The Block Island Times

Re-evaluating the spirit of Christmas (music)

Spend the holidays with Andy Williams and Binky Griptite
By Joshua Maldonado | Dec 25, 2013

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Sings the disembodied voice of Andy Williams, blue-eyed standard singer and perennial holiday wraith. The vinyl record’s jacket introduces the concept in all-caps, towering and confrontational: THE ANDY WILLIAMS CHRISTMAS ALBUM.

Below the title is the artist: a facsimile of a human head, overtarnished with flesh-orange makeup and perfectly quaffed hair tightly grafted onto an anonymous tuxedo’d torso as to lose any generational trace. His face stares into the void, into your very soul, cheerfully demented, as his canines reveal like a rabid hound’s. This is the most wonderful time of the year?

Who is to blame for Christmas music’s changing tide, from nostalgic to poignant, wistful to insufferable?

It’s not the fault of Williams, “Emperor of Easy,” “King of Christmas,” who by all accounts was as sincere as the songs he covered (including 1958’s “Are You Sincere?”). Sadly, the standard-bearer passed away last September at 84 years old.

Nor is it the fault of William’s kindred spirit, a boyish gentleman named Dick Clark, who in 2012, at age 82, left his seemingly immortal coil. Are the deaths of these holidaymen our final loss of innocence, the end of a simpler time? Hardly.

Every holiday season we mourn the loss of our childhood memories with Christmas Music, a curiously marketable genre that’s useful only one month out of the year. No other music can claim an expiry date — or evoke more nostalgia.

Consider the most well-known holiday song of them all, “White Christmas,” written by Irving Berlin, a Russian immigrant of Jewish faith who is perhaps the first great American songwriter of the 20th century — even Gershwin considered him so.

A dream of Christmas past, it’s nostalgic by design: “Just like the ones I used to know,” sings a solemn Bing Crosby in 1940. That very recording would go on to sell 50 million copies worldwide, and is considered the best-selling record of all time.

It’s also sad. Droves of World War II GIs, weary and homesick, would request the song while overseas and cry heartily. Misery loves company, after all.

Not all seasonal songs conjure up such precious and antiquated memories, however.

The first fully-realized modern take on Christmas (music) came not from the Rat Pack and their boozed-up, decked-out holiday party — suited for today’s Mad Men set — or from Phil Spector’s impossibly grand Wall of Sound. It came from jazz with bossa nova undercurrents and a round-headed boy with a permanent existential crisis. His name was Charlie Brown.

Jazz composer/pianist Vince Guaraldi is permanently linked to Peanuts creator Charles Schulz (although the two had never met or spoken) throughout their collaboration on 15 cartoon specials. Guaraldi first became known for his 1963 top 10 hit “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” a breezy bossa jazz instrumental.

“Moon Rays,” an easygoing number from Guaraldi’s 1963 collaboration with Brazilian samba/bossa guitarist Bola Sete was the first to really sound like Charlie’s brand of bittersweet melancholia. A year later, the pianist would accept a gig with producer Lee Mendelson to score the first animated special featuring the Peanuts gang, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which was first broadcast in 1965.

Charles Schulz once remarked “I think jazz is awful,” which to these ears sounds less like an insult and more like something our prematurely-balding hero would say, watching friends and couples bop, slink and shuffle gleefully, while standing on the sidelines, unmoved.

It’s the scrappy homespun mood that Peanuts offers during the holidays that appeals to our senses, our own festive fir tree cheerfully bent under the weight of commercialism.

The same mood, albeit in a bawdier costume, can be found on 1974’s “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’” by Albert King, where the blues-funk legend soulfully mutters about “Tryin’ to fix this old bicycle” up to give as a gift and wanting to give up his parental duties for some old-fashioned Santa/Mrs. Claus roleplay.

It’s great fun, and not as offensive as it sounds, which perfectly describes the spirit of Christmas itself.

At the top of my personal holiday heap is 1981’s soul/funk LP “Merry Christmas to You,” credited to the mysterious and mononymous Joseph. Inexplicable and infectious beyond belief, Joseph, who released a few records in the ’70s under the name Joe Washington, penned an entire album of original Christmas songs brimming with personality. Look no further than the greatest song about shopping (titled “Shopping”) to indicate that our soulful singer may be Saint Nicholas himself. Nobody has expressed yuletide enthusiasm more hilariously, and lucky for us the spirit of Joseph lives on in modern times.

Binky Griptite, a funk/soul guitarist (and vocalist) whose moniker sounds like a handheld appliance, released his laidback Christmas mumblethon in 2007 with “Stoned Soul Christmas,” a sloppily jolly send-up of Laura Nyro’s 1968 hit single “Stoned Soul Picnic.” Its off-the-cuff lyrics, rambling but insistent sleigh bells and overall atmosphere have a real warmth that’s easier heard than explained.

Not that it’s unexplainable: but like any great movie or song, the greatest Christmas (music) has a level of subtlety that’s deeply personal and secret to ourselves, in our own way yet shared with thousands, and better enjoyed without an overwrought and nostalgic explanation… And I’ve said too much.

Josh Moldanado is a New Hampshire native and year-round Block Islander as of September 2012. He collects records and writes once in a while, too.

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