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ILL'S HRISTMAS USIC
his section will remain up all year round as a constant reference for Christmas music from the ragtime era and beyond. It will be expanded from time to time, usually in November and December of each year. For more interesting Christmas facts and stories, please visit the Christmas page in my Nostalgia section.
lso, because it has been requested several times since it was first posted, I now will keep this link to my own personal and somewhat humorous Christmas story, How Baby Jesus Saved Me One Christmas Night
, in hopes it will provide you a pleasant alternative look at the season from a musician's point of view. Have a cool yule, even if it's July!
Jingle Bells or the One Horse Open Sleigh
James Pierpont - 1857
is a song that we evidently were born knowing. Who hasn't heard a three-year old, or even a two-year old child attempt this simplistic tune at Christmas. In all truth, it is neither inherently a Christmas song, nor is the current popularized version quite like the original composition. James Pierpont
was one of six children of the well-known poet John Pierpont
, and uncle of the even more well-known fortune builder J. P. (James Pierpont) Morgan
. During the Civil War he defied his abolitionist father's wishes and promoted the Confederate cause with anti-Yankee tunes. But that was later. Jingle Bells
was allegedly composed as early as 1850. It was first published by Boston publisher Oliver Ditson
in 1857 as The One Horse Open Sleigh
. In the following two years it gained such popularity that it was reprinted with identical plates and a new cover sporting the title that the public had chosen for it, Jingle Bells
. Not only did American music consumers and performers quickly adopt this song, but they collectively made editorial changes to the melody in the chorus, leaving the verse more or less intact. By 1900, the familiar melody we know today was well established. I have a recording of a cylinder made in 1902 featuring the Hayden Quartet
singing the altered melody that reinforces this fact. In the performance here, I play the original melody through the verse and chorus, then repeat the chorus with the original printed accompaniment. The second verse would be closer to what the public performed through the 1870's. By the third verse I've abandoned the original chorus for the popularized one, and the fourth time through I incorporate some ragtime into the mix. You may also want to take a look at the lyrics, some of which are slightly different than what we know today. For a simple tune, you've got to admit it has endured very well for a century and a half. Oh what fun!
Up on the House Top
Benjamin R. Hanby - c. 1860s
This may be the first actual song that mentions Santa Claus in it by that name. Little is known of Ohio composer Hanby, who died in 1867 at 34 years of age from tuberculosis. He had been a minister at one point, and was contracted to write many songs during his life. Hanby's most famous piece aside from this is Darling Nellie Gray. It is likely that he based this song on the famed A Visit From St. Nicholas
poem (The Night Before Christmas
), as it is the only other source up to that time that mentions reindeer and a sleigh. The song is short at three verses, so this performance is also brief, but fun. After a quote from the original choral opening, a little bit of folk flavor ragtime is inserted here for punch and to bring it "up to date" circa 1915.
Jolly Old St. Nicholas/Canon in D
Benjamin R. Hanby? - c. 1860s/ Johann Pachelbel - 1680
This piece was Ohio native Benjamin Hanby's second alleged contribution to the Christmas canon after Up on the House Top
, so it's only fitting that it be coupled to a musical canon, in this case the most famous of those which is more ubiquitous now than ever, Pachelbel's Canon in D Major
. It has become particularly popular since its use in the 1980 film Ordinary People
and George Winston's
famous reading on his December
album. Hanby is suspected of possibly having written this ditty during his short lifetime, as its appearance in print occurs nearly the same time as Up on the House Top
, and the overall content is nearly the same. There has been some debate about whether or not he was actually publishing the work of somebody else, so clarity as to his authorship is not definitive. There is little need to change the chord progressions to make the two fit together. To add a homey parlor sound to it on my CD rendition, I accompanied the piano with my slightly noisy and wheezy 1883 Monarch pump reed organ. We'll have to make due with MIDI reed organ here, but the effect should nearly be the same without so much of the effort.
The Sleigh Ride
Eugene Walter - 1900
An early predecessor to Leroy Anderson's
famous Sleigh Ride
of 1948, this is a short jaunty winter-themed galop that cries out, in places at least, for sleigh bells. Since so many Christmas songs around 1900 were about the Holy Birth or the Virgin Mother, it was difficult to apply musical styles like this to the liturgy without offending someone, and the church did have rules about it as well. So the experience of riding in a sleigh was about as close as popular music forms could get in advance of the spate of secular Santa Claus pieces from the 1930s on. While hardly up to the standards of even an E.T. Paull galop, Silver Sleigh Bells
in particular, this one has some noteworthy passages, particularly the triplet figures in the second half of the middle section. To stay faithful to the style of the time and give a better idea of what the average pianist may have been buying in 1900, I have kept embellishments down to a minimum and not added any repeats.
Margaret H. Kenney - 1906
Waltzes were not yet a dying breed in 1906 (they have never quite gone away, in fact), but were less popular than some of the newer forms of music that had emerged over the preceding decade. Prolific publisher Jerome H. Remick still added such pieces to his catalog in the interest of creating a spread that covered all spectrums of music taste and wallets. This waltz, which given the position mistletoe has had in Christmas lore, could be construed as a holiday piece. It has many facets to commend it as well. There are, in essence, two primary waltzes within, the rest being variations on the main theme, and one particularly enchanting minor interlude. With repeats it makes for a nice long presentation. Note the similarity between this and Scott Joplin's Harmony Club Waltz
, where both pieces have an introduction in 4/4 time before the waltz commences. Mistletoe in ritual and celebration actually predates Christ by a couple of centuries. It was gathered by Druids in northern Europe to decorate homes in celebration of the coming of Winter, and was believed to not only have healing powers, but the ability to promote peace and harmony as well (even though it was poisonous), thus the kissing part of the tradition. The early Catholic church would have nothing to do with the parasitic evergreen plant given the pagan origins of the custom, so they encouraged the use of another greenery that has become a Christmas tradition as well, holly. The irony here is that holly berries are also poisonous and furthermore attractive as food, therefore not the best choice to decorate a home occupied by children or animals. Both plants remain with us today as an essential decorative facet of the season. Perhaps there is something to be said for their plastic counterparts.
Silver Sleigh Bells
(Piano Roll Version)
Edward Taylor Paull - 1906
Although not specifically titled The Christmas March
, this is the closest to a Christmas piece that Paull ever came. This can be better ascertained from the cover, which is covered with holly leaves, sleigh bells and conventional bells, than from the contents. He was a known Christian, evident in some of his other pieces, but the holiday was still closely associated with the church, so many composers still demurred somewhat from writing a popular tune about the event. The descriptive headings that are supposed to reflect the experience of a winter sleigh ride, and which are excruciatingly detailed in the Explanatory
, include the cracking of a whip, sleigh bells (silver ones at that), church bells, a railroad crossing, and a race with a mad dash to the finish line, all accentuated in this performance by percussive effects. Performed with the proper sound effects and sleigh bells, it is a passable predecessor to Leroy Anderson's
famous instrumental Sleigh Ride
from 1948. The version presented here is my acoustic recording from my Christmas Eve 1915
Santa Claus: March
The beauty of a march is also its weakness to some extent. You can name it anything you want, thus you can ostensibly write a march for anything or any occasion, but it is still a form of martial music, and rarely descriptive except for some of E.T. Paull's well-crafted works. So this march about Santa Claus is essentially just a standard-issue march and not so much a hummable tune that you would associate with Christmas or jolly fat men who's marching days are long past. Maybe in a parade. In any case, the interest here lies more in the cover than the tune. While the red suit is not visible, the visage of the face shows a nice transition between the modern Santa created by Thomas Nast (see article for more information
) and the famed
Santa of Haddon Sundblom. Thus it provides a nice look at the image that children around the world, specifically in the U.S., would likely have had of Saint Nick during the ragtime era. Now maybe if he actually would march more he could drop some of that jelly belly.
H. Karoly - 1909
The Reverie was popular with parlor pianists for many years in the late 19th and early 20th century. Essentially a mood piece, most of them were fairly sedate and not too challenging. The themes of church and Christmas fit this form well because of the piano's ability to emulate chimes or bells. This German entry from a mildly prolific but otherwise obscure composer (with a fortuitous name for this genre) is effective in this regard, as it is scored to imitate the unique sound of carillon bells. Sequestered within the sanguine main theme are, appropriately, two German carols that should ring a bell; O Sanctissima
and Stille Nacht
or Silent Night
. Although the score works well without any extra bell effects added, this version from the Christmas Eve 1915
CD does utilize authentic chimes. This is very much a Christmas Eve or Christmas Morning meditation for the ages.
Jolly Jingles or
Song of the Sleighbells
Henry S. Sawyer - 1911
As with many similar pieces of the era, this piece is not specifically about Christmas, but fits the season more so now than it did when first composed. Sleighs and sleigh bells were less common by this time, given the advent of public transportation and the insurgence of automobiles, but it was not quite nostalgia yet either, particularly in New England and the upper Midwest. The march is very short and simple, consisting of only two unique sections (expanded upon in this interpretation), something that made it accessible to most levels of pianists. The piece is less descriptive in content than the similar Silver Sleigh Bells
by E.T. Paull. However the device of using a static treble note in the midst of the moving melodic line helps set the tone to some extent in terms of sleigh bell emulation, plus a few whip cracks appear in the B strain. Adding actual sleigh bells themselves to the piano part (many people still had the real deal at this time) further enhances the Jolly Jingles
atmosphere. Know that the bells were the equivalent of a running motor or a horn, letting people know that a sleigh was on the way in the dark or when there was poor visibility due to bad weather.
I Think of Home and Mother When It's Christmas Time
Charles N. Daniels
(M) and Earle C. Jones (L) - 1911
The versatile and formidable composer Charles Daniels was barely even reaching his peak when he brought out this overlooked gem. At a time when secular Christmas songs were just starting to become popular and getting less resistance from the church, this one combined that favorite season with another popular topic of the 1910s, mother. While it does not quite reach the emotional peak of the later Howard Johnson
, Daniels' music does give Jones' lyrics a great deal of emotional heft. The opening bars of the piece, intended as church chimes, are a rather advanced progression that would later be heard in choral works, but very unusual for a popular song of the time. The verse is the normal sentimental schmaltz of the time, but the chorus picks things up a bit and gets into the emotion part, even calling on the famous Henry Bishop/John Payne
anthem, Home, Sweet Home!
for emphasis. And just when you think it's over, they tack a little hymnlet on the end intended for four part vocal, this being the insurance that tears will well up for any listener who ever had a mother. Whether it was too sentimental or too far ahead of its time to become a perennial holiday tune, I hope to give this worthy piece a second chance, hoping you are moved by it as well.
Publisher John Stark
had returned to St. Louis by this time after his tenuous tenure in New York City. Still, Lamb, who was living in Brooklyn by this time, continued to submit works to Stark which he continued to publish without hesitation. This lively rag (with contrasting markings of Not fast
followed by quarter=100, which IS fast) again displays the variety that marked Lamb's dozen rags for Stark. The A section used mixed staccato passages with sustained notes reinforced by supporting chords. The second pattern is effectively carried over into the B strain providing continuity between the sections. The trio displays contrast through the "less is more" paradigm, minimizing both melodic and harmonic elements. The D section is somewhat retro, reflecting patterns used in marches from a decade past. Why there is no reindeer on the cover, or how it got that name are both mysteries. However, Lamb was a hands-on operator who likely named most, if not all of his pieces, and it would be at least three more decades before reindeer would be in vogue thanks to Rudolph.
Frederick W. Vandersloot - 1915
Many publishers entered the business because they were good at managing it, discerning what might be good material, were able to oversee distribution, and knew a thing or three about music. As far as composing, with a few notable exceptions, such as Irving Berlin
or Charles L. Johnson
, those who were in the business a long time were... well... good publishers. Still, the boss could and would occasionally indulge in putting out some of his own work. Such is the case of Mr. Vandersloot, whose primary composer/arranger was Harry Lincoln
, but who was able to put together some nice mood pieces. This reverie is one of the rare ragtime era pieces that actually mention Christmas in the title. There were many, however, that emulated chimes using certain piano harmonics, including one by publisher/composer Albert F. Marzian
from a few years earlier. The chime sections are comprised of three known Christmas hymns, but the main body of the piece is Vandersloot's. Note the similarity between his main melody and Berlin's later Easter Parade
. The most difficult part of this intentionally slow-paced piece is actually the repeated final section, which requires the pianist to go through a rigorous 32 measures of 32nd notes, and softly at that. We do what we can in that regard here. Just had to chime in on that.
Santa Claus is Comin' To Town
J. Fred Coots (M) and Haven Gillespie (L) - 1934
Before this highly memorable tune (at least the chorus) came out in 1934, there was really no "Christmas standard" other than the basic set of hymns. Coots already had a few hits behind him when he married this stride-like melody to Gillespie's simple and direct lyrics, creating something that both children and adults could readily embrace. Eddie Cantor
(whose life story was not too far off from the plot of Jewish-themed The Jazz Singer
, thus the irony of this) introduced the piece on his radio show that same year, and record and sheet music sales took off pretty quickly, considering that the country was still in a depression. While the verse is pretty much unknown (but included here), the chorus melody and the message are perfect for parents to sing to their kids. The second chorus was written out pretty much as it is played here, in a music box fashion. Then the "Perfessor" goes to town right along with Santa for the finale a la Dave Brubeck.
Winter Wonderland (Coming Eventually)
Felix Bernard (M) and Dick Smith (L) - 1934
This was a banner year for new Christmas songs that would soon become classics, even though this one is another one of those that is not specifically about the holiday - only the season. Bernard was known earlier for his collaboration on the music of Dardanella
, but any mention of him was effectively dropped from future editions. It took a while for him to come into his own, but Winter Wonderland
truly showed his compositional abilities, and is a good translation of mild stride piano in popular song. Smith's lyrics also evoke a very specific and warmly romantic picture of a day in the snow. Still, it wasn't until World War II that the song became popular, as well as associated with the Christmas season. Artists such as Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, and Capitol Records founder Johnny Mercer, had monster hits with the tune in the 1940s, and included them on Christmas-themed albums (note that an album back then was a collection of 78-RPM records in a photo-album type container, thus the origin of association of the term with records). Even today it is covered by artists as diverse as Crystal Lewis and Brian Setzer. I have tried to infuse some of the 1930s feel into it, using elements of stride piano and swing, along with a couple of alternative chord progressions here and there. It's a real snow job.
Leroy Anderson (M) and Mitchell Parish (L) - 1948/1950
One of the most popular holiday tunes of the 20th century, Sleigh Ride
started out as neither a song nor a holiday piece. In 1948, Anderson wrote this tune as a descriptive orchestral arrangement that musically depicts a sleigh ride. Very much a sophisticated realization of Jingle Bells
, it is Anderson's original arrangement that is still heard today in various pops concerts around the world. The only link to Christmas or the holidays was the presence of snow and the sound of the sleigh bells. In 1950, Parish, known for the lyrics to Stardust
among other classics, was commissioned to pen appropriate lyrics in an effort to boost sheet music sales, but again with no mention of the holidays in the text. The orchestral arrangement also contains whip cracks and the sound of a neighing horse at the end, usually facilitated with a muted cornet. Although this is not an old-time song, it certainly is evocative of lovely winter days long past. By the way, this link will direct you to some Currier and Ives prints
for your enjoyment, and to provide some context for the lyrics.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Coming Soon)
Johnny Marks (based on the poem by Robert May) - 1949
Although much of the origin of this famous crimson-beaked mammal is well-known to many around the world, there are parts of the story which are often overlooked. Rudolph
evolved out of a very sad situation. Robert May
was a copywriter for the now defunct Montgomery Ward
department store chain, providing text for catalogs and newspaper ads. He had been picked on often as a child, and while many of his friends had gone on to prestigious careers he was barely surviving on his meager salary. In 1936 his wife Evelyn
contracted cancer. By November of 1938 she was very ill and spent most of her time in bed or on the couch. Their 4 year-old daughter Barbara
asked her daddy one evening why her mommy was so different from other mommies. Robert understood how dejected she must have felt, having gone through childhood pain himself. So he started to tell her a story he had been working on by a request from his manager for an anticipated handout booklet for Christmas. It was based in part on The Ugly Duckling
and revolved around a reindeer with a red nose who lived in a colony with many other reindeer. The younger bucks did not accept this particular reindeer's abnormality and routinely shunned him. Still, he had a loving home and was fairly well adjusted. Then one Christmas Eve when the fog was thick and the weather foul, Santa Claus came to the deers' village and Rudolph's home to deliver presents. He saw how this young reindeer's glowing red nose cut through the fog, and hoping to avoid further disasters that had plagued him throughout the evening, including a close brush with an airplane, he employed the young hero to help him with deliveries for the remainder of the trip. This made the youngster a local celebrity immediately, and he became well-loved and the stuff of legend.
Barbara loved the story and asked her daddy to tell it many more times until he finally got the details as he wanted them, expanding it a little each time. Among the details was the name. He started with Rollo, which was too stereotypically jolly. Then he tried Reginald, but that seemed rather stuffy. Then he chanced upon the unusual Rudolph, and it stuck. May was in the process of turning the story into a poem for the handout, using Clement Moore's The Night Before Christmas as a template, when his wife died. In constant grief, and clinging to Barbara for comfort, he soon finished the story (not in time for the 1938 season), binding it as Barbara's gift on Christmas morning. At a company holiday gathering later in the week, May reluctantly attended at the request of his associates. He read the poem to them and they responded favorably. While the promotions department thought to use it the following year, they were tenuous on this topic since the red-nosed feature could represent drunkenness, an unwanted image. Denver Gillen, who did artwork for the catalogs, sketched some reindeer at the local zoo giving them the scarlet proboscis. Based on his images the executives gave the go-ahead. So it was that Montgomery Ward used Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Day Before Christmas as a handout the following Christmas, issuing some 2.6 million copies in the debut year of 1939.
Unfortunately for May, his work was the property of Montgomery Ward, who eventually printed a total of 6 million copies through 1946, in spite of a paper-conserving pause during World War II. There was lots of Rudolph-related merchandise offered by the store as well. The creator did not prosper in any way initially, and was still paying medical bills from his wife's cancer. Finally in 1946 May was given the rights to the work by his employer, ensuring him some well-deserved financial security. He tasked his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, to adapt the story into a children's song. Not much remained of the original story, but it was short and to the point. They shopped the piece around to many recording artists, including Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Perry Como and others. It was used with a chorus in the 1948 Max Fleischer Technicolor cartoon short based on May's story (currently available on DVD with the 1951 version of Scrooge) which was also released as a record on an independent label. As an afterthought they sent a copy to the well-established "Singing Cowboy," Gene Autry, who was as resistant as all the other artists. It was Autry's wife, Ina, who insisted that Gene record the piece for the Christmas sides he was working on in August of 1949. At the end of a very long recording session for three other holiday pieces, Autry decided to give it a try, and after a couple of rehearsals he recorded the song in one take. That one take still lives with us more than half a century later, and helped make Autry famous across multiple music genres. It is the third largest selling recording of all time behind Crosby's White Christmas and Elton John's Candle in the Wind 1997. Marks went on to write additional pieces for the 1964 clay-animated special of the same name featuring folk singer Burl Ives (including Holly Jolly Christmas). The flavor I have given Rudolph here is ragtime, of course, but is inspired by John Denver's take on the piece for his Rocky Mountain Christmas album of the 1970s.
Luke Chapter 2:8-14
Christmas is Coming
Christmas Time is Here
My Little Drum
Linus and Lucy
Vince Guaraldi - 1965
Those of you who are my age (Aaaauuuggghh!) or younger will remember as a child one of their first experiences watching A Charlie Brown Christmas
, particularly the musical content and Linus' stage presentation of a Gospel reading. In fact, I was among those eager young Peanuts fans who was watching the night that this
sponsored show premiered on December 9, 1965. I really didn't care that I was seeing it in black and white. I remember the anticipation, the excitement from the tree we had just got in our living room, the smell of the electrical circuits and vacuum tubes on the TV, and my mother's encouragement that I should see this show. I was enthralled both watching and hearing these now iconic characters that had real children's voices and a jazz music soundtrack, unlike virtually any other cartoon on the air at the time. This was the first, and still most beloved of all of the Charlie Brown specials.
It came about from an association between the late creator of Peanuts
(launched in 1950), Charles Schulz
, and television producer Lee Mendelson
. The latter had put together a 1963 segment for TV called A Boy Named Charlie Brown
that showed the creation process of Schulz's comic strips, and included a few short minutes of animation of the characters. While he was unable to get it aired by any of the networks initially, an executive of the
company saw the animation and was enthralled. In May of 1965 he approached Mendelson and his animation associate Bill Melendez
(who cut his teeth at both Disney and Warner Brothers, and had done the animation for the short film) with the idea of a Christmas special featuring the Peanuts gang. They more or less told a white lie that such a show had been laid out, and proceeded to do exactly that over the next 48 hours. Coke bought the idea and set the December 9 broadcast date. This left six months to codify the storyboards, hire voice talent, animate 25 minutes of film at 24 frames per second (around 36,000 drawings), and find music that would fit. Good Grief! Fortunately the Peanuts strip was popular enough that Schulz had a great deal of pull in what went into the show and what did not. This included his insistence that the voices be done by children and not adults, that there be no laugh track as had been strongly suggested by Coca Cola and CBS, which eventually broadcast the show, and that Linus would read from scripture, most notably the King James version of Luke 2:8-14. In fact his position as a practicing Christian was such that either Luke stay in or Peanuts was out. CBS hated the idea but Coke nervously pushed it through. It has been often considered that no other cartoonist would have been able to accomplish such a victory at that time. In the end, the memorable broadcast was a great triumph, coming in marginally behind Bonanza
as the top show of the week. It has since won many accolades, including an Emmy
and the coveted Peabody Award
for broadcast excellence, and launched the series of still-popular Peanuts
television specials and movies.
A standout decision by Melendez was the refusal to use stereotypical cartoon music, as Schulz preferred something more sophisticated and introspective as well as timeless (although he had a different idea than what was ultimately used). This made jazz an obvious choice. It was the suggestion of a San Francisco Chronicle music critic that they seek out composer/pianist Vince Guaraldi to handle these chores for A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Guaraldi was delighted at the idea of contributing more, and by the end of September had assembled and recorded the majority of the soundtrack that stands today as a unique fusion of piano jazz and pop culture. He and his trio recorded several original Guaraldi tunes, including the ubiquitous Linus and Lucy, a piece that has been used in all 48 of the Charlie Brown TV specials and several movies to boot. He then set out to redefine the Germanic O Tannebaum in an equally memorable manner. While dismissed by some hard-core jazz musicians for some time after their introduction, many, such as GRP's David Benoit and John Scott Trotter have created magnificent covers of the Guaraldi compositions and arrangements. The five that I have included here are based on the original soundtrack from A Charlie Brown Christmas, and are as much fun to play as they are to listen to. My Little Drum was ultimately not used, but it is one of the finer examples of simple beauty on the album. Also know that I still well up when I remember being six years old watching it for the first time, and the impact that Linus' scripture reading had, and frankly still has on me. Merry Christmas Charlie Brown!.
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