News and Culture Notebook
1:56 am
Tue December 24, 2013

Christmas favorites, new and old, ring clear

Happy Christmas Eve, Northeast Texas!

We had fun grumbling about our least-favorite Christmas tunes yesterday, but with the day nearly upon us, we'll get into the spirit of the season with a celebration of those Christmas songs that we love. 

An informal poll of KETR staff asking about their favorite Christmas songs resulted in a fun mix of old and new, secular and religious music.

Texas A&M University-Commerce professor and Blacklands Cafe host and producer John Mark Dempsey favors O Come, O Come Emmanuel when it comes to traditional music.

In the just-for-fun category, Dempsey likes the spoken-word hilarity of Cheech and Chong's Santa Claus and His Old Lady.

Movie critic Alice Reese likes the 1957 version of Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms. Despite the obvious debt to Buddy Holly, style-wise, credit must be given to Helms for recording the definitive version of the song. Helms, a country-pop crossover artist, also had hits with Fraulein and My Special Angel

The message of The Little Drummer Boy struck a chord with a couple of KETR staffers.

"As a child, I always loved Little Drummer Boy, said KETR Operations Manager Kevin Jefferies. "While I’ve heard people over the years speak ill of the 'pa rum puh pa pum,' I always loved the rhythm of the song.  More importantly, the idea that even with no material possessions, a gift given from the heart – in this case a simple song – can be the greatest and most powerful gift of all always seemed a very beautiful message to me."

Football color announcer Brock Calloway agrees.

"As for my favorite, it's definitely Little Drummer Boy." Calloway said. "Maybe it's because I have three boys at home, but I've always had a soft spot for the story it tells.  A poor boy with nothing to offer, but he still desperately wants to give something.  So he plays his drum the best he can, and it's enough.  I love it.  There's a million different recordings of it out there, but the Sufjan Stevens version is probably my favorite."

Jefferies also cited the unlikely but fantastic combination of David Bowie and Bing Crosby for producing one of the most memorable versions of Drummer Boy.

"The arrangement aired on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas in 1977, adding the now familiar “Peace on Earth” lyrics from Bowie as Crosby sung the traditional song underneath," Jefferies said. " I don’t know if I remember seeing this when it aired (I would have been three years old…almost) or in subsequent years as the special was re-aired, but it remains my favorite Christmas song.  To me, the song embodies the true essence of giving and a simple idea all humans should hope for."

KETR General Manager Jerrod Knight likes Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Knight didn't specify a specific version, so I'll choose a mildly jazzy one, Lou Rawls' 1967 rendition.

"I like to play the piano, and my repertoire consists predominantly of Christmas tunes," Knight said. This one can be improvised upon and sound very ,very good, whether I might otherwise sound like a competent player or not."

An interesting footnote to this song involves the two competing versions of one line - the one that follows "Through the years, we all will be together, if the fates allow."

"Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow" was replaced, in some quarters, by "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." 

Aside from the mundane detail that starts tend to be jammed onto the top of Christmas trees rather than hung from boughs, there's the matter of what this edit says about our culture's discomfort with adversity. Esquire's Charles Pierce wrote on the topic a couple of years ago. You can count Pierce among those who think that the original lyric bespeaks a moral courage, while the shining-star revision is a bit callow.

"That is how you know how people have the true spirit of Christmas: they're muddlers," Pierce wrote. "Hangers are glib and shiny and all for show. Muddlers know the joy of getting through the raw, inconvenient humanity of the day ... Bob Cratchit was a muddler. Muddlers know the triumph of surviving hard times with your charity and your joy all but battered, and yet somehow intact. Hangers shine, but they tarnish quickly."

KETR's Knight also mentioned Adeste Fidelis as another favorite.

Cooper Review editor and KETR contributor Cindy Roller is a fan of Eartha Kitt's 1953 recording of Santa Baby.

"It is a just a fun one and makes for a fun time on karaoke nights too!" Roller said. "It has become a tradition to dress up and wear Santa hats and sing this one every year!"

A&M-Commerce Lions basketball and football announcer Charlie Chitwood cited two songs.

"Favorite is a tie – Handel’s Halleluja Chorus is one because it so powerfully and joyfully celebrates the occasion and I’ll Be Home For Christmas because it’s one that evoked a number of emotions over the years when I was away from home and/or loved ones," Chitwood said. "Sad, melancholy but beautiful because it was – is – a song that anyone could sing. Even if you only remembered the refrain, it’s a song you usually sing for a reason."

As for me, I have great fondness for two not-quite-Christmas songs: The Pogues' Fairytale of New York and Merle Haggard's If We Make It Through December.

But for actual Christmas songs, I'll have to go really old school and choose Ralph Vaughan Williams' Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. The words are a translation of a 4th-century Greek liturgy. The music is the tune of a medieval French carol, named Picardy after the province of its origin. The minor key is reflective rather than festive, but the sublimity it evokes is joyous nevertheless.

Thanks, Northeast Texas, for making KETR a part of your Christmas Eve. For some reason, no one who responded to the survey mentioned the wonderful Christmastime Is Here, the beloved melody by the Vince Guaraldi Trio made famous in the Peanuts TV specials, so we'll include it here just to make sure it's not forgotten.