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The Deal with Christmas Music

December 22, 2010

When it came to music my father and I had little in common. He couldn’t abide the rock music I played for a living. I had no use for the idol of his youth, Bix Biederbeck. Or any other jazz for that matter. We briefly agreed on liking folk music – with Peter, Paul and Mary. But he never got Dylan even before Bob went electric.

The one place we came together musically was at Christmas. Fraught as that time was for me, I always enjoyed carols with him.

In his later years he complained about the decline of Christmas music, ‘Where’s the stuff I loved? All I hear is junk.” I would have chalked it up to the crankiness of old age, except I felt the same way. What we bemoaned was that our dear old carols, which came from Europe, were being publicly buried beneath piles of American stuff of more recent origin, written mostly in the 40s.

Sometime around the late 70s, as I battled throngs of other seasonal deadbeats on Christmas Eve – having typically procrastinated – I noticed that the old carols were disappearing. I found myself assailed by Rudolf and his Red Nose, by that icky scene of Mommy kissing Santa. And by “Jingle Bell Rock” –which coming after Hendrix and the greats was an insult to the genre. It was about as rocked out as Mel Torme, the crooner responsible for “The Christmas Song,” otherwise known as “Chestnuts roasting round an open fire.” A chestnut, indeed.

The song I absolutely can’t abide to this day is the Little Drummer Boy. Now I love drums. They were my first instrument. Drums do that pounding, beating sound we call percussion quite well. Voices don’t. And a big chorus of them doesn’t help. Voices are for singing, not drumming, Yet they persist in trying to do just that throughout what always feels to me like at least a half hour. I’ve come to think of it as the “rumpa-bump-bummer song.”


What made all that music so hard on my father’s ears, and mine, was how it suffered in comparison with the old stuff. “Joy to the World.” “What Child is This.” Hark the Herald Angels,” and my favorite, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.” They all have great melodies.

I enjoyed playing piano for carol sings in our college community. I’m told that my father had a few drinks and sang loudly. But I don’t remember, because I was busy at the piano faking my way through all those songs, because I couldn’t read music. What I do remember is how when we got to my favorite song some of the Profs showed off their erudition by singing it in Latin: “Adestes Fidelis.”

So what is the deal with all this American music replacing the traditional carols? You might think it was because people got tired of the old, except that by the late 70s all those 40s songs were a generation old. Their crooning style –the sounds of Bing and Dean and Frank – was exactly what the rock revolution intended to overthrow. Eleven months of the year it’s long been obvious who won that war, hands down. Yet every year at Christmas the otherwise despised sounds of the 40s are back, louder than ever.

Is it nostalgia for a time of American innocence? Is it because we’re more comfortable with songs that celebrate fun than that serious old religious stuff? Perhaps. But I think there’s a different reason.

There’s a clue in the career of Irving Berlin. He wrote the most popular American Christmas song. “White Christmas” not only tops the Christmas lists, but has sold more singles than any record in history. Berlin was a founding member of ASCAP. ASCAP was started to insure that musicians, who’d once made their living in live performance, could benefit from what ASCAP deems “performances” of recorded music – their lucrative theory being that every time a piece of recorded music is played in public, its creator should benefit.

Thanks to ASCAP, “White Christmas” made Berlin very rich. Doubly so, because he was his own music publisher. By long tradition music publishers split revenues 50/50 with their writers.

I’m a music publisher myself. I work hard for my 50% – promoting the music I own, and collecting the royalties worldwide. That’s how I discovered the key to why traditional carols are disappearing. I have a few CDs of classical music in my library. I got a recent ASCAP statement and was shocked to find that a piece of Mozart’s from my library only paid a tenth of what the other pieces did for playing on the same TV station. I inquired and was told that it was because the Mozart is in the Public Domain: i.e., was written before 1922.

Though the writers of those American Christmas songs from the 40s are all dead, their publishers are alive, and the songs are still under copyright –which means they pay the full rate. The publishers naturally push the music that will make them the most profit. As most of them will tell you, they are not in the music business for their health.

Who can blame them? They’re just getting with the spirit of contemporary Christmas. The spirit of Ka-ching. Dreaming of a green Christmas, and I’m not talking ecology.

  1. Mark Paul permalink

    When Gene Autry’s version of “Rudolph” comes on, pay close attention to the instrumental solo. I think it’s an electric mandolin, and probably by Tiny Moore, master of the shrunken Stratocaster.

    As for “White Christmas,” here’s the Drifters, accompanied by an animation that’s sure to provoke a smile:

    Happy holidays and may all your drug use in the coming year be recreational–

    • Mark – thanks for one of the better versions of “White Christmas.” What pray tell is a shrunken Stratocaster??? I have enough trouble playing my normal one.

  2. Another excellent post. One note on poor Rudolph — in my view, Chuck Berry’s 1958 recording of “Run Rudolph Run” transformed the cat with the crazy nose into the star of the best rock Christmas song ever. I expand on this here.

    Happy New Year!

  3. There are a few of the “contemporary” Christmas songs that I quite enjoy– “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” And on Chicago’s Christmas album, Bill Champlin actually penned an original piece about the 3 wise men. It’s well arranged as each of the 3 verses is handled by a different vocalist. The first by Champlin (baritone), the 2nd by Jason Scheff (tenor in his normal range), and the third by Lee Loughnane (trumpet player struggling with a falsetto)

    • Perplexio,

      Those two songs are quite nice, with some feeling in them. Ironically, it was hearing how cold Aimee Mann made “I’ll be Home” sound that made me realize what a warm song it is…but we don’t love Aimee for her warmth.

      And then there’s Joni Mitchell’s “River”…

      If they just dumped that Drummer Boy and Jingle Bell Rock and played a few old carols once in a while I’d be happy.

    • Näe! Ingen jul än pÃ¥ länge! Tiden gÃ¥r sÃ¥ fort ändÃ¥ … Hinner ju knappt med dagen. SÃ¥ jul börjar tidigast 1 de!ppacJ!

    • So many jalious people. Ottomans will always be n1 because they combined the best of everything. Arabs and other mussies try to steal turkish history. Don’t fall for that. We all see in what condition Jarabs are.

  4. Steve Lukather covered Angels We Have Heard On High and Greensleeves/What Child Is This instrumentally on his Christmas album, Santamental (incidentally he also did a “duet” with Sammy Davis Jr. on Jingle Bells that I found to be very well executed). I believe he also covered O Christmas Tree acoustically for one of those Wyndham Hill sampler CDs back in the 90s.

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