriend waited until Fogelberg’s death to talk publicly about their chance reunion. The year was 1975. The scene was a convenience store in Peoria. The day was Christmas Eve. The snow was falling. Sam Anderson singled out the song for praise here last year in the New York Times Magazine.
Best wishes for a Merry Christmas to all our readers celebrating the holiday tomorrow.