The aural assault began even before my Thanksgiving turkey met its doom. At first they were seemingly random shots in the Muzak line-up, a sappy “Sleigh Ride” here, a lugubrious “Silver Bells” pealing over that way. My first full dose – still before Nov. 24 – came at a coffee shop playing Christmas music nonstop. Now, with December fully engaged, the purveyors of background tunes have let loose with a dedication of purpose guaranteed to cyberize my shopping for the rest of the year.
But how to handle it in one’s own house? My wife and I enjoy vigorous disagreement over the amount of holiday treacle that’s tolerable. You won’t be surprised to learn that she’s a supporter of all things Christmas-y, but she pursues such things as shopping and decoration with commendable restraint. Yet she’ll willingly listen to Johnny Mathis croon “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Many years ago I compiled a list of Christmas-themed recordings we own. I had to do this because my obsessive CD (and record, and cassette, and DAT, and minidisc) filing system doesn’t shelve them all under “C.” Leon Redbone’s Christmas disc is with the rest of his stuff; you’ll find the many by Michael Martin Murphey among the “M”s.
The list is intended to encourage intelligent playlist choices. I like to think that good taste will obviate any need for censorship. My wife, however, insists that my definition of good taste is itself a form of censorship, and she reaches for the Burl Ives.
Which isn’t fair. Along with the song’s cloying stupidity, one of the things that saps the joy out of “Holly Jolly Christmas” for me is Ives’s political past. In 1952, he sang before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, naming names. Pete Seeger’s, among others. The same guy alongside whom Ives stood in 1944 to record an album of songs that included such titles as “Solidarity Forever,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and the unissued “All of You Fascists Bound to Lose.”
“But you listen to Artie Shaw,” my wife points out. True. The tearful Mr. Shaw tried to repudiate his Commie connections by calling himself a “dupe” – but it’s not as if “Begin the Beguine” or “Frenesi” had set him up as any kind of an activist. But speaking of Shaw – and here’s a hell of a segue – allows me to note that he was a sideman on the first recording of “Winter Wonderland,” waxed in 1934 by Richard Himber’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel Orchestra at the insistence of vocalist Joey Nash.
Time had run out on the recording session. “Himber had left the studio, musicians were packing up,” writes Nash. “I so wanted to do this tune, I asked the band, as a favor to me, to try for a master. They agreed, but it would be a one-shot try ... It was a perfect performance.” But it was Guy Lombardo’s version that went to the top of the charts, and it’s been downhill for that number ever since.
Most of the Christmas songs I find objectionable have earned my wrath on purely musical terms. Is there a more annoying melody than that which oozes through “Do You Hear What I Hear?”? I’ll answer that for you: Yes, but “It’s a Small World” isn’t a Christmas song. Although the Cuban Missile Crisis failed to provoke a nuclear war, both of those songs can be counted among its radioactive fallout.
And if you’ve ever thought that the road to financial success might be paved with holiday hits, consider the case of “Do You Hear” lyricist Noël Regney, whose then-wife Gloria penned the melody. Thanks to an acrimonious divorce, Noël ended up as a cocktail pianist at a restaurant where I worked in the ’70s, playing for tips.
Alongside my political and musical objections to many holiday songs is a moment of childhood trauma. I would have posted photographic evidence of this if I’d allowed any photos to survive, because 55 is nowhere near as self-conscious as scissors-wielding 15. You’ll have to take my word for it that, at the too-impressionable, too-easygoing age of nine, I was tapped, thanks to my tallness, to be the centerpiece of an elementary-school Christmas pageant.
I regretted it even as I winched into the stiffened-cardboard costume of blue and red, with a black cardboard busby on my head to make me appear even taller. A prop side drum was hung from my shoulders, all of which obliterated the concept of “little” in “Little Drummer Boy.” Then, to the strains of that nauseous song, I paraded across the auditorium stage to the sickening oohs and ahhs of sentimental moms.
Not even the surreal Bing-and-Bowie pairing can redeem this rotten chestnut. It wallows in every possible aspect of wretchedness as warbled by the Harry Simeone Chorale, but I’m willing to loathe any version. You needn’t ask me to hear it: I’m an equal-opportunity hater.
Thus we’ve had to establish some ground rules in my home. When I’m within earshot, and especially when I have to get any work done, I ask for classical Christmases by the likes of Boston Camerata and the Waverly Consort. In the more popular realm are albums by guitarist John Fahey, saxophonist Scott Hamilton, and pianist Marcus Roberts.
When my wife and daughter are decorating house and tree, they can listen to anything. If I don’t like it . . . well, I hold out hope that there will be a holiday-Muzak free coffee shop waiting for me out there.