Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas in the Heart

I love Christmas music, but only just before Christmas. I do not want to hear it before Halloween, before thanksgiving even and if you play it on December 26th, I might be forced to commit an act of violence we’ll both regret. But today. Christmas Eve, I love it and it is really the only thing I’ll be listening to as I wrap presents and get  ready to joyfully fulfill my holiday obligations.
We always hear Christmas songs, hymns and carols long before the holiday. More and more radio stations go all Christmas all the time and going that way earlier and earlier. I heard one or two before Halloween; just like I saw Christmas ornaments and related housewares, albeit a small display, Labor Day weekend at Kohls. After Thanksgiving, Christmas music gradually pervades, until around the third week of Advent that’s all you hear. Christmas music creeps in like a vapor as Fall comes upon us and by the time of Winter, December 21, it’s more than half of the songs you hear.
I can do without Last Christmas, otherwise I don’t mind any Christmas song. I love most of them. I don’t play holiday songs at home until Christmas Eve’s Eve, as we called it when we were kids, actually a day or two before, like the first day of winter. Happy Solstice.
Sometimes you hear holiday songs and they can only annoy, intrude upon your reverie; another harsh reminder of the holidays: spend money, think of gifts, organize and/or attend events with family and friends. The office and job related stuff. End of year madness, everything winding down, lots of reflection, long dark nights, snow and you have to bundle up and trudge day in and day out, everywhere you go; wet socks, cold feet. Who needs it?
I don’t have the time or the money! you scream to deaf ears.
We all feel a little like Scrooge at first, not a full blown bah humbug, but we postpone the hassle and the music initially only reminds us of the inevitable. Eventually you give in, especially after homes, store fronts, and municipal fixtures get all decked with lights and other yuletide imagery, both secular and sacred, mangers and menorahs. You start going to parties and other get-togethers. I learned long ago it takes too much effort to be a professional crank. I am never sorry to see the Christmas Holidays go, but I enjoy them while they’re here.

Yesterday, after leaving work early, I took a break from errands and such, sat in an Argo Tea, my new favorite place, having a Yerba Matte with steamed soy milk and hazelnut flavoring (my new favorite drink), and a version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town came on the sound system. I noticed a woman softly singing along, absent mindedly and outside young people walked by, one in a red santa art, the other wearing reindeer antlers. I realized I hummed the song as well, wiggling my head back and forth. There is a simple joy, a shared joy, holiday music invokes and encourages. Soon or later, it overcomes your cynicism.

I heard just that morning. I play music in the morning, usually as I shower, shave and dress for work, after getting a blast of NPR news. I always play Christmas music from say 12-20 – 12-25, and only then. Even Last Christmas no longer makes me cringe by then, I no longer roll my eyes at Feliz Navidad or Santa Claus is Coming To Town by Bruce and E Street, which gained a special poignancy this year because of the loss of Clarence. But that's part of Christmas too, the tinge of sadness; as remember the childhood joy of Christmas morning, you now remember people who were with you then who aren't with you this Christmas

I play the Elvis Christmas Album, of course. I like the John Jacob Niles album of hymns and carols, The Band's Christmas Must be Tonight Gets a whirl, and this cheap R&B compilation with the likes of Jerry Butler probably gets a play. But, being a hard core Dylan freak, it’s not the holidays now until I put on Christmas in the Heart, Dylan’s Christmas album.

If you don’t like Dylan, if you are unable appreciate the phlegmatic rasp his aged voice has become, you’re not going to like this clever collection of mainly standards. Bob Dylan has a truly awe inspiring knowledge of music, particular American music; it’s not just the eclectic mix he plays on his radio show, but he has made landmark albums in a range of styles: Folk, Country, Gospel, Rock & Roll, Blues; you can even see splashes of reggae, klezmar (Street Legal), and more recently, jazz and crooning. Christmas albums are essentially novelty records and so this is Dylan’s novelty record, among other things. The album features choral singers, and Dylan intermixes with this choir. It is the first time he sang with a choir since he toured with gospel singers, the last time with Tom Petty & The Heart Breakers (he referred to these singers as his heartbreakers) in 1986. Dylan first worked with background singers and choirs on Self Portrait in 1968. The singers here have an oddly 50s incandescent to them, like the Rooftop Singers, even more so than All the Tired Horses or the intro to Days of 49 from Self Portrait. It’s freaky, yet in keeping with the novelty record feel and damned if it doesn’t sound Christmassy. Christmas is about warmth and coziness, glad tidings and peace on earth; it’s one of the few times were mawkishness and schmaltz is expressed without irony or apology. What would Christmas be without a little kitsch and corn? This may be Bob's most fun album, fun all the way through at least.

The only new song, new to my ears I mean, is It Must Be Santa, a rare polka ditty. The song was made into a viral video. I never cared for or about Rock Videos and never will. When I heard this I thought, now I understand where Lily, Rosemary & The Jack of Hearts comes from. Western Swing only tells part of the musical history of that song. The other song that is rare is Christmas Island, but I was familiar with the version by good ole Leon Redbone, whose voice Dylan’s now resembles.

Otherwise, Dylan does the known standards, from Blue Christmas to Silent Nights, even doing a verse in Latin of O Come All YE Faithful. My sister says that Dylan’s voice has gotten so harsh that I’ll Be Home For Christmas sounds like a threat, not a promise. There are times where I burst out laugh. He’s long since shot out his voice. The last time I saw him in concert, I had never heard his range of notes being so limited; he used the rasp effectively on his most recent collection of new songs, Together Through Life, him going through these well known, time honored classics, songs everybody knows, really reveals his vocal uniqueness. Yet, Dylan’s unique phrasing may be tarnished, it’s still there and he puts genuine feeling into these songs.

From Blowin in the Wind up to the present, Dylan songs always echo an awareness of the divine presence. The sacred songs, such as Silent Night seem to resonate with me here, because they echo so many other themes and ideas in Dylan’s vast catalog, hundreds of songs – I’ve been listening to his music literally my entire life. Whatever your beliefs, and I am not one to preach and proselytize, one reason Christmas so permeates the western world is not so much the belief in Jesus Christ, the son of God, but the idea that how clever, how appropriate, that if there is a God who created human beings in His own image, that when he sent his son to save mankind, that son would be born in a manager, in “low estate,” wrapped in swaddling clothes, recognized at the messiah only by local shepherds, three wise men from far off lands, and perhaps a kid with a drum. The Nativity is perfect as story, be it turth or myth or both.

Another rarity is The Christmas Blues, a nice jazzy romp that bemoans, “Santa only brought me the brightly packaged, tinsel covered Christmas Blues”, which features a harmonica riff. Harmonica playing has been rare for America’s bard during this, his late period phase. More importantly, he touches on the melancholy feelings (he also sings I'll Be Home For Christmas) that the holidays also bring and as blues music teaches, humor is the best way to survive sorrow.

Well soon it will be Christmas day. I might be listening to Bob, maybe you go to Frank or Phil Spector (We should all go to Elvis), but basically we are listening to the same collection of songs, give or take. Amazing how we can listen to the same songs, regardless of whom is singing, again and again, especially as we approach the actual holiday.

Today I love Christmas music and so do you. I wish you all the best. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays.

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