Lovely Weather for a Sleigh Ride Together
Before I began writing liner notes for our annual holiday compilations, I didn’t give a whole lot of thought to the likes of “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song.” I gravitated toward left-field fare like the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York" (still a favorite) or Yogi Yorgesson’s “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas” (I grew up around a lot of Norwegians). The CDs I assemble annually for friends and family mostly avoid the familiar stuff in favor of, oh, say, Butterbeans & Susie’s “Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus (And Mama Ain’t No Christmas Tree)” or Lord Beginner’s “Christmas Morning the Rum Had Me Yawning.”
I still hunt for Yuletide oddities this time of year. (Any suggestions?), But now, thanks to the series of Timothy Jones–produced seasonal albums I’ve worked on for Starbucks – like this year’s Sleigh Ride Side by Side – I savor traditional holiday fare with equal relish.
Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and other greats from the golden age of popular song found ways to animate “Let It Snow!” and “Winter Wonderland” in the same way they put their distinctive stamps on Great American Songbook archetypes like “My Funny Valentine” and “Body and Soul.” They did it over and over and made it look easy. That’s why they’re still revered years after their passing. Dean Martin’s take on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is very different from the duet of Ray Charles and Betty Carter, but they’re both must-hears.
Working on the notes for these albums has also made me appreciate the soul and craftsmanship of the composers. There are fascinating stories behind these chestnuts: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was inspired by the Civil War, while “Do You Hear What I Hear?” came out of the Cuban missile crisis. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” were home-front hits during World War II, which explains the undercurrent of homesickness in both classics.
Like the aforementioned singers, songwriters like Irving Berlin, Mel Tormé and Frank Loesser help find ways to deep connection with artists and audiences alike while working within a pretty narrow framework. I mean, Santa was content with eight flying reindeer for over a century. Then Rudolph came along and they had to make room for the new guy.
A good song will do that.