Earth Wind and Fire Christmas?

earth-wind-and-fire-650-430Like a married couple (that we are not), Jeremy and I were having our age-old argument about music on the way to our annual tree decorating at the Kenney Krieger Festival of Trees.  It goes like this:

Me:  I don’t like when FILL IN THE BLANK ruins that Christmas music by making it all jazzy and weird.  Whey can’t FILL IN THE BLANK just do it right?

Jeremy:  What?  This is a classic!  It’s because you don’t understand music.

Me:  That’s what Roger [my husband] says.  You are both crazy.

Jeremy:  (Audible Sigh) You just don’t get it. . .

So now that you are familiar with my credentials as a music critic, I bring you Ken Tucker’s review of four new Christmas albums, including Christmas at Downton Abbey, Earth Wind and Fire’s Holiday, the soundtrack for A Merry Friggin’ Christmas, and Living Sisters’ Harmony is Real.

You think this post is going to be a gushing recommendation of the Downton Abbey album.  (The countdown to the next season’s first episode in America is just about as important to me as the Christmas Countdown itself–I keep threatening to move to England so I can get a jump on Season 5.)  On the Ken Tucker review, I heard a snippet of Elizabeth McGovern’s rendition of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and it was lovely.  I’ll have to do a bit more listening before I make a purchase, though.

What really caught my attention was Earth Wind and Fire’s “Joy to the World.”  Here is a clear improvisation, call and response version of a standard that you would expect would elicit my standard complaint–“Just sing it like normal.” Instead, I was boucing a little in the driver’s seat of my car, thinking, “I need to get this album.”

Later, I pulled up the iTunes preview, and overall, had a lukewarm response to the rest.  Part of me loves the sound because of my 70’s upbringing, but most of the standards are recorded just like that, standard–and there’s someone else out there that does it better . . .much better.  Two of the songs on the album are slight revisions of their greatest hits, “December” and “Happy Seasons.” Yuck.  Call me a traitor, but in this case, I don’t want to hear the “regular” version.

Still, as I change my radio station to “all Christmas” from tomorrow (Thanksgiving day) to December 25, I’m going to be listening for Earth Wind and Fire’s version of “Joy to the World.”  I hope it gets as least as much airtime as my least favorite, “The Christmas Shoes” by Alabama.  (I’m not hyperlinking that out of spite.)


Annie and a New Deal for Christmas

hbz-blog-annieRoger and I had the good fortune to see our family friend, Emma, in the Sanford School’s amazing production of Annie.  Although I had heard most of the music at one time or another and had seen the photos of the cartoon Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks, I am sad to admit that I did not know the story.  Imagine my surprise when a true Christmas dream-come-true musical unfolded on the Sanford stage!

The final song is “New Deal for Christmas,” both in reference to Roosevelt’s political plan (inspired by orphan Annie!?) and Annie’s adoption party at the 5th Avenue Warbucks mansion.  The entire show is set around the time period  Roosevelt’s first Christmas in office.  Act I of the play features Hoover-ites gathered around fires in barrels and Warbucks (with Annie) advising a depressed Roosevelt on ways to improve the economy.   By the end of the play, Annie, Warbucks, and Roosevelt are singing about their bright future.   Historically, the president and Mrs. Roosevelt received a record 40,000 Christmas cards in 1933.  (More on that in a future post!)

This most recent Annie revival (the 35th Anniversary) opened November 2012 and closed  on January 5, 2014. It opened with Jane Lynch (Glee) as Miss Hannigan, and there were a total of 38 previews and 487 regular performances at the Palace Theatre.  I learned that the Miss Hannigan role has been played by many famous actresses, including Nell Carter (20th Anniversary revival)  and Carol Burnett (movie version in 1982).  The original production of Annie in 1977 won many Tony awards and held the record for the longest running show at the Neil Simon Theatre (until Hairspray in 2009).  I remember singing “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” as a child, and now I am realizing that I must have been influenced by the first Annie storm in the late 70’s or the movie in the early 80’s.

The newest production of Annie will be the Christmas 2014 movie starring Beasts of the Southern Wild, Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie.  Cameron Diaz will be Miss Hannigan.

I think Roger and I should add seeing this movie with Noah to our Christmas 2014 plan!

Pete Seeger’s Christmas Album

Cover of AlbumPete Seeger died on January 27, 2014.  He was 94 years old.  When I listened to and read the eulogies, on NPR and in The Washington Post, and other sources online, the snippets of his music instantly took me to my childhood.  Like a lotion or a perfume that your mother wears, the sound of his voice drew me to memories I had long forgotten.

His voice is familiar in the folk songs we sang in elementary school, “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn, Turn,Turn.” Both of these were written by Seeger and then made famous by other folk singers in the 1960’s.  Time Entertainment online published an article the day after Seeger’s death, “Songs of Peace and Protest: 6 Essential Cuts From Pete Seeger.”  Each of the descriptions of the six songs is filled with references to major historical events and figures of the 20th Century.

His voice, like a perfume, awakened memories of singing these songs in school, in church, and in the back yard.  I began to wonder if Seeger had recorded any Christmas albums.

I found a description and sample of his 1989 recording, Traditional Christmas Carols, at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings,  the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution.  There, I was able to listen to samples of the 13 tracks.  The voice is familiar, even though many of the tunes are not.  I think I hit the Jeremy jackpot!  I would like him to research all of these songs and tell more about their origin and Seeger’s recordings.

I think the call-and-response style that is so ingrained into my folk song laden, liberal Catholic childhood is a part of why I find his sound so appealing.

There is no question that my favorite track is “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” a song I had not heard before.  I searched for performances of this song and stumbled upon an instructional video for John Jacobson’s hand motions to this song.  This made the song all that much better.

O Holy Night- Another Christmas Music Post!

Snowy Holy NightHappy 2014!  I am excited to be writing my first post in the new year.  I’ve been trying to come up with an organizational plan for my weekly posts.  I work much better if I have a plan, or perhaps theme, to guide my actions.  So for my first Thursday post each month I am going to focus on music!  No better place to start than with my absolute favorite Christmas song of all time- O Holy Night.  This song has been at the top of all my lists for years.  It is musically sound and even the worst versions can still prove somewhat enjoyable.  But when it’s good, O yeah!

The song originates in France.  It was written by Adolphe Adam in 1847  for the poem Minuit, Chretiens (Midnight, Christians).  The first performance was in a small french church to celebrate the repair of the organ.  The first singer was a well-known opera singer of the day.  The topic of the poem, and thus the song, is the birth of the savior and our redemption as man.  Check out the opening verse and chorus:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

St P crecheThe song has always had great success over the last 150+ years.  It has been recorded by world renown singers, bands, choirs, and orchestras.  It is part of many small church repertoire for the holidays.  Notably it is part of history as well.  In 1906 it was the first live performance on the new AM radio program.  That first broadcast version featured voice and violin.  It is truly timeless.  A recording made in 1916 is still being sold today!

One of the things I resolve to do with Christmas music this year is to find new versions of songs I love.  For O Holy Night I discovered a great version through a post on a friend’s Facebook page with a recording of Auld Lang Syne.  It featured three singers from the Broadway show Spider-man singing acapella.  I went a little further with some Youtube searching and discovered the had a recording of O Holy Night.  Not just their version, a great version.  Give it a listen-

This is my new go to favorite for this tune.  (Bonus is that one of the three guys is a JMU alum- Go Dukes!)   As I sit here watching the snow fall on a cold winter night it definitely fills me with the spirit of Christmas!

Happy Independence Day America!

Stars and StripesAs we all wrap-up our days of friends, family, food and fireworks Christmas is likely not on your mind.  It certainly wasn’t on mine.  I just wanted to get a nice cool drink and some aloe.  I did flip on the tv and caught a little coverage of the National Symphony performance on the Mall in Washington.  They were wrapping up the show with a performance of Stars and Stripes Forever, the most well-recognized of all the Sousa marches.   The song was officially named our National March by Congress.  I like Sousa but there are two things that always drive me nuts when it is performed.  First the way people like to clap, but can never keep a steady tempo and second, when the sing lyrics to the march.  The second was in full effect and lead me to search to find out where those words originated and why they were added to the song.  I was surprised to find a Christmas connection to Stars and Stripes Forever!

John Philip Sousa was in Europe on holiday with his wife in 1896.  He received word that his long-time friend and manager of the Sousa Band, David Bakely, had died suddenly.  Sousa boarded a boat to rush home to handle the affairs of the band.  It was on the ship back to the States that Sousa imagined the entire musical composition.  It was on Christmas Day!  He created it all in his mind and committed it to memory, not putting  it on paper until he arrived in port.

The inspiration that came to Sousa on that Christmas Day in 1896 is celebrated by all Americans each July Fourth.  How thankful we all are for this amazing Christmas gift from the March King!  (oh and fyi- it was Sousa himself who penned the lyrics)

Take a listen to an early 1911 recording by Sousa’s Band.

Marching Band is for Christmas, Right?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis week I started planning my fall calendar and that means making time for one of my favorite activities, marching band.  I have been involved in the activity in one way or another every season since 1985!  Most see the activity as something for the heat of the summer and the football games of the fall.  This is mostly true other than the occasional Christmas parade.  I’m guessing many people view marching band as what happens when you go for your hotdog at a football game, what plays behind the commentators for a college game, or the music you hear in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. There are some decent marching band versions of most upbeat Christmas songs for bands to use for parades.  These are usually tags to the end of a season and worked in amongst the prep for the Winter concert.  During the regular season the bands work continually on their show, centered on some type of theme.  I’d never really considered if a band might choose Christmas music for that show theme.  Why the heck not?  There is so much potential!  A typical show usually has a powerful opening song, a ballad, a feature of some type, and a strong closing anthem with tons of variations possible.  Just thinking of all the possible musical combinations got my head spinning.  Add to that all the varied visual looks that could come from the color guard!  You can just imagine my excitement.

cadets2012When marching bands want to see the top-level of the marching art they regularly turn to Drum Corps International, DCI.  DCI is a summer activity that pulls together young musicians to join a corps and spend many months working 10-12 hours a day on a single 10-12 minute performance.  These are performers that are the pinnacle of the activity.  They compete all across the country throughout the summer months.  Last summer one of the corps, the Cadets, had a show titled “12.25”.  You guessed it- a Christmas themed show!  The arrangements they share with us are strong versions of many of the Christmas classics we all know and love.  There are many videos of the Cadets show on YouTube.  Check out a full performance or a full run rehearsal.  Either way you can see for yourself just how awesome a Christmas marching show can be.  Like what you see?  You can check out some links about the overall activity at  If you have a marching band fan in your circle of family and friends you might get some good gift ideas there too.   Without a doubt marching band is connected in many ways to Christmas, so maybe the question might be better asked “Christmas is for marching band, right?”

Christmas Melting Pot

Jew XMasOne of the things that has always interested me about Christmas is the origins and history of our holiday.  The fact that so much of the traditions and customs trace back to non-Christian religious, spiritual, and ethnic practices is well documented.  The Yule Log has shared many posts about the early conversion of “pagan” or other practices to the Christmas feasts and festivals.  Trees, elves, Santa Claus, food, customs, and song all are part of the rich mosaic that Christmas has formed over the centuries.  Christmas has close ties to many world religions including Islam and Judaism.  One of these connections has been one of the more intriguing to me- music.  So many of our most popular Christmas songs were created by Jewish composers and lyricists.

Natalie and I have talked about this occurrence many times.  It seems that this fact has been one of interest to many writers over the years.  Never noticed this connection before?  Here are some basics.  More than half of the annual top 25 holiday songs compiled by ASCAP were penned by Jews.  Composers like Irving Berlin and Mel Torme give us great works.  Compositions include White Christmas, the Christmas Song, Christmas Waltz, Silver Bells, Rudolph, and I’ll Be Home for Christmas.  There are also numerous Jewish performers that have given so many of the classic versions of holiday songs.  Main Jewish artists of Christmas hits include Barbra Streisand, Neil Sedaka, Barry Manilow, and Neil Diamond.  Even Bob Dylan cut a Christmas album last year.  For a more interesting look at the connections read this short 2011 article from the New York Daily News.  It definitely is one of the miracles of the Christmas season that so many people of such varied backgrounds can come together to celebrate peace, hope, and love.

Rockettes Christmas Spectacular – There’s a hole in my bucket

RockettesBack in July, when Christmas was but a dream, Jeremy and I spelled out our bucket lists.  Curiously, both of us wanted to go to Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes. I have always loved the larger-than-life dancing choruses that were first made popular by the Ziegfeld Follies in the early 1900’s.  The first Rockettes show was in 1933, and it continues to sell out the eight week run.  According to the website, the dancers train six hours a day, six days a week to prepare for 210 Christmas performances. There’s also a national touring show that appears in four major cities, including Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago and Dallas.  I’m missing those, too.

In addition to Radio City’s website, the Rockettes have their own site that gives a lot of detail and history about the lives of the dancers, how to become a Rockette, fashion, and more.  There is a series of videos demonstrating the Rockettes’ timeline from the 1920’s to now, including a video about opening night 2012.

Tradition dictates a toy soldier routine, 12 days of Rockettes Christmas, dancing Santas, and a live nativity. Here’s a video of this year’s “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

This year is their 85th season, and although I won’t be going to see them, there’s no reason why someone can’t purchase the 75th anniversary DVD for me.  Here’s the link on Amazon.

Song of the Week #23- White Christmas

white christmasOur top songs are definitely the cream of the Christmas crop.  This week is the super powerhouse, White Christmas.  This endearing song of reminiscence takes us back to an old-fashioned CHristmas.  Irving Berlin penned the classic in the summer of 1940 (amazing how many Christmas classics were written in the heat of the summer).  There is a little controversy about where the song was written.  It might have been at the Biltmore in Arizona, but more likely in La Quinta, CA at the La Quinta Hotel.  Regardless of where it was written, it is forever linked to the singer who sang it first- Bing Crosby.  Crosby made the first public performance on the radio show, The Kraft Music Hall, on Christmas Day in 1941.  It would then be recorded in May 1942, taking only 18 minutes to get the track finalized!  It was released as part of a collection of 78s for the film Holiday Inn.  The song wasn’t initially popular, more people loved the tune Be Careful, It’s My Heart.  But soon the public started to love White Christmas leading it to become a #1 hit on the charts.  It is the only single to be a #1 hit as part of three separate cycles over three different years.  This isn’t the only record, award or distinction for the song.

White Christmas won the 1942 Academy Award for Best Song.  It was the inspiration for the 1954 film of the same name.  It is on most lists named as the #1 Christmas song of all time.  NPR names it as #2 on the list Songs of the Century, just behind Over the Rainbow.  The Crosby album Merry Christmas, including his version of the song, was released in 1949 and has never been out of print since.  Most remarkably is the status in holds in the Guinness Book of World Records- the Best-selling Single of All Time.  The Crosby version has sold over 50 million copies world-wide.  If you include the more than 500 different recorded versions the sales total reaches over 100 million copies of the song sold world-wide.  100 million!!  The tune also holds a unique place in American History outside of Christmas and songs.  The radio broadcast of the song in April 1975 was the pre-arranged signal to begin the American evacuation from the city of Saigon in Vietnam.

The current Crosby recording is actually a 1947 re-recording due to the wear and tear on the 1942 original.  It still includes the clever lyrics of the opening, “The sun is shining, the grass is green…”.  So many newer versions skip right to the first verse and leave the introduction out completely.  Check out a few versions we found for you:

Bing Crosby– Singing it as part of the film Holiday Inn
Barbra Streisand- Her version includes the great introduction
Bing & Michael Buble– From Buble’s Christmas special on NBC
Mantovani– Orchestral version circa 1952
Supremes– Acapella recording from the girls group
Rockapella– Another acapella version, yes from HSN!
Bob Marley- Even reggae gets in on the action 
Glee– The cast sings and skates with the up-beat take on the song
Canadian Brass–  A clever instrumental version from the group, includes the intro too!

Song of the Week #22- The Christmas Song

Mel_TormeWe almost finished the week without a song of the week post!  As we near the final few songs we get to the cream of the crop.  These last few songs are the best of them all (all opinion mostly).  This week we focus on THE Christmas Song.  You may know it better by its less formal title “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”.  This is the most performed Christmas song of them all.  It was written in 1944 by the Velvet Voice, Mel Torme and his writing partner Bob Wells.  They were suffering through a particularly hot summer.  Mel came upon Bob writing a list of things, not a song lyric.  The list was to get him thinking of winter things, hopefully to make him feel cooler.  Less than an hour later they were finished the lyrics and the song was born.  Mel was only 19 years old!

CHristmas SOngOriginally it was titled “Merry Christmas to You” before becoming simply The Christmas Song.  The first recording was made by the Nat King Cole Trio in 1946.  This recording was not to Cole’s liking- he wanted a new arrangement using a string section.  That first 1946 version was not released it landed on a 1989 compilation album by mistake.  The second 1946 recording featuring a small string section was the first to be released.  It was wildly popular.  Cole would go on to record it two additional times in 1953, with a full orchestra, and in 1961, in stereo with a full orchestra.  The lyrics paint a wonderful picture of the holidays.  Something for all in the family, “kids from one to ninety-two”, and many more references to white and wintry Christmas scenes.  This might be why hundreds and hundreds of singers, band, groups, and choirs have recorded and released the song.  Mel Torme himself recorded it four times, in 1954, 1961, 1966, and 1992.  Listen to some of the interesting version we found:

Nat King Cole– The original (well first released) recording on 78 rpm with a small string section.
Mel Torme– The writer singing it in 1963 with Judy Garland (see if you catch her little twist to the lyrics).
Vince Guaraldi– This instrumental version from A Charlie Brown Christmas might be my absolute favorite!
Target Commercials– In 2002 Target ran a series of commercials featuring India Arie & Stevie Wonder singing the song
Sesame Street– Big Bird and the Swedish Chef give it a whirl
Connie Francis– Recorded in 1959 at Abby Road Studios
Justin Beiber & Usher– Even the Biebs gets in the holiday spirit- lot more up-beat