Yes, Virginia, there is Christmas Music...
Musings on Holiday music and what it feels like to be a musician who plays Christmas concerts.
Here it is, almost Christmas 2016, and I have been pulled deep into the vortex of Holiday music for about the 35th year in a row. Those of you who have heard either of my two Christmas recordings or seen one of the concerts I have done know that I am one of the few who are willing to jump into the fray and try my hand at playing my versions of many of favorites, and creating a few of my own. Over the years, I have always booked a number of concerts every year, I play the songs a few precious times, and then pretty much forget about them for 11 months or more. Each year I try to remember what I did in the past, and to add something new to my personal little pile of songs and tunes.
Not all musicians choose to get involved in Christmas music, especially performing it professionally, and with good reason. It's not a simple body of music, and when you do play it, you get involved in a hidden web of emotional entanglements, and you take some risks. Some people seem to love Holiday music, while others avoid or outright reject it, and people are attracted to different parts of the Holiday spectrum. There are religious Christmas songs, those hallowed Protestant carols, but of course also a flood of newer songs spanning essentially every genre of popular and "un-pop" music. There are also a large number of sarcastic, flippant and silly Holiday songs, which can be powerful, though in different situations they can have mixed results. As a Christmas performer, you often end up balancing the "fun" and the "serious" side of the season, which is delicate stuff to do, especially when you only do it a couple times a year.
I discovered as a teenage “campfire guitar player” that classic Christmas carols are not really very “guitaristic”, and was a bit stunned to discover how hard it is to play something like The First Noel or O Come All Ye Faithful on the guitar. There is a chord change for almost every word, and they are not really “strummable.” It's pretty well known that Franz Gruber wrote Silent Night on his guitar in that little town in Germany in 1813 when the mice ate the bellows to the organ, so at least there is one song everyone knows that works well on guitar. (Those of you who want to get into home-made Holiday music, start there.) A lot of carols were written by church musicians, pianists, choir directors and real composers like Mendelssohn, and most of the old classic carols are really hard to make sound good, especially by amateur guitar players. The piano is probably the most powerful single tool for playing Christmas music, but I don’t play piano and never will.
I dimly remember being in Wisconsin in December of 1974 and enjoying Vince Guaraldi’s Christmas piano playing. (He did the music for Charlie Brown’s Christmas.) That year I worked up my first solo Christmas guitar arrangement of Hark the Herald, with a classical guitar type moving bass line, and a minor 7th chord I swiped from Vince. I recorded it in 1984 when I was invited to participate in a local artist Christmas album put together by Portsmouth NH recording studio owner Tom Daly. I think I also recorded Rudolph that day in a Chet Atkins style, and when I finished, Tom said, “Those were great. Got any more?” I asked “Why?” and he replied “You were the only one who showed up.” So I recorded about a dozen guitar and autoharp instrumentals that day, and Tom hand-wrote some labels, and dubbed off about 50 cassette tapes of what we called “The Christmas Project” that we sent to friends and business associates as presents.
I was startled at how much people liked my humble little Christmas tape, and it marked my wobbly entry into the Holiday music world. I played one or two very well-attended local Christmas guitar concerts each year with fellow guitarist Ed Gerhard for about 10 years, and in 1987 I expanded my cassette to add a number of ambitious new arrangements, mostly on guitar. It became a CD in 1990, named after a song I wrote called “Heart of the Minstrel on Christmas Day.” I had been moved by feeling my place in the chain of musicians who had played Holiday music for people for centuries, and by the feeling of meaning and privilege it gave me to be entrusted to try to deliver something resembling “the true meaning of Christmas” to whomever listened. There ought to be an acronym for it, the TMOC.
I have been a working musician my whole life, and I never turn down a gig if I can help it, so I have ended up in the middle of quite a number of private and business Christmas parties. Especially back in my days of playing bars, I remember trying to go into my zone of music while people who work together all year drink too much, which can magnify and distort all sorts of things. Christmas parties can be really difficult gigs. You either get ignored or you get lots of requests, with pushy people who want to sing really loud and others who don’t want to sing at all. Ordinary and gracious people also try to pitch in and “get in the spirit” to sing together, and sometimes sanity dominates, and other times some temporary insanity pops up. Except for sporting events, it’s the only time I know that people sing together in public, and you can sort of feel some dusty, rusted ancient cultural machinery creaking away when it happens. It started to dawn on me that even though the music was hard and people were sometimes hard to play for, music had a different and perhaps larger power at Christmas time than it did in other seasons.
I am still moved by this phenomenon, and by being part of it, though it never gets any easier. Now my fiddler/singer wife Joyce Andersen and I are raising two boys (ages 8 and 11) and playing 4 to 15 concerts every December. We met in December, and the first music we ever played together was Christmas carols on December 19th, so we have a head start on finding the TMOC. If we hadn’t been able to play songs together that first night we played together, who knows what would have happened? We lived in very different musical worlds then, but the Christmas music was our common bond and a bridge that connected us and gave us a way to intertwine musically in a very meaningful way. Amid the bustle and stress of the season and the fast-growing darkness here in Maine, for three weeks we put aside the music we play all year, and put together our concerts that have included cameos on guitar, drum, vocals and this year on trumpet from our boys. They are quite musical, but not that moved to share it for audiences or look for gigs, and they certainly don’t understand the “true meaning of Christmas” the same way I imagine it to be. It’s not easy music, and it’s risky to play songs people know well, sort of like singing the national anthem. Like a figure skater, if you fall, you fall. But there is something ancestral and profound going on, and this year I am moved to try to write some of my thoughts about it.
One thing I notice each year is that the season comes on in waves, and progresses. If I do a concert the first week of December, I feel like it's appropriate to mix in a few (but not too many!) Christmas melodies. I am sensitive to not wanting to pitch the Holiday too soon or too strongly until the right time. Here in Northern New England, the weather can cooperate by snowing and looking lovely, and people and towns and businesses get pretty festive with light and decorations. As Dec. 25 approaches, I feel like the music gets more power. This year I am glad that Dec. 23 falls on a Friday, and I am looking forward to my final concert of the year, at a time when people have laid down their "weapons" of shopping and worrying, and welcome some of the things that music is good at. The sun sets here at about 4pm this time of year, and when people are seated in a room at 7pm that close to Dec. 25, it can feel like you have musical superpowers. Get the audience to sing along with Silent Night at the right moment (I always do it in the keys of F or G) and you can create some real magic. This is the kind of experience you cannot have playing into a microphone while recording, or making videos to post or stream on the internet, without actually playing for people in the moment.
I remember as a new musician being overwhelmed by the vastness of Christmas, feeling steamrollered by the Nutcracker, the Grinch, the old movies and TV specials with huge bands and lots of glitter and glitz. I have only slowly come to feel comfortable and proud doing my simple, quieter versions of the Holiday songs. It’s the only level playing field in the music business really, and big pop stars churn out their versions of the Christmas standards, with varying success.
It can be fun to collect Christmas recordings, and years ago I discovered something that seems to resemble a tradition they have in England of celebrating a really weird or bad song that time of year. I made a Christmas mix tape to share with friends and to entertain myself, and it grew into two. The first was what I felt were the most excellent performances of Christmas songs, which included Elvis Presley on “Winter Wonderland,” dobro God Jerry Douglas on “Away in a Manger,” Tammy Wynette on “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear,” and boy soprano Aled Jones on “O Holy Night.” I also assembled a collection of weird or overblown Christmas music, which included Boxcar Willie’s “Hobo Bill & Santa Fe Sam,” Michael Bolton’s “White Christmas,” Liberace doing “The Night Before Christmas,” and a memorable “O Holy Night” by Jim (Gomer Pyle) Nabors. Oddly enough, my mother said she could not make up her mind which CD she liked most. Somehow the worst and the best were both good. Hmm. They stirred up memories, and they both added something to the soup. My kids also seem to like the classic songs, and to sometimes enjoy the weird and bad ones that have some kind of alternative or renegade “spirit.” I'm struggling to think of other pastimes where this sort of thing occurs. I don't think too many football fans get together to watch awful football games to get them in some kind of Holiday spirit.
Christmas music may also be the last remnant of much older cultures that had planting and harvest songs, midsummer songs and dances, Easter songs, and other seasonal ritualistic music. Christmas music is also the only time when people who are not folk music fans, and who don’t normally think much about the idea of music or culture being passed down from generation, can viscerally grasp the idea of how we all inherit music. We hear and absorb Christmas songs every year, like “Happy Birthday” at every birthday party, and it etches its musical image into each of us, uniquely as a snowflake.
The pop music industry thrives on novelty and new artists, but every December, they all have to pay homage to the swirling river of traditions. Here in melting pot America, the Holiday traditions melt like mad. There is church music and religion, and there is Santa and elves and reindeer and lots of pagan ideas stirred right together with it. There are blues Christmas songs and there are country Christmas songs, jazz Christmas songs, baroque Christmas music and everything else you can think of. Hawaiian, mariachi, bluegrass, polka– anything goes, and it is confusing and delightful, and the songs are sometimes magnificent and sometimes absolutely awful, and everything in-between. The fact that mangers, Son of God, wise men, Yule logs, mistletoe, elves and all the other symbols and icons of Christmas get stirred up together is amazing and awesome, but I'm glad I don't have to explain it to anyone. Nativity scenes with palm trees and camels can be side by side with evergreen trees, snow men and reindeer. I have a 1950's lighted set of wise men with a lighted camel on diplay in my front yard, and I am hoping to find a matching vintage lighted reindeer to join them in a festive display of Holiday cheer and absurdity.
All of us at Christmas time are swimming through a strange but wonderful sea of hopes, memories, fantasies and obligations, with familiar yet often unfamiliar feelings being stirred up like ghosts. The conveyor belt of Christmas grinds us through, with the annoying music starting in the stores now well before Thanksgiving. We paw through racks of clothes in the stores, fight for parking spaces, scroll through endless web pages looking for gifts or the right wrapping paper, and we see ourselves in new ways.
I play Christmas music for quite a number of people, and I'll admit that it is stressful and difficult as well as joyous and meaningful, though I am not fishing for sympathy. I need the work, I am glad to sell the tickets, I am grateful for all the recordings and books people have bought from me in December over the years, even as I dread the cold buildings and cars I have to carry my instruments in and out of, and the snow and ice storms I battle as I drive to Connecticut, New York State or Vermont on dark, icy roads, or wade into the fearsome evening rush hour traffic outside Boston. Though I can’t claim to know exactly what I am doing, I feel like people give me a deeper access this time of year to their feelings. People who don’t go to concerts much will come to a Christmas concert, and wear a special sweater they wear every year. There is something genuine and also sacred going on that happens repeatedly, but always unexpectedly, between the musician and the listener, like the plot of some corny Disney movie, underneath it all. I have always felt that performing music for people is a kind of brain surgery (apologies to any brain surgeons who might be reading this) where if you are good, and have a steady hand and a pure heart, they will actually let you go inside them. Music can introduce feelings and ideas, and evoke memories if we do things right, and we can connect people with something ancient and valuable, though always feathery and intangible. You can’t see the emotional machinery inside people’s heads or hearts, but its presence is strongest as Christmas approaches.
It is a great privilege to be allowed to do it, though as I keep saying, playing Christmas music is not an easy job. Every year I am reminded that the true meaning of Christmas perhaps does live somewhere inside each of us. If we can find it and fan that little flame, we are better off for our effort, and rewarded for our faith. Even those of us who are hurt by painful memories, or think we can become numb and avoid all the chaos or disappointments that lurk out there like wolves pacing on the outskirts of a medieval village. Yes, Virginia, there is Christmas music, and as Frank Church said, “…it exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.”
For me the true meaning of Christmas might have a lot to do with trying to connect people with the true music of Christmas, which is a quite circular definition. It's not as simplistic as finding meaning by searching for meaning, since it involves sharing. It feels like if I can go inside myself and find meaning in Christmas music, then performing it can resemble that lovely thing that happens when a church full of people pass on a flame from candle to candle. I hope I can play well this year, and I hope you find some solace, beauty or meaning in Christmas music in your life. It’s out there somewhere, though it's only real when it enters into our hearts.
Luckily my kids have not demanded explanations of how there can be reindeer and camels and snowmen mixed together, sometimes with both palm trees and evergreens.
This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues and awareness in the life of modern troubadours... Thank you if you made it this far, and please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics.