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Christmas Music, from Dylan to Death Row


No holiday has inspired more music – and groans about its omnipresence – than Christmas.

It used to be the holiday music started in stores the day after Thanksgiving. This year I heard holiday harmonies on the day after Halloween. Talk about feeling haunted…

But in spite of the insipid nature of most Christmas music, even the Scrooges among us put on a few tunes come Christmas eve.

In my household the holiday music runs to the traditional — at least when traditional is defined as “what we listened to when I was a kid.”

christmas-music-kingston-trio-album-cover I stick with the timeless classics from Frank Sinatra and the Kingston Trio.

“The Sinatra Christmas Album,” with heavenly arrangements by Gordon Jenkins, was recorded in 1957. You can buy a vinyl version of it on eBay for $72.25. Or listen on Spotify for $11 a month.

Or catch it on the free version of Spotify, if you want to have your holiday reveries interrupted by ads for burglar alarms.

If you’re willing to endure the execrable sound from your computer’s speakers, you can even listen to it free on YouTube.

Frankie won’t begrudge you the missing royalty payments from YouTube. He’s been dead since 1998.

christmas-music-sinatra-album-coverSinatra recorded other Christmas albums before he faced his final curtain. But there’s no better one than the first LP.

Side 1 – I still think of it terms of the vinyl – calls in the holiday with “Jingle Bells,” preceded by the cheery sound of actual jingle bells.

Sinatra also stole from Nat King Cole with “The Christmas Song” and all those chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

A CD version of the album even includes a page from Der Bingle’s book with a so-so version of “White Christmas.” (Which as my dad always noted, “is a wonderful song but Irving Berlin really should have written one more verse”).

For my money, Frankie really hit the high note with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

I’ve hoped every year that the lyrics will again come true:

Here we are as in olden days

Happy golden days of yore

Faithful friends who are dear to us

Gather near to us once more

As for the Kingston Trio’s Christmas album, it’s become fashionable even among folkies to slam the Trio — lost on the MTA or hangin’ with Tom Dooley from a white oak tree.

Yes, they were corny in their striped short-sleeve shirts. But hey, the Beach Boys wore them, too.

The Trio was shameless about stealing other people’s songs and calling them their own.

At least they stole from the very best – never more so than on their classic 1960 album, “Last Month of the Year,” recorded in the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. (The some hotel where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, for all you conspiracy theorists).

The album borrows from olde English carols and black spirituals alike, complete with gut-string guitar, glockenspiel, heavenly harmonies, and a bouzouki played by Dave Guard. (Local angle: Guard’s daughter went to Middlebury College.)

Wikipedia calls the album “their most musically ambitious and also one of the Trio’s least known.”

You can pick it up online for, well, a song. Or you can, like any sensible person, get that album and virtually every other one ever recorded via Spotify.

Yes, Pandora will get you free Christmas music, to play in the background while you’re arguing with your relatives about whether Donald Trump is truly insane or merely incompetent.

But nothing brings you the world of holiday music like Spotify.

I mean, it’s all there. Mommy kissing Santa Claus. John Denver pleading, “Please, daddy, don’t get drunk this Christmas.” Elvis reminding us he’ll have a b-b-blue blue Christmas without you.

And where else are you going to have instant access to the lesser-known Christmas songs from Elvis, such as “Santa Claus is Back in Town”? Wherein he tells his girlfriend:

Got no sleigh with reindeer

Got no sack on my back

You’re gonna see me comin’

In a big black Cadillac

Ol’ Elvis really put one over on the censors with the next verse:

Hang up your pretty stockings

And turn off the light

Santa Claus is coming

Down your chimney tonight

If you’re looking for tips on what to listen to this holiday season, Rolling Stone magazine put together a list of the top 25 Christmas albums ever — “from Bing Crosby to Bob Dylan, Motown to Death Row.”

Or you can just tune in to Frankie:

Though the years

We all will be together

If the fates allow

Hang a shining star

Upon the highest bow

And have yourself

A merry little Christmas now

Merry Christmas, everybody.


-30 –



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