"White Christmas" may have started it all. Bing Crosby sang the Irving Berlin song in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, and Berlin won an Academy Award for Best Song. The song topped the charts for 11 weeks that year, then it hit No. 1 again in 1945 and 1946 and charted every Christmas season but one until 1962.
"White Christmas" became the model for Christmas recordings to follow. Crosby makes the song a platform for his persona, evoking warmth and a wise wistfulness. But he can't take complete possession of the song. Dean Martin, the Beach Boys and Louis Armstrong put their own stamps on the classic, as have others throughout the years. When Elvis Presley covered it on 1957's Elvis' Christmas Album, Berlin was incensed, considering a rock 'n' roll version of his song heresy. Evidently, Berlin had not heard the Drifters' 1954 version that Presley had used as a blueprint.
"White Christmas" was by no means the first Christmas song or Christmas recording. Trans-Siberian Orchestra this year finished its trilogy of Christmas rock operas with The Lost Christmas Eve, and co-founder Paul O'Neill points out, "Some of these songs like 'March of the Three Kings' were being played in 1200 A.D. Here's a song that was written over 800 years ago and it's still familiar today." In 1999, Louisiana Red Hot Records released Santa Swings, a collection of Christmas tracks by Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Tommy Dorsey, among others, all but four recorded before "White Christmas." Bessie Smith's "At the Christmas Ball" is the oldest song on the CD, dating back to 1925.
The new compilation Where Will You Be Christmas Day? also collects Christmas songs that largely pre-date "White Christmas." "That (song) was a reference point when Dick and I were talking about [the CD]," says its producer, Lance Ledbetter. He and Dick Spottswood, a disc jockey on WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C., assembled the collection from Spottswood's library of 78s. Besides including Hungarian and Italian music -- played on bagpipes! -- Where Will You Be Christmas Day? features folk and blues Christmas music including "Christmas is A-Coming" by Louisiana bluesman Lead Belly, and "Christmas in Jail -- Ain't That a Pain" by Leroy Carr.
"You don't hear many sad Christmas songs these days," Ledbetter says. "Christmas is a time for joy, but for people who don't have any joy, it's an extra time for blues."
Artists in almost every genre have dabbled in Christmas music. Whether it's Kansas City Kitty's "Christmas Morning Blues," Red Simpson's 1973 "Truckin' Trees for Christmas," Charlie Parker's 1948 take on "White Christmas" or Death Cab for Cutie's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," they all serve the same purpose -- dealing with pressure.
"There's melodrama at Christmas because people's emotions are so high," filmmaker (and Christmas compiler) John Waters says. "There's this pressure to feel happy and pressure to be around your family more than even the most functional people can stand, and pressure to spend money." This year, Waters released A John Waters Christmas, songs to help people "keep a sense of humor," he says.
Songwriter Will Robinson agrees. "It can be such a stressful time of year -- " he begins.
"-- all that shit that's put on you," his partner, Greg Barnhill, finishes.
Robinson and Barnhill are New Orleanians making their living writing country music in Nashville. They just released Christmas Gumbo, a collection of New Orleans-based Christmas songs performed by the likes of Art and Aaron Neville, the Hackberry Ramblers and the subdudes.
"Christmas music should make you feel good and take a little of that pressure and tension away," Robinson says.
Like ornaments and lights, they're a part of the texture of the season, inextricably linked to stories, nostalgia and the past. "Christmas is the event and the standards are there to put you in the mood, and that's what they do," Lance Ledbetter says.
SOME CHRISTMAS SONGS, like "White Christmas," are simply classics. "The Christmas Song" is similarly bulletproof; even though Nat King Cole's reading may be definitive, versions by Aaron Neville, Lou Rawls and Sammy Davis Jr. are welcome as well. The song's evocation of the archetypal wintry Christmas also comes through in Ella Fitzgerald's gently swinging version recorded in 1960.
Sergio Mendes & Brazil '66 recorded one of the more radical versions of the song in 1968, adding pleasantly sweeping strings and a bossa nova-lite rhythm, but most of the recordings capture the song as initially envisioned in 1944 by Mel Torme and co-writer Bob Wells. For the Polyphonic Spree's Tim DeLaughter, that's essential. "The majority of Christmas songs are so simple in the first place, and you just want to stay true to them as much as possible," he says.
Singer and part-time New Orleanian Judith Owen contends that the beauty of Mel Torme's lyric is its simple, descriptive quality. "There's something quite childlike about 'The Christmas Song,'" she says. "If you're from a cold climate, it's what you want for Christmas. Knowing he wrote that from L.A. and wished for it" -- the song was written during a summer heat wave -- "there's something quite pure and great about that song."
"Silent Night" is similarly hard to rearrange. On her Christmas in July, Owen performs the song as a duet with her friend, Julia Fordham. "With 'Silent Night,' I felt the way to go with that is absolute simplicity and two women's voices together," she says. "By the end of it, it sounds like we're on a mountain in Virginia because there's something about those harmonies that are really very folk, and you'd expect that of people in a room singing together."
The simplicity of the arrangement is largely due to the nature of the song. "There's many (songs) I wouldn't touch with a fork -- 'O Little Town,' 'All Through the Night.' Anything that's up, you can do, but when they're ballads and anything that describes 'the babe,' steer clear," Owen says. "Those are perfect jewels and the only thing to do is celebrate how beautiful they are and to use them for the right reasons, which is for people to sing together.
"I've heard people rearrange ['Silent Night'] and jazz it up. That's like spraying paint over a Picasso; it's ridiculous," she says with a laugh.
Most versions of the 19th century Austrian hymn are restrained. Vibraphonist Arthur Lyman added tubular bells to his 1959 Polynesian take on "Silent Night," but he kept the song's essential solemnity, slowing it down for extra reverence. Emmylou Harris' lovely version on the recently reissued Light of the Stable adds strings, but the quiet, contemplative nature of the song remains intact. For 2001's Peace Stories, David Doucet and John Fohl's two-guitar arrangement maintains the song's stillness while Theresa Andersson sings half of the song in her native Swedish.
That doesn't mean, however, that liberties haven't been taken. Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns managed a rollicking, dancing-on-the-bar version in 1962 by throwing out the music entirely and hitching the words to horn-driven, New Orleans R&B backing that bears no resemblance at all to the hymn.
GIFTS ALL MEAN SO MUCH more when they reflect the idiosyncrasies of the person giving them. Nowhere is that spirit more evident in Christmas music than Louis Armstrong's Christmas records. He didn't write the Christmas songs he's best known for -- "'Zat You, Santa Claus," "Cool Yule" (written by Steve Allen) and "Christmas in New Orleans" -- but he makes them his own.
"Christmas in New Orleans" is almost cartoonish in its description of the city. Richard Sherman and Joe Van Winkle's lyrics might be a riff on the Armstrong staple "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," but "Magnolia trees at night sparkling bright / Fields of cotton look winter-y white," sounds very much like the description of a city they had yet to visit. Still, Armstrong sings the lyrics like they are the gospel truth. Bruce Boyd Raeburn of Tulane's Hogan Jazz Archive attributes Armstrong's spirited performances to a love of Christmas that began when Lucille, his fourth wife, set up his first Christmas tree in a hotel room while Armstrong played a Christmas Eve gig.
Jazz vocalist Banu Gibson covered a number of Armstrong's Christmas songs in 1995 on her 'Zat You, Santa Claus album. "He always transcended his material," she says. "He could take something stupid and make it sound so heartfelt and so joyous. He transforms songs." As corny as the songs are, Gibson believes they survive on the strength of his personality. "Most Christmas material is pleasant and warm and fuzzy, and Louis' stuff just swings!"
"Swing" and "Christmas" seem like an odd combination, but Capitol Records' Christmas Cocktails series and Shout! Factory's "Wonderland" series of CDs collect cool, swinging versions of Christmas songs, primarily from the '50s and '60s. Listened to today, the heavily orchestrated, jazzy pop feeds the holiday season's need for nostalgia, with the values and sonic fingerprints of days gone by. It's hard to imagine, for example, anyone recording a song in 2004 expressing such understated longing like Julie London's "I'd Like You for Christmas."
Dean Martin's Christmas recordings sound like they, too, come from another time, but more because it's hard to imagine an artist seeming less interested in the holiday at hand than Dino. His tongue is so completely in his cheek that he's in danger of gagging during "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." He sings, "Rudolph, mit your nose so bright / won't you guide mein sleigh tonight," inserting a little German and teasing the melody as if it's impossible to take it seriously.
He seems far more invested in the seduction implicit in "Let It Snow!," though even then he seems more interested in canoodling than he is in the song. Then again, the song invites such treatment: In a 1963 duet, Al Hirt plays wolf to Ann-Margret's kitten.
Over the years, jazz musicians have found Christmas songs as irresistible as singers have, whether it's John Coltrane blowing "Greensleeves" in 1961 at the Village Vanguard or Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "We Free Kings," or Hammond B-3 maestro Jimmy Smith's entire Christmas Cookin' album, a masterpiece of mood and groove. Even Smith's version of "Silent Night" is restrained for a minute or so, until he swings the melody. When the horns enter signaling the end of the verse, it's genuinely raucous.
On 1989'S Crescent City Christmas Card, Wynton Marsalis swings "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" with a little more reserve, Alvin Batiste's clarinet adding a note of traditional New Orleans jazz. The CD isn't all equally restrained; Marsalis' version of "Let It Snow" opens with a complex head arrangement with the alto and soprano saxophones seemingly going in discordant directions before giving way to Marsalis' trumpet, which plays the melody with a tone that recalls Herb Alpert (whose 1968 Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass's Christmas Album is very entertaining as well).
Judith Owen's mischievous arrangement of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" swings furiously as she scats the entire song. "It's got so many words in it I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown just singing it," she says. "And, I think it's funny to make a swing version of something that has 'God,' 'God,' 'God,' 'Christ,' 'Christ,' 'Christ,' 'Savior,' 'Savior,' 'Savior' so many times."
GETTING IN THE MOOD to make Christmas music, however, takes work. Typically, Christmas music is recorded in the summer or early fall, a time not conducive to thinking about snow, holly and rosy cheeks. Dwight Twilley, whose Sincerely and Twilley Don't Mind are power pop classics from the 1970s, decorated the studio behind his Tulsa, Okla. home to record his Have a Twilley Christmas this August. "At the entrance to my studio I have a big wooden gateway, so I asked my road manager if he had a Christmas wreath to put up," Twilley says. "Four or five hours later, I had a wreath, about 12 Santas, two snowmen, Christmas lights, holly. Open the wooden door behind the wreath -- there's a huge 4-foot Santa behind that. Now people are just starting to put their Christmas decorations up and I'm taking mine down."
For American Idol aspirant and New Orleans native George Huff, the process involved in recording My Christmas E.P.! was simpler. "Once I heard the piano track, it put me in a good enough Christmas mood to make that album work," he says.
Tim DeLaughter agrees that getting in the mood was part of the challenge when the Polyphonic Spree recorded a version of John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" for Nettwerk Records' Maybe This Christmas Tree. Then again, the Dallas-based orchestral rock group has 24 members and a reputation for being relentlessly upbeat and positive. "Our group has been blessed with having that (Christmas) spirit about it, so we can usually conjure that one up," he says.
Judith Owen made the summer recording sessions a theme on her Christmas in July. Getting in the mood wasn't a problem -- "I can be in the mindset and spirit of things in a second," she says -- but shooting the cover art was trickier. Photographed on a beach outside Los Angeles, "the dressing of the tree and dragging it down to the beach was the funniest thing," Owen says. "Trying to get a shot of the damned dog and I with the volleyballers in the background; it was just like, 'Oh for Christ's sake ... .' It was a boiling day. It was like 90 degrees and I was in full red suede and fur; I was dying. I thought I was going to have heatstroke, but it was fun, too."
FANS AND MUSICIANS ALIKE treat Christmas recordings like asterisks in the story of the artists' careers -- songs they recorded but that somehow aren't really theirs. After all, this is music that people rarely want to hear or buy once the holiday has passed.
"This is an entire genre of almost exploitation," John Waters says. "They're exploiting the time of year. It's only a short time you can really sell this album."
A John Waters Christmas collects obscure, unusual Christmas songs that range from the beautiful doo wop "Christmas Time is Coming (A Street Carol)" by Stormy Weather to "Fat Daddy," an R&B Christmas song by one-time Baltimore disc jockey Fat Daddy. "Little Mary Christmas" is a melodramatic ballad by Roger Christian telling the story of an orphan who keeps getting passed over for adoption year after year until she's finally adopted on Christmas eve.
"I like extreme music," Waters says.
Needless to say, a holiday like Christmas was made for an ex-carney like Elvis Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker. Parker mined the Christmas market with typical shrewdness, releasing Elvis' Christmas Album in 1957, and, when that sold well, releasing it again in 1958 with another cover. In the following years, Parker made new Christmas albums by combining Christmas songs from the 1957 album with gospel songs recorded for other albums, and perhaps a new track or two. Between RCA and Camden Records, Presley recorded only 23 Christmas songs but released 12 Christmas albums.
While George Huff's motivations aren't as obviously financial, he admits his Christmas EP is driven as much by career concerns as artistic goals.
"I wanted to do something Christmas-y," he says. "On top of that, it's something between now and the spring release, something that people could have. There was a demand, 'We want to hear about George. We want to see what George is doing.' It's something to keep me fresh in the people's mind."
Other artists (and managers and labels) seem to be just trying to cash in one more time. Failed American Idol William Hung is back this Christmas with Hung for the Holidays, which screams "exploitation." The CD is funnier than dogs barking Christmas carols, but it's hard to hear it and not suspect that somebody besides Hung is making whatever money there is to make from this final trip to his off-key vocal well. When he sings "Deck the Halls," he sounds like someone with more problems than just near-complete pitch impairment, which makes the whole project a little creepy. On the upside, it does come with a cardboard Christmas ornament.
There is ample precedent for Christmas novelty songs. Locally, Benny Grunch and the Bunch recorded The 12 Yats of Christmas in 1996, featuring such hits as "O Little Town of Destrehan." But the granddaddy of Christmas novelty songs is "The Chipmunk Song" by Ross Bagdasarian, aka David Seville. Bagdasarian recorded his voice and sped up it up to create the voices of Alvin, Theodore and Simon for the 1958 classic. The artificially high-pitched voices are either funny or grating -- as good a definition of a novelty song as any -- and make the Chipmunks' version of "Sleigh Ride" a good fit on A John Waters Christmas.
Dwight Twilley entered the novelty song arena the old-fashioned way; he wrote his own. He wrote "Christmas With the Martians" for Have a Twilley Christmas, and while it isn't as goofy as "The Chipmunk Song," B-movie space ship noises dress up lines describing how "We heard a noise up on the roof / It didn't sound like hooves."
"Besides the serious side of Christmas, it's also time for fun," he says. "Everybody's together and they want to have a good time and laugh."
He chose to write his own Christmas songs because he didn't see any point in covering the standards. "Once Dean Martin sings 'Let It Snow,' forget it. There's no reason to record it ever again.
"In recent years, I've become impressed by the production values of some of the early Christmas records. You get so used to listening to them and you don't stop to think that there's a lot of care and a lot of talent behind the people who make Christmas records. 'Holly Jolly Christmas'? To me, it's like a Beatles record."
SONGWRITERS ALWAYS aspire to write something that lasts -- and nothing lasts like a Christmas song. "It's a hard market to crack because there are so many standards and people have set in their minds that these are the Christmas standards," Twilley says. "It's almost like they're sacred. It's hard for people to accept a new song. That's a secret goal, to produce one or two of these that people actually go, 'Yeah, we could actually sing this."
That's a tall order considering the number of great songs that haven't truly joined the canon. Frank Sinatra and Nancy Wilson both recorded "The Christmas Waltz," but the world seems reluctant to embrace a song about "the time of year / when the world falls in love." Similarly, "Marshmallow World," "Happy Holidays" and "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" seem too tied to Johnny Mathis, Peggy Lee and Andy Williams, respectively, to become standards. On the other hand, "Christmas Time Is Here" from 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas has received attention, this year providing the title track for jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves' Christmas album.
Clearly part of the challenge is making a song say "Christmas," and the consensus is that bells solve that problem. Paul O'Neill of Trans-Siberian Orchestra advocates tubular bells and a choir. "A choir evokes Christmas," he says. According to Tim DeLaughter of the Polyphonic Spree, "You can't go wrong with the major chord progressions; they seem to work just fine. Make sure you have nice little harmonies and melodies, and you've got to have some bells. Glockenspiels always play a role in it -- something to sprinkle the fantasy on top."
As Twilley points out, though, "It's hard to put jingle bells on any record and make it not sound like Christmas. Very few people have ever been able to accomplish that. I think Phil Spector achieved that on a few songs. Then you're faced with the thing of, well, if you used jingle bells on this song and you want them on the next song, you don't want them to be the same bells."
Songwriter Will Robinson and Greg Barnhill also used bells liberally when making Christmas Gumbo, but they had to worry about words. The pair set themselves the challenge of writing Christmas songs that connect to their hometown, a place that lacks the ice, snow and many of the seasonal trappings.
"Christmas songs are inherently redundant," Robinson says. "We both decided we've heard every possible way you can cover 'Jingle Bells' and 'White Christmas' and 'I'll Be Home for Christmas.'" Instead, they offer songs like "On Santa's Way Home," with Marc Broussard singing about Santa Claus partying on Bourbon Street after delivering the toys. Allen Toussaint has to deal with a few too many cliches on "The Day It Snows on Christmas," but across the board, the tracks are stronger than the concept might suggest. Marva Wright, who celebrates Christmas this year with a Dec. 25 show at Tipitina's, sings "Stocking Full of Love" as a classic soul ballad, and Sonny Landreth and the Dixie Cups join together on "Got to Get You Under My Tree," a recording that will outlast the season.
For Robinson and Barnhill, who've had hits with Tim McGraw, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride and Wynonna Judd, writing Christmas songs was in some ways another day at the office.
"It's what we have to do on ordinary songs if we sit down and write a love song, let's say," Robinson explains. "It's like, how many ways have we heard 'I love you' in a song?' and trying to make it still within the boundaries of what's acceptable in the pop genre, but try to make it a little bit different."
"All the buzz words come to mind, whether it's 'Santa,' 'sleigh,' 'Noel,' 'Christmas tree lights,' all the things that are in every Christmas song," Barnhill says. "It's hard to avoid bringing them back in because if you take them out, you almost don't have a Christmas song. You end up having to try to think of a different and new way to use the same images of Christmas."
Robinson continues, "It's challenging to get sentimental without getting schmaltzy, and without being sappy." Walking that line is what the best Christmas songs are about. They must be universal enough to feel familiar, but not so familiar that they feel old hat -- distinct enough to feel personal, but not so much so that they seem alien. According to John Waters, "They have to be joyous, even if for all the wrong reasons. They have to be amazing."