Having re-posted my screed against that miserable, misanthropic saga of the egregiously abused reindeer Rudolf, and against Christmas jingles generally, for that matter, I thought it appropriate to balance the books here with some songs that Kathy and I always play on Christmas Eve. We usually cue these up to listen to while munching one the best hors d’oeuvres ever conceived, water chestnuts soaked in a soy/brown sugar mix and then baked, wrapped in bacon. Oh, yum.
Our Christmas Eve playlist:
Vince Guaraldi Trio: Skating; Linus & Lucy
Surely the best thing about A Charlie Brown Christmas, which those of us of a certain age have probably seen at least fifty or sixty times, was the marvellous soundtrack supplied by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Just the first few piano notes of Skating make me almost melt with nostalgia for the time when I was a kid on Christmas Eve. This cool, sophisticated Jazz was no mere cartoon accompaniment. You could keep hearing it, year after year, and still always love it, no matter how widely and wildly your tastes in music had expanded. It’s simply perfect, and the way it manages to be instantly appealing to almost everyone who hears it, however young, almost amounts to a public service. Probably nothing ever did more to educate the average North American child’s ear to the nuances of sophisticated musical construction, save perhaps the marvellous, often classically-inspired, background scores that the great Carl Stalling supplied for the legendary Looney Tunes of the 1940s and 50s. Which, now I think of it, may rate a blog post too, sometime.
Robert Downey Jr.: River
Yes, this is that Robert Downey Jr., and no, amazingly, it’s not a joke. Turns out the boy can sing. This was recorded for an album after first being played by Downey in an episode of the 90s yuppie quirk-fest Ally McBeal, one of those David Kelly TV shows that you either loved or despised. I didn’t watch it much after its first season, but was vaguely aware of the buzz surrounding the risky decision to hire Downey as a regular, a move meant to boost flagging ratings near the end of the show’s run. Risky, because at that point, the future Iron Man mega-star was a drug-addled wreck, unreliable, constantly in and out of rehab, always up on charges, and thoroughly on the outs in Hollywood. The closest recent equivalent would be Charlie Sheen, but there was one huge difference, and you can hear it in this performance. At the peak of his dysfunction, Charlie was an angry, arrogant, self-satisfied A-hole, mean and hurtful to everyone he touched. Downey wasn’t mean. He was just terribly, terribly sad. I think that’s why everyone was always willing to give him another shot.
The song, of course, is by Joni Mitchell, and appears on her landmark 1971 album Blue. A true Canadian, she found herself a young woman alone, disoriented and depressed, in L.A. one Christmas, which didn’t feel much like Christmas at all in the endless California summer, despite all the cardboard cut-out reindeer. Somehow, she was able to re-imagine the witlessly cheerful Jingle Bells, with which the song opens and closes, as a mournful refrain expressive of loss, guilt, and homesick longing. No snow and sleigh bells around here, no frozen river to skate away on.
I especially like River because it’s a break-up song that’s too self-aware to be about feeling hard done-by and wondering what went wrong. No, by her own account she brought this on herself, she was selfish, difficult, and threw away her chance at love. I doubt there’s ever been a more authentic expression of heartsick regret than her delivery of the simple lyric I made my baby cry.
Here’s Joni, if you prefer:
The Pretenders: 2000 Miles
Just about everybody responds to this lilting tale of Christmas homecoming, given voice by someone authentic enough to pull off raw sentiment, strings and all, without sounding sappy. This is a very nice live performance, which I find superior to the studio version.
Pogues: Fairy Tale of New York
I’ve often heard this sad, not at all syrupy lament described as the best Christmas song ever recorded. I suspect, perhaps, that not everyone would feel that way about this reminiscence of the Irish immigrant experience in America, as sung from the floor of the drunk tank, which provides an unflinching look back at all the crushed hopes born of the arrival in the New World, all of them amounting in the end to nothing but bitterness, recrimination, and bickering. The young lovers who hit New York back in the day, so full of anticipation, are now pretty much at each other’s throats.
You could argue this isn’t a Christmas song at all. It sure as shit ain’t Jingle Bells, let’s put it that way. This is a story of failure. I could have been someone, he pleads, and her answer is as cutting as it is true: Well, so could anyone. There’s something about the chorus that rings so true as a memory of years gone by, it’s somehow such an authentic little detail, that I almost feel like I was there myself, walking the streets of Manhattan in the era of Sinatra, when the whole world might have seemed to a newcomer to be there for the taking:
The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing “Galway Bay”
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day
Gets me every time.
Sufjan Stevens: Only at Christmastime
A pretty little thing that grows on you. Superficially about the unique joys of Christmas, goodwill toward all, peace, love, and all that, I discern in this one a Randy Newman-like level of irony, an undercurrent of yeah, right that speaks to the empty promise and false gaity of a time of year that drives so many to suicide. Maybe that’s just me.
Gordon Lightfoot: Song for a Winter’s Night
Not really about Christmas, and actually, I heard Gordon recount one time how he wrote it on a rainy summer afternoon in a motel room in Detroit. Still, was anything ever more evocative of a quiet Christmas Eve, snuggling in front of the fire, as a thick blanket of snow accumulates on the dimly-lit streets outside?
Skydiggers: Good King Wenceslas
In my youth, I always imagined this piece to have been written at some time nearly contemporaneous with the reign of the actual King Wenceslas. Not so. It was composed quite recently, in 1853, by John Mason Neale and Thomas Helmore.
The real Wenceslas wasn’t even a King, technically, but a Bohemian Duke who reigned in the 10th Century, around whose life a myth of just and merciful rule was fostered by those promoting the concept of a righteous King, a rex iustus, whose divine right to authority was a function of his piety and his heartfelt adherence to Christian values – in other words, his worthiness to govern. This was not such a long way removed from the idea of governance that much later gained currency among the philosophers of the Enlightenment, that a Sovereign derived the right to rule from the consent of the people, which had to be earned, and could thus be revoked. There’s an almost straight line to be drawn from the ideal of Wenceslas to the ideas that much later gave impetus to the American Revolution.
In this interpretation of the classic Yuletide song, the Skydiggers manage to remain true to the original while effecting an extraordinary musical rejuvenation. If you want to get into the spirit of the Christian ideals that so often seem forgotten in the organized practice of Christianity, this is the thing. You may find yourself, as I did, really listening to the words for the first time, and finding hope in its sorely needed message of decency and kindness.
The arrangement is both moving and understated. The trumpet accompaniment in particular is sublime, and a little mournful, perhaps bringing to mind all those who still, in our own supposedly more enlightened time, never benefit from the sort of charity offered to this poor peasant by his humane and caring monarch, that stormy night of the second day of Christmas, over a thousand years past.
Christmas Eve just wouldn’t be the same without the Skydiggers’ rendition of this beautiful song.