Friday, December 7, 2007

Thirteen holiday songs you won't hear in the elevator

Lot's of people say that they don't like Christmas music. Understandable, considering the dreck that gets played over and over, starting in October, on background music systems in every major retail outlet including places like Home Depot.

I like Christmas music, and have, since I was in a caroling group in high school which visited hospitals and nursing homes during the season to sing songs of cheer. I'm a cynic much of the year, but susceptible to the spirit of the season, when people don't look at you cross-eyed if you wish them, "Peace on earth."

I can take Bing crooning White Christmas, and Elvis crooning Blue Christmas, but I'm more partial to El Vez crooning Brown Christmas.

Over the years I've assembled lots of quirky "holiday" music, and have made collections of such which I've distributed to family and friends. Most of it you won't hear on the in-store radio channel, and some of it is damned hard to find, but these are "holiday" songs you can listen to most any time of year.

1. Fairytale of NY - The Pogues from If I Should Fall From Grace With God

In England and Ireland this is a holiday classic. Drunkeness, curses, regrets, hard feelings and a love that survives it all. Just like a lot of the Christmas celebrations we all know.

2. River - Joni Mitchell from Blue
Cover by dozens of people, Joni's is still the best. The hint of "Jingle Bells" the regret over making her "baby" cry and the wish for a frozen river.

3. Did Jesus Have A Baby Sister?- Dory Previn from Dory Previn, or the Casselberry-Dupree cover from City Down.
The original by Dory Previn comes from an album just back in print as a CD, which is well worth pursuing. Previn, who now lives in Northampton, was a quirky singer-songwriter before quirky singer-songwriters were popular. Casselberry-Dupree do a rhythm and blues version that will have you singing and dancing around the creche.

4. The Holidays Are Here and We're Still At War - Brett Dennen
Released as a radio station single. You can hear it at his website, or myspace page. A great Christmas protest song in the tradition of such.

5. The Christians and The Pagans - Dar Williams from Mortal City
So I was producing a holiday concert for the station (At Home For the Holidays With The Folk Next Door) and I asked Nerissa Nields to ask Dar if she would write a song that we could record to preview the show. Dar panicked because she didn't like to write quickly, but this is what she delivered a few days later.

6. Merry Christmas from the Family - Robert Earl Keen jr. from No. 2 Live Dinner

If you can't recognize yourself in this song, then you've got a saner family than most of us. Check out the version by the Dixie Chicks and Rosie O'Donnell

7. This Mountain - Hugh Blumenfeld from Mozart's Money.
Also a request for a song for that famous WWUH holiday concert, Dr. B wrote the Hannukah song about the miracle of the lamps, which is as inspiring as any song that I've heard about that lengthy, but minor, Jewish holiday.

8. Arbolito - Tish Hinojosa from Memoribilia Navidena
This Christmas album by Hinojosa is a gem. This song, about the Christmas tree is sung in English and Spanish versions.

9. Maybe This Christmas - Ron Sexsmith from Maybe This Christmas
We all know the feeling of having lost touch with someone we love, and the hope that the joy of the season will bring forgetfulness and forgiveness. It's about the universal need to reconnect. Makes me think of Brendan.

10. Nothing But A Child - Steve Earle - Somehow on an album about murder and moonshine, and featuring a skull and crossbones cover, this little song about redemption in a certain baby's smile lets you understand Earle's vulnerability.

11. The Rebel Jesus - Jackson Browne and the Chieftans from Bells of Dublin
Jesus as hippie. It works for me as does Browne's apology for bringing up dark topics in a season of joy.

12. Through the Bitter Frost and Snow - Susan McKeown from Through The Bitter Frost and Snow
It's winter and most of us suffer through it. McKeown trudges through the darkness to find light on the other side of winter. This is the first of two seasonal albums McKeown has recorded. The other, A Winter Talisman, with Johnny Cunningham, is a classic.

13. Christmas Carol - The Nields from Love and China
The post-breakup Christmas song, and the question, do I still send a card to the ex-in-laws.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ed for this list. I will treasure it and pass it on to others who I hope can also appreciate it.

Jack Nork said...

Excellent list Ed!
My friends in England say that they start the Christmas season every year by listening to Fairytale of New York and cry every time they listen to it.
Lovin all the tunes, lots of artists that we discovered at your 'Folk Next Door' concerts back in the day. We still enjoy listening to the concert CDs, some of the best produced live music I have ever heard!

Have a great Holiday season!


Jack Nork said...

Hi Ed-
How do I contact you? I don't see an email link on your blog.

I wanted to let you know about a benefit show on January 5th

My friends Giulia Gouge and Shellye Valauskas are putting on a concert at Cafe Nine on January 5th to benefit
"Save Orphans of Tanzania".

SPECIAL BENEFIT SHOW Shellye Valauskas; w/ The Mountain Movers; Baby G; Joanie Loves Tchotchkes • Admission is $7• proceeds benefit "Save Orphans of Tanzania," which helps the orphaned children of AIDS casualties in eastern Africa.

When: Saturday January 5, 2008. Show starts at 10pm
Where: Cafe Nine 250 STATE STREET, NEW HAVEN
Cost: $7

You can find more information on the web at or you can email