Christmas Music the Traditional Way

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When the 2013 Christmas season rolled in on a depraved note, I knew all of civilization was doomed. My sullen outlook was founded on the fact that one of the very first holiday songs I heard this year from our long-time bastion of Christmas music on Detroit’s government airwaves, WNIC, was a version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” by Rod Stewart and Dolly Parton.

Friends don’t let friends listen to this version of that song. The great rock ‘n roller Rod Stewart has no business singing this song, or any of the other standards he sings, for that matter. Add to that the choice of Dolly Parton as a partner, and the malfeasance is magnified beyond comprehension. Now I’m not saying this atrocious version of an otherwise respectable song is a tort or a crime, but it is indeed a wrongful act that contributes to the injury of all parties who are involuntarily subjected to this as “the sounds of the season.” For Rod and Dolly, this recording borders on being an act of professional negligence. In fact, this particular song is so abused by so many duets that one person dedicated a blog – which is no longer updated – to the worst versions ever of this song.

What’s remarkable is that a worse song litters the government airwaves each and every season – “The Christmas Shoes” by NewSong. This music travesty is a schmaltzy attempt to tug at the heartstrings of listeners by invoking a touching, Christian story about a boy’s mother who is about to pass. The first time I heard it I immediately judged it as yet another lame commercial attempt at adding insult to injury as far as the contemporary Christmas catalog goes. An article on the Today website notes that this song may just be the worst holiday song ever.

“(The) audience (for ‘Christmas Shoes’) is intended to actually like it and find it touching,” says Rutherford, “However, in most people it provokes a divine rage, gasps of horror, and a brilliant rant by Patton Oswalt. Bad tacky is like finding syrupy angel statues in a country store. You’re supposed to find it cute and enjoyable, but all you feel is nausea.”

Every so often I write an article or two about Christmas music – the kind that most people have little to no familiarity with because they are peppered with the mainstream baloney about Christmas donkeys, old ladies being run over by reindeer, and other contemporary replacements for timeless traditions that are analogous to putting the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard in backdrop to a Debussy violin sonata.

In December 2000 I wrote “The Other Christmas Music” in tribute to old-world Christmas carols as an antidote to modern, holiday music blasphemy. Another of my Christmas articles, from December 2007, “Christmas Music: A Postmortem Reflection,” raised the question of government’s role in desecrating the sounds of the season via the public airwaves churning out an irritating assemblage of monotonous noises judiciously arranged in predictable 25-song playlists that manage to dumb down graceful carols into catatonic choruses of pop culture that resemble Pepsi commercials strafed with misplaced Santa jingles.

All hail the digital age, for that is the reason that the season is no longer stuck in the realm of public goods – the government’s airwaves – with no alternatives other than firing up the audio equipment to play one’s vast collection of a costly and hard-to-get Christmas collection, one LP or CD or cassette at a time. It has taken me 20+ years to compile my eclectic Christmas collection, and only the digital age has made collecting such music affordable and effortlessly diverse.

My digitized Christmas music collection is now pushing 20 gigabytes in size, thanks to a few hundred CDs and a voluminous catalog of iTunes downloads. Even so, with the arrival of the Internet, radio on demand, high-quality Bluetooth sound units, and subscription-based and free music services, the collections of the past are less practical and can be more limited than on-demand type music services.

Simply put, the ‘free’ and governmentized airwaves have been entirely upended by multiple market-based music solutions whose purpose is not to conform by offering palatable playlists designed for a constricted audience, but rather, to offer wide-ranging choices and personal customization at low cost, and oftentimes for free. These services rely on vastly different business models for processing user data and algorithms to push out an endless stream of custom choices. Some of these services – such as Pandora – are still working through the issues of building profitable business models, but it is evident that the future has “market” and not “government” or “public goods” written all over it.

The eclectic Christmas music I refer to is a hodgepodge of traditional tunes and old-world carols including medieval, victorian, a cappella, appalachian, country, bluegrass, big band, brass, choir, inspirational, organ, strings, new age, classical, gospel, traditional, and even some occasional doo-wop and rock.  Furthermore, I like a classical spin on a contemporary Christmas tune, such as just about anything by Michael Crawford, John McDermott, or Josh Groban. Michael Crawford’s “A Journey to Bethlehem (A Christmas Medley)” is a great example of a spectacular modern spin on popular-traditional songs.

The old-world carols are largely forgotten by the mainstream in spite of the fact that many contemporaries – Charlotte Church, Kathy Mattea, Katie McMahon, Dan Fogelberg, and Linda Ronstadt – sing wonderful versions of the old carols.

Even more exhilarating are the old tunes sung in old form by less traditional artists that would have little to no public exposure except for their appearances at renaissance festivals, fairs, local events, and, of course, representation in the digital age and assorted digital markets.

Pandora Radio offers up many unique Christmas stations that include Christmas choral classics, Celtic, classical, and traditional. Whether one chooses to accept the variety offered or customize stations based on favorites and rejections, Pandora pulls from a very deep catalog that is not subject to management-approved playlists tailored to a tediously conventional audience. Slacker, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Songza, Stitcher, and multiple other choices also abound. And iTunes radio recently entered the streaming radio world, allowing customization based on your music in iTunes.

The iTunes store, an old stalwart in the digital age, still stands out as pure genius because it allows for endless search options on artists and songs. I search on favorite old-world carols like “Gloucestershire Wassail”; “A Virgin Unspotted”; “Still, Still, Still”; or “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” to explore distinct versions by obscure artists. Without iTunes I never would have discovered performers like Cantus, a classical ensemble that performs one of the best arrangements I have ever heard of “Coventry Carol.”

In my many discussions with individuals, I find that they tend to be stubborn about “not liking” Christmas music because they have not been exposed to real Christmas music, and oftentimes not even as a child in the home. I grew up listening to the Christmas music of the Robert Shaw Chorale, Arthur Fiedler, Andy Williams, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Harry Simeone Chorale, Ray Coniff, Mitch Miller, Fred Waring, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Vienna Choir Boys, Leroy Anderson, Choir of King’s College, and other conventional music of that time.

From there, the CD age made more non-mainstream music available, and this allowed me to evolve as I went back further and dug deeper in the traditional world to explore enduring, age-old carols that had seemed to get lost in contemporary times. The tunes played today in celebration of Christmas are heavily influenced by the calamity of public airwaves that serve to prop up politically correct holiday convictions while pleasing the majority of the collective masses by not causing anyone heartburn and distress by way of playing songs from the great unknown.

Several years ago, I had come across a CD by Barry and Beth Hall, a duo that recorded a CD of “holiday tunes from the middle ages.” The Halls and their music were featured on a 2010 segment of NPR’s “All Things Considered” by Tom Manoff where he focused on some of his favorite Christmas music that never “made it to the favorites list.” I had spent some time corresponding with Barry Hall via email, and we even took to exchanging CDs via snail mail – he sent me some recorded music of his that was unavailable commercially, and I sent him multiple CDs of my very eclectic mixes from my “Ancient Christmas Music” series of playlists from iTunes.

Let us not forget that it was Rush Limbaugh – like him or hate him – who helped to catapult Mannheim Steamroller into the spotlight by playing Mannheim’s music as bumper music on his daily show throughout the Christmas season. Mannheim Steamroller helped to marry radio-friendly music to old-world carols with an innovative and creative approach to old Christmas music, and this made Chip Davis and his Mannheim Steamroller gig the most popular Christmas music artist of the 80s and 90s. The popularity of Mannheim Steamroller did much to expose the masses to some wonderful and unfamiliar carols that were enhanced by Chip Davis’s beautiful, electronic versions of old Christmas favorites.

All the delightful, ancient Christmas music that I cherish comes to life each November and December as I listen only to my catalog of Christmas music interspersed with the various music services and the creative alternatives they have to offer. Other than attending a classical symphony event, all other music is shelved until January.

In addition, the Detroit area is blessed with the Christmas season performances of a local ensemble, Simply Dickens, as they perform the old carols throughout the season at various venues in the area. My old friend Ken, who manages and arranges songs for the group, describes Simply Dickens as a “period music vocal group” that performs “Christmas music from the 19th century and before.” On his blog, Passion for the Past, Ken has written a wonderful chronicle about the group’s repertoire, its changing faces, as well as its evolution over twelve years of performing.

Ken and I spent many years collecting and exchanging this old music, even back in the days when we had to spend hours recording and mixing music on blank cassettes, well before the digital era. One 90-minute cassette could take 3+ hours to record. ‘Tis why I can so appreciate these blessed days of popping a CD into iTunes or downloading songs, and clicking and dragging songs to Playlists.

Why the performance of this style of music is not more popular is not exactly a mystery. My discussions with the anti-Christmas music crowd reveals they have formed opinions based on having little to no experience with anything other than the routine tripe that bombards the airwaves starting in early November and stays until 6pm Christmas evening.  Let’s hope that the versatility and accessibility of the digital era helps to provoke a resurgence of this traditional music by bringing more of it to the masses.

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