Saturday, December 04, 2004

Christmas Songs

OK, pardon the post... it may be a long one. Here goes Emily's delve into the original meanings of traditional Christmas songs! Internet sites I obtained the information from will be cited at the bottom. :) Any of my comments will be in purple.

Jingle Bells
James Pierpont, 1859
By Bob Bankard

O.K. This is one great story: brace yourself. Jingle Bells is not a Christmas song.

It's the 19th Century equivalent of "Little Deuce Coupe."

Written by James Pierpont in 1857, and republished in 1859, it memorializes the 'cutter' drag races in Boston, where spiffed out sleighs would race between Medford and Malden Squares, and the drivers would try to pick up the local chickies.

Young James was a rogue; he abandoned his family several times, took up arms for the Confederacy (his father was a Boston Abolitionist minister), and, after his first wife died, he abandoned his children to take another wife, who may or may have already been pregnant with Pierpont's child. He was living the fast times in the horse and buggy days, but if you really look hard, you'll see that rock-and-roll was out there, even before it had a beat.
Here's the original lyrics:

Dashing thro’ the snow,
In a one-horse open sleigh,
O’er the hills we go,
Laughing all the way;
Bells on bob tail ring,
Making spirits bright,
Oh what sport to ride and sing
A sleighing song to night.

Jingle bells, Jingle bells,
Jingle all the way;
Oh! what joy it is to ride
In a one horse open sleigh.
Jingle bells, Jingle bells,
Jingle all the way;
Oh! what joy it is to ride
In a one horse open sleigh.

A day or two ago,
I thought I’d take a ride,
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side,
The horse was lean and lank;
Misfortune seemed his lot,
He got into a drifted bank,
And we, we got upsot.


A day or two ago,
The story I must tell
I went out on the snow
And on my back I fell;
A gent was riding by
In a one-horse open sleigh,
He laughed as there I sprawling lie,
But quickly drove away.


Now the ground is white
Go it while you’re young,
Take the girls to night
And sing this sleighing song;
Just get a bob tailed bay
Two forty as his speed.
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack, you’ll take the lead.


The Chipmunk Song
Ross Bagdasarian, 1958
By Bob Bankard
First, I HAVE to say that my sister, a friend and I used to pretend we were the Chipmunks. Sing and talk slowly on a tape and then play it back at high speed... Aaaahhh, the good old days in the back of the truck. Remember that, Serry??

Ross Bagdasarian was a novelty writer in a non-novelty world. Making a living as a quirky songwriter during the McCarthy era didn't pay regularly, but Ross was bent on following his own twisted dream. He had one major triumph - He had written the bizzaro hit, "Come Onna my House" for Rosemary Clooney in 1951. But mostly his recording career up to that point was cheesy instrumentals and some weird "drunk at a bar yacking over stupid piano riffs." He was remanded to the other side of the recording booth in the position of recording engineer.

Bagdasarian loved the dials and the buttons and the little gauges and lights; he truly got a kick out of playing with the technology of recording. Now, back in Ross's day, the one major evil to be avoided at all costs was recording outside of a non-standard speed. The drag of a dirty capstan head or an extra revolution per second due to a power surge would leave a music recording worthless, changed in speed, key, and register. It became a waste of tape, unusable. But, that being said, it sure sounded silly. Naturally, Ross had to play with it.

By deliberately recording on the slowest speed possible on his reel-to-reel, he found he could sing normally, and sound like a freak on helium if he sped the recording to normal speed on playback. Using this novelty voice as the background singers for the chorus, Bagdasarian recorded 'Witchdoctor,' and hit the top of the charts in 1958. Ross scattered to find a means of extending his 15 minutes of fame, and to his great credit he managed to do so within the very same year. He created the personas of three obnoxious drunks who sang harmony, sped the tape up, and voila, the chipmunks were born. Bagdasarian, at normal speed, played the hapless manager of the Chipmunks, the fictional David Seville. Interestingly, the chipmunks (Alvin, Simon and Theodore) were named after the two heads of Liberty Records, Al Bennett and Si Warnoker, and the engineer for the session, Ted Keep.

'The Chipmunk Song', released for the Christmas season of 1958, sold 5 million copies that year, and The Chipmunk Song received two Grammy Awards in 1958, "Best Comedy Performance" and "Best Recording for Children".

Dave: All right you Chipmunks! Ready to sing your song?
-I'll say we are!
-Let's sing it now!
Dave: Okay, Simon?
Dave: Okay, Theodore?
Dave: Okay, Alvin? Alvin? ALVIN!
Christmas, Christmas time is near
Time for toys and time for cheer
We've been good, but we can't last
Hurry Christmas, hurry fast
Want a plane that loops the loop
Me, I want a hula hoop
We can hardly stand the wait
Please Christmas, don't be late.

Dave: Okay fellas get ready.That was very good, Simon.
Dave: Very good Theodore.
Dave: Ah, Alvin, you were a little flat, watch it.
Dave: Ah, Alvin. Alvin. ALVIN!

Want a plane that loops the loop
I still want a hula hoop
We can hardly stand the wait
Please Christmas, don't be late.
We can hardly stand the wait
Please Christmas, don't be late.

Dave: Very good, boys
-Lets sing it again! Yeah, lets sing it again!
Dave: No, That's enough, lets not overdo it
-What do you mean overdo it?
-We want to sing it again!
Dave: Now wait a minute, boys
-Why can't we sing it again?
-[chipmunk chatter]
Dave: Alvin, cut that out..Theodore, just a minute.Simon will you cut that out? Boys...

Carol of the Bells
Words: Peter J. Wilhousky;
Music: Mykola Dmytrovich Leontovych; 1936
By Bob Bankard

Probably the stupidest Christmas carol of all time (but it's so pretty! ;)), dual blame must go to the Ukraine area of the old Soviet Union and New Jersey.

The origianal music, Shchedryk, was actually completely un-Christmas-like, celebrating instead the coming of spring. The lyrics described what swallows sitting on the eaves of an inn could see. It was, in essense, birds - not bells - that he was imitating. The choral work, written by Mykola Dmytrovich Leontovych, was first performed by students at Kiev University in December 1916.
The music was synthesised into Christmas music in 1936 by Jersey native Peter J. Wilhousky, who came up with the most witless set of lyrics known to mankind.

Naturally, somebody tried to copy him.

So, how can you tell the real Wilhousky "Carol of the Bells" from the cheap imitator? Look to the first line. If you hear, "Hark! How the bells, sweet silver bells..." you've got the original. However, if you hear "Hark to the bells, Hark to the bells..," you're listening to the knock-off version.

Hark how the bells,
sweet silver bells,
all seem to say,
throw cares away

Christmas is here,

bringing good cheer,
to young and old,
meek and the bold,
Ding dong ding dong

That is their song
With joyful ring
All caroling

One seems to hear
Words of good cheer
From ev'ry where
Filling the air

Oh how they pound,
raising the sound,
o'er hill and dale,
telling their tale,

Gaily they ring
while people sing
songs of good cheer,
Christmas is here,

Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas,
Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas,
On on they send ,
on without end,
their joyful tone to every home
Dong Ding dong ding, dong Bong

Bonus : The evil knock-off lyrics!
Hark to the Bells Hark to the Bells

Telling us all Jesus is King
Strongly they chime
Sound with a rhyme
Christmas is here !
Welcome the King
Hark to the Bells
Hark to the Bells
This is the day Day of the King

Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer
Johnny Marks 1949
By Bob Bankard

In a way, one could consider "Rudolph" as one of the pioneers of the "modern American Christmas" song. Not surprisingly, it all started as an advertising campaign for a department store.

In 1939, Montgomery Ward asked one of their copywriters, 34-year-old Robert L. May, to come up with a Christmas story coloring book they could give away to shoppers as a promotional gimmick.

As a chile, May was rather sickly, shy and introverted. So, he based the story on his childhood feelings of alienation from his peers. As to the name, May considered and rejected Rollo (too cheerful) and Reginald (too British) before deciding on Rudolph.

May's boss was worried that a story featuring a red nose - an image associated with drinking and drunkards - wasn't exactly suitable for a Christmas tale. May responded by taking Denver Gillen, a friend from Montgomery Ward's art department, to the Lincoln Park Zoo to sketch some deer. Gillen's illustrations of a red-nosed reindeer overcame the hesitancy of May's bosses, and the Rudolph story was approved. As an interesting side-note, you might notice that Rudolph has a similar rhyme pattern to another Christmas classic - "'Twas the Night Before Christmas".

Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph booklet in 1939, and although wartime paper shortages curtailed printing for the next several years, a total of 6 million copies had been given by the end of 1946.

The post-war demand for licensing the Rudolph character was tremendous, but since May had created the story as an employee of Montgomery Ward, they held the copyright and he received no royalties.

Deeply in debt from the medical bills resulting from his wife's terminal illness (she died about the time May created Rudolph), May persuaded Montgomery Ward's corporate president, Sewell Avery, to turn the copyright over to him in January 1947. With the rights in hand, May's financial security was assured.

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was printed commercially in 1947 and shown in theaters as a 9-minute cartoon the following year. The Rudolph phenomenon really took off, however, when May's brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, developed the lyrics and melody for a Rudolph song. Marks' musical version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," recorded by Gene Autry in 1949, sold two million copies that year and went on to become one of the best-selling songs of all time, second only to "White Christmas."

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Felix Mendelssohn/Charles Wesley,
Via William Cummings, 1850
By Bob Bankard

Charles Wesley (his brother, John Wesley, founded the Methodist church) is credited with authoring over 3,000 hymns. The lyrics to Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (1739) is one of them. Actually, what he wrote is "Hark how all the welkin rings/Glory to the King of Kings." ("Welkin" means, apparently, "heaven".) A colleague, the Calvinist Whitfield, substituted the familiar opening line over the protests of the author. Thank welkin for Whitfield.

Wesley also specifically requested that the music put to the words should be slow and solemn.
The celebratory music used in "Hark! The Herald Angel Sings" is from the second chorus of a cantata by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) written in 1840 to commemorate Johan Gutenberg and the invention of printing. Mendelssohn strictly admonished that the music was to be used in a purely secular manner.

William Cummings, in 1855, ignored both of their wishes totally. Being dead by that time, neither one had a snappy comeback.

So as the welkin rang with protests of "You got Mendelssohn in my Wesley!", and "You got Wesley in my Mendelssohn!", Cummings had synthesized a Christmas song for the ages without doing a lick of work on his own part.

OK, that's WAY too long for you to read. Sorry! Hope you enjoyed! :)

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