By Dai Bando updated 12/20/2021
There are five new additions to my annual “Greatest Christmas Songs” list, now thirty songs in total! This is disconcerting, since my original raison d’être was asserting that there are only about ten good Christmas songs. Then ten became fifteen, then twenty-five, and now thirty.
So, I appear to be wr…wr… challenged, in my original belief.
We lost some wonderful musicians and performers from the list this past year, notably Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains and Nanci Griffith. Rest in Peace and thank you for the music. Loved you both.
Below is the list, updated with new hymns, traditional carols and pop songs.
30. “Simple Gifts” performed by YoYo Ma and Alison Krauss
“Simple Gifts” is special to me because it was performed at my daughter’s annual school holiday concert, called “Lumina”. The senior girls would sing in candlelight procession entering a building packed with smartly dressed parents and grandparents – none wearing face-masks, because this would’ve appeared nutters ten years ago. Ah, 2011 … the memories!
“Simple Gifts” was written in 1848. The lyrics are:
“’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”
Finding ourselves “in the place just right.” What could be a more wonderful Christmas gift than that?
On this recording, Yo Yo Ma contributes his masterful cello playing while Alison Kraus adds her typically sublime vocals. Such an extraordinary ode to simplicity!
Now, a Christmas Quiz:
“Simple Gifts” was written in 1848 by:
A. Barbeque Bob
B. Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett
C. Bumblebee Slim
(Answer at the end of the list. Duh.)
29. Auld Lang Syne” performed by Johnny Cunningham and Susan McKeown
I find New Years as much a spiritual time as Christmas, perhaps even more-so. This version of Robert Burns “Auld Land Syne” includes both Burns’ original Scottish melody, as well as the familiar Guy Lombardo update. “We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet” – how beautiful! I was fortunate to see the late Johnny Cunningham and Irish singer Susan McKeown perform together at a small garden concert some years ago – a treasured memory. Rest in Peace, Johnny. Slàinte Susan!
28. “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus” performed by Brenda Lee
I first heard this novelty when it was featured in the 1988 film The Accidental Tourist, with actress Geena Davis singing these goofy lyrics while baking Christmas cookies. At the amazing age of nine (!), Brenda Lee recorded “Lasso Santa Claus” – two full years before recording her better-known hit “Rockin Around the Christmas Tree.” The only younger performer on my list here is probably “Cindy-Lou Who” who sings backup on “Dah Who Doraze”, but since the Whos’ ages are measured in ‘dog years’, she was technically seventy-five.)
I love the musicianship on “Lasso”, notably Nashville legend Don Helms playing that tasty double-neck steel guitar (Helms played in Hank Williams band and recorded with Hank, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash.)
I also I love the woke lyric:
“Then I’ll take his bags of toys and run
And bring to all the kids who don’t have none”
Hellsyeah, Brenda! Power to the people. Stick it to the man!
#27 “Snowfall” performed by Ahmad Jamal Trio
Written by husband-wife team of Claude and Ruth Thornhill, this song is perfect for your Christmas cocktail Jazz party. Your guests will ask, “Is this a bonus track from Charlie Brown’s Christmas?” And you can pour a martini and reply, “I should say not! This is a 1958 live performance by the Ahmad Jamal Trio !” (If in Glasgow, add “… ya clueless bawbag!”)
“Snowfall” has been recorded by Tony Bennet and Wes Montgomery, as well as “Enoch Light and the Light Brigade” and NRBQ (wouldn’t those two bands have been a great twin-bill live show?)
Ahmad Jamal’s evocative instrumental version is my favorite rendition of this tune. You can almost see the snowflakes falling – am I right?
#26 Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel (traditional)
I’ve seen it written that this hymn has an “undeniably spooky quality to it” and I can’t disagree. Why spooky? The music is set in a minor key, and the lyric speaks of “mourning in lonely exile”, a mention of a ransom, and who is this mal hombre Emmanuel, anyway?
In the Book of Isaiah, the prophesied messiah is called Emmanuel, which means means “God is with us.” I like that. It’s exactly where God oughta be.
Original titled “Veni Veni Emmanuel” this dates back to the twelfth century, and as we all know, the good Christians of 12th century really had their shit together when it came to producing beautiful hymns, majestic cathedrals and bloody crusades.
Most Christmas hymns have an upbeat tempo but the “mingled joy and sorrow performed in a minor key” may be precisely why I love this one.
The darkness in this song agrees with Christmas in the age of Covid. Yet the song reminds us, God is with us.
Listen to the eerie church organ in this recording by The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. I almost expect to see the camera pan to reveal Vincent Price playing!
More about this song at America: The Jesuit Review
25. “2000 Miles” – The Pretenders (1983)
A beautiful Christmas song by Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, written for the band’s founding guitarist James Honeyman-Scott who died 1983 at 25 years old, the year the song was written. (Robbie McIntosh replaced him and plays magnificent lead here.) Chrissie’s vocals and Robbie’s guitars create a holiday masterpiece that’s full of both melancholy and hope.
“And these frozen and silent nights
Sometimes in a dream
Outside under the purple sky
Diamonds in the snow
Chrissie’s heartfelt lyrics remind me of Pablo Nurado’s poem about death, grief and ultimately living, The Dead Woman:
“Forgive me If you are not living
If you, beloved, my love,
If you have died
All the leaves will fall on my breast
It will rain on my soul all night, all day
My feet will want to march
to where you are sleeping
But I shall go on living”
24. The Wexford Carol (traditional)
This is one of the oldest carols, originating from County Wexford, Ireland. The recording is from The Chieftains “Bells of Dublin” LP which I consider indispensable for holiday gatherings.
We lost both Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains, and Texas singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith in 2021. They were each such great ambassadors of their particular brands of folk music. Rest in Peace.
23.“River” – Joni Mitchell (1971)
One my very favorite performers from the ‘60s, Joni Mitchell wrote this heartbreaking song which first appeared on her classic album ‘Blue’. I love “River, “from the ‘jingle bells’ piano intro to Joni’s lyric “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” Who hasn’t wished for this during this Covid winter?
22. Jingle Bells (with “Batman smells” verse)
“Jingle Bells” was written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857. I believe Pierpont’s song is best appreciated when performed by frozen-mitten wearing kids singing at the top of their lungs, and adding the “Batman smells” verse.
What 5th grade boy hasn’t sung “jingle bells, batman smells” while huddled in the wintry schoolyard with his pal Tommy, lusting after Mrs. Fouch – the only teacher at St. Peters who wasn’t a nun. (OK, maybe that was just me and Tommy Tanner, but you get the idea.)
The first version of the Batman Smells verse surfaced in the 1966 Christmas season when the Batman TV show (with Adam West – the greatest Batman) was becoming a massive hit. “Batman Smells” was further glorified by Bart Simpson in “The Simpsons Christmas Special,” in December of 1989. Lisa Simpson was undoubtably wishing for a river she could skate away on.
21. “Greensleeves” (traditional)
I fell in love with this song at the afternoon matinee showing of “How the West Was Won” at the the Warwick Cinema, back when and a box of popcorn cost 50 cents and the longer movies such as this one had “Intermissions.” In the 1962 movie, Debbie Reynolds sings “A Home in the Meadow,” which was essentially the music of “Greensleeves” with American frontier lyrics added by Tin Pan Alley songman Sammy Cahn. What’s that got to do with Christmas? As Yukon Cornelius might say, “Nuthin!” But read on!
The original “Lady Greensleeves” was an English folk song dating back to 1580. There is a some belief that the ballad was actually composed by Henry the VIII who was an accomplished musician before he got fat and nasty. (He was said to be a wiz on the tennis court, too – imagine that!) Now, at that time in England, to label a woman “green sleeves” was meant to suggest she was prone to enjoying a roll around in the grass (getting green stains on her… well, you get the idea.) So this song was a 16th century “I’m too sexy for my shirt.”
Fast forward to 1865 when Christian hymn writer William Chatterton Dix thought it prudent to remove the randy “greens sleeves” reference altogether and rename the song “What Child Is This?”- a question that can indeed follow a roll in the grass, I suppose.
I love Greensleeves best without any lyrics – either played unadorned on acoustic guitar or the orchestral version by Ralph Vaughan Williams. And thank you Debbie Reynolds, mostly for giving us Carrie Fisher. What child was that one!Continue reading