You might wonder what the Dickens the title of this post is about. It's not about "A Christmas Carol" but it is about Christmas songs. Throw another blog on the fire and read on. (Groan!) Don't be a Scrooge. Here in one convenient place you'll find three largely unread posts about songs of the Christmas season:
from 12/11/08: Christmas Songs (written from1980 to the present)
It's that time of year again. Thanksgiving is a memory and we've only 2 weeks til Christmas. What are your favorite Christmas songs? My wife and I have (after our latest on-line purchases) 57 Christmas cd's so I guess you could say that we like Christmas music. (with one notable exception - "The Little Drummer Boy" - don't like it no matter who sings it.) Just out of curiosity, I wanted to see what songs have been recorded the most based on our collection. I found 26 versions of "The Christmas Song" (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire), 22 of "I'll Be Home for Christmas", and 21 each for "White Christmas" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas". These songs, all written in the 1940's, have obviously become Christmas holiday standards. I don't know if they could be called "Christmas Carols", not that it matters because they're all great songs.
There are some very good Christmas songs of more recent vintage that are not well known. This post will deal with songs I like that were written from the 1980's to the present. There are undoubtedly many great Christmas or holiday songs written during this period that I don't know about. Comments are welcome. Here's my list:
John Berry's cd "My Heart is Bethlehem" (2000) included three new songs: "Christmas Morning", written by John Berry, Kim Richey and Adam Daniel, "Snowed In" by Mark Spiro, and the title track "My Heart is Bethlehem" written by Michael Peterson. To my knowledge, no one else has covered these songs. The great voice of John Berry and the beautiful lyrics penned by Michael Peterson make "My Heart Is Bethlehem" one of the best Christmas songs of all time. (Mr. Peterson is also a fine singer who had #1 country hits with "From Here to Eternity" and "Drink, Swear, Steal and Lie", both of which he co-wrote.) Not far behind the Peterson song is a song written by Skip Ewing, "It Wasn't His Child". It was included on his own Greatest Hits cd in 1991 but Trisha Yearwood's version found on her 1994 Christmas cd "The Sweetest Gift" is better known thanks to her great vocals.
Suzy Bogguss's Christmas cd "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" includes "Two-Step Around the Christmas Tree" and "Through Your Eyes", both written by Suzy and husband Doug Crider in 1996. Gloria Estefan's "Christmas Through Your Eyes",written by Gloria and Diane Warren in 1990, appeared on Ms. Estefan's Greatest Hits cd.
Kenny & Dolly's great 1984 cd Christmas cd "Once Upon a Christmas" included "Christmas Without You" (written by Dolly & Steve Goldstein), "A Christmas to Remember", "With Bells On", "I Believe In Santa Claus" and the title track, "Once Upon a Christmas" all written by Dolly in '84. (Dolly's "Hard Candy
Christmas" written by Carol Hall was not on that cd.)
The late Nancy LaMott's 1994 cd "Just in Time for Christmas" included the title track written by David Zippel and David Friedman plus "All Those Christmas Clichés" by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and "(Christmas) Stay With Me" by David Zippel and Cy Coleman. Listen to these songs and you'll probably want to run out and buy her other cd's. She died just short of 44 of cancer in 1995. What a loss. A similar loss inspired the writing of "There's Still My Joy" written by Melissa Manchester, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Matt Rollings and performed by Melissa on her 1997 "Joy" holiday cd.
"There's A New Kid in Town", written in 1985 by Don Cook, Curly Putnam and Keith Whitley, has been recorded by Trisha Yearwood, Kathy Mattea, Billy Gilman and others. (Was the title influenced by the Eagles "New Kid in Town"?) A Don Cook collaboration with David Malloy, "Warm and Fuzzy" is performed by Billy Gilman on his 2000 "Classic Christmas" cd. "Mary Did You Know" by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene was written in 1991 and covered by Kathy Mattea on her 1993 cd "Good News".
Alabama's 1985 Christmas cd included "Joseph and Mary’s Boy" by Don Cook & Keith Whitley, "A Candle in the Window" by Susan Longacre, Walt Aldridge & Gary Baker, (both written in 1985) "Christmas in Dixie" by T.Gentry, R.Owen, Jeff Cook & Mark Herndon written in 1982, and "Tennessee Christmas" by Gary Chapman & Amy Grant in 1983. Another country group with longstanding success, Diamond Rio, unveiled "The Star Still Shines" (written by John Colgin, Michael Puryear and Don Poythress in 2007) as the title track from their Christmas cd last year.
Finally, A Cappela group Straight No Chaser's 2008 cd "Holiday Spirits" included new songs "Indiana Christmas" and "Christmas Wish", both written by Dan Ponce of SNC.
I was surprised that quite a few cd liner notes do not indicate the year each song was written. For that reason, in a few cases I'm assuming that the songs were not written before the 80's since i could find no record of any artists recording the song before then.
from 12/13/10: A John Berry Christmas
With all the talk about great country artists of the 90's, a man who generally gets overlooked is John Berry. I understand in a way because he wasn't one of the big hitmakers. Few though could match his vocal ability. One of his last hits, "She's Taken a Shine" went to #2 in 1997. As evidenced by his two Christmas albums, his soaring tenor voice shines especially on Christmas songs.
John's cd "My Heart is Bethlehem" (2000) included three new songs: "Christmas Morning", written by John Berry, Kim Richey and Adam Daniel, "Snowed In" by Mark Spiro, and the title track "My Heart is Bethlehem" written by Michael Peterson. To my knowledge, no one else has covered these songs. Is it because the cd didn't sell well so they're largely unknown? Could it be that most singers attempting to cover these songs would suffer by comparison with John's version? I don't know.
The beautiful lyrics and music penned by Michael Peterson make "My Heart Is Bethlehem" one of the best Christmas songs ever IMHO. I read that John first heard the song at a songwriter's retreat. Michael Peterson played it for John and he was hooked. (Mr. Peterson is also a fine singer who had #1 country hits with "From Here to Eternity" and "Drink, Swear, Steal and Lie", both of which he co-wrote. I've seen him perform twice in the last few years at the Bluebird Cafe.) In a post of December 11, 2008 about Christmas songs written since 1980, I wrote that "My Heart Is Bethlehem" is the best. Here's part of the lyric:
"My heart is Bethlehem
I will make room for him.
This humble dwelling place
Made worthy by his grace.
This child is still adored,
Because he still is born
Deep in the hearts of men,
(To love and not condemn)
My heart is Bethlehem"
In "Christmas Morning" we hear a father's side of a telephone conversation with his child on Christmas eve. After saying he misses her or him, we hear that the child's been good and glad to be out of school. The chorus follows:
"and did I hear your mother say
it's almost time for bed
I guess it's kind of late
better go do what she says now
it's just a dream away
til Christmas morning's here
when you wake up
I'll be there"
I love the simple keyboard backing John's vocal.
"Snowed In" is an I'm happy to be snowed in with my girl song.
"I know that Christmas could be magic
but now my wish has come true
we've got plenty of firewood
who'd of ever thought I would
get snowed in, snowed in with you"
The rest of the album consists of traditional Christmas songs:
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Let It Snow, We Three Kings, Winter Wonderland, What Child Is This, The First Noel, and a stunning version of The Lord's Prayer. Billy Dean and Kenny Rogers join John on We Three Kings.
John's 1995 Christmas album, "O Holy Night", did not introduce any new Christmas songs but it was also outstanding with one exception. I can't take "Little Drummer Boy", no matter who sings it. The rest are all traditional Christmas songs including Joy to the World, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, I'll Be Home For Christmas, Away in a Manger, O Come All Ye Faithful, The Christmas Song, Silent Night, O Come Emmanuel and O Holy Night.
from 1/2/11: Home By Another Way
The gospel for today's Mass, Sunday, January 2nd was the Epiphany of the Lord, Matthew, Chapter 2: verses 1-12. It is probably better known to most as the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. I seem to remember as a kid in grade school in the 50's that the feast of the Epiphany was celebrated on January 6th. Now it's celebrated on the first Sunday after New Year's Day. The Magi or Kings or Wisemen followed the star to Bethlehem after visiting King Herod. They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
You may be wondering at this point what does this have to do with music since that's the category for this post. I'm not talking about gospel music. Some may be thinking of the traditional Christmas carol "We Three Kings". According to www.carols.org.uk, it was written in 1857 by Rev. John Henry Hopkins, an American minister. The lyrics mention the kings following yonder star and the gifts noted in the gospel reading each get themselves a separate verse. Maybe this gospel should have reminded me of "We Three Kings", but it didn't.
The song that immediately came to mind is "Home By Another Way" by James Taylor from his "Never Die Young" album in 1988. I think it's a fairly well known song even though it was never released as a single. JT wrote the music, but the lyrics were penned by playwright and theater director Timothy S. Mayer. Sadly, Mr. Mayer died of cancer in 1988 at the age of 44. I guess he must have been aware of Matthew's gospel. The first verse of the song mentions the visit of the magi, concluding "Then warned in a dream of King Herod's scheme, they went home by another way". Matthew, Verse 12 goes "and being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another way."
While not part of today's gospel, Matthew, Chapter 2 goes on in verses 16 - 18 to describe the slaughter of the innocents. For verse two of his song, Mr. Mayer wrote "Steer clear of royal welcomes, avoid a big to-do, a king who would slaughter the innocents, will not cut a deal for you," and continues, "he really, really wants those presents, he'll comb your camel's fur, til his boys announce they found trace amounts of your frankincense, gold and myrrh." Wish I had written that. I wonder what he was thinking of when he wrote the lyrics. I don't think of it in any way as sacrilegious. Maybe he was just having some fun. But to me it would be interesting to know.
Safe home, as they used to say.