I can’t believe it’s December and Christmas time is here! It seems like only yesterday it was July and I was watching my neighbors shoot off fireworks haphazardly reenacting revolutionary bombs bursting in air from my front yard on Independence Day. Now I’m knee deep in December and only now beginning to get in the Holiday spirit. With the constant bombardment of Holiday commercials (the Target lady in the red sweat-suit is my favorite, so far), sudden pine forest springing up on vacant lots, sales on egg nog and brandy, and Christmas cards from family in Phoenix, I’m slowly making headway in to getting caught up in the Christmas spirit.
Everyone has that “thing,” which launches him or her fully into the Christmas season; it could be snow, or shinny decorations or even “Hunky Santa” at the Beverly Center. Everyone has their own rout so-to-speak to the Christmas spirit. However, what lures me into the Christmas spirit is the Holiday music. Not just any kind of music, but the kind that has been dipped elbow deep in “soul.” You know what I mean? Don’t get me wrong I do like the so-called classics Holiday anthems sung by bona fide icons of the music industry. I was steeped in this classic music of the Holiday season at an early age. I can remember every December my mother would boil apple and cinnamon potpourri on the stove then break out her Christmas tapes and loop them on her Technics dual cassette deck all day . . . everyday! I didn’t know it at the time, but I was listening to Holiday classics sung by vocal luminaries such as Bing Crosby, Pat Boone, Perry Como, The Andrew Sisters, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, and . . . wait for it . . . Elvis! Don’t trip Elvis can belt out “Blue Christmas” like nobody’s business. At the time, this music definitely ushered me into the Holiday spirit.
The Holiday season at our home for the most part, was void of soulful Christmas songs. It wasn’t until I was a bit older when I began to encounter and embrace soulful Christmas songs. I can remember listening to radio stations such as KDAY, KACE, KJLH, and even early on KGFJ would play soulful Christmas songs every Christmas season. When I heard these songs they resonated within me; I connected with them; they were familiar to me. These soulful Christmas songs contained all the Black music sensibilities that I’d listen to all year round. Some of these Christmas songs were Motown slick, Stax raw, and had that unrivaled “Philly Soul” sound. They were majestically dipped elbow deep in, not only soul, but also in blues, gospel, jazz, funk, and R&B genres. These soulful Christmas tunes took hold of me; made me sway back and forth as the rhythms, chord progressions, melodies, and vocal riffs communicated to my soul.
To add, my early encounters with African Americans who sang Christmas songs was severely limited to Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song” sung by Nat Cole whose voice is immutable from the tune in much the same way as Jimi Hendrix’s is from Dylan’s “Watchtower.” And “Santa Baby” sweetly voiced by the ravishing Eartha Kitt. These songs have crossed over into the realm of classic Holiday songs as they have stood the test of time, which is why they are familiar to me.
So, when I first heard Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” I was mesmerized to say the least. Everything about the song was amazing. It’s almost Steely Dan’s Aja album and Miles and Bill Evans collaboration perfect. Hathaway’s voice contained a familiar tone and passion; the orchestration was lively and festive, in short, it grooved. For me, this became the quintessential Christmas song. Later, when I first heard the Temptations sing “Silent Night” I was blown away. The Motown group delivered the song by what seemed to me, to be a deeply heartfelt performance. It wasn’t quaint, airy or angelic as some sheet music describes it to be played; rather it was guttural, emotional, heavy, and bad . . . bad as in good! They meant that ish! Every soulful, jazzy, bluesy, funky, R&B-ish Christmas Holiday song I heard I embraced from Louis Armstrong’s “Zat You Santa Clause,” to Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” to James Brown’s “Santa Goes Straight to the Ghetto,” to the Jackson 5’s “Santa Clause is Coming to Town.” I also embraced other artists and their versions of Christmas songs such as Jerry Butler, Albert King, and the late Luther Vandross, just to name a few, as well as groups who recorded entire Christmas albums such as The Drifters, The Manhattans, The Whispers, O’Jays, The Emotions and many many more . . . oops now I sound like an old K-tel commercial. These songs easily brought me into the Christmas spirit because they spoke to me. These Christmas songs are guaranteed to get Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch to boogie around the Yuletide log.
Today, as a budding African-American historian and ethnomusicologist I recognize that soulful Christmas songs are embedded with African-American history. In their own way, they ironically echo the struggles and sorrows of black bodies in America during a season of joy. They contain elements of great mourning and loss brought on by the Maafa (Middle Passage), which can be heard in the spirit felt moans and hums. Soulful Christmas songs also recount in musical terms, African-American emotional struggles that have clearly evolve from despair to hope to freedom, and have taken their musical cue from field hollers, ring shouts, and spirituals. Historically speaking/writing these songs are just as significant as any other genres of music in terms of their narratives in African-American culture. I believe the story of the African-American presence in the Americas can be told through the music they my ancestors have created and continue to create.
If you want to take my route to getting into the Christmas spirit and actually want to hear that soul and African-American history listen and compare Bing Crosby and Otis Redding’s versions of Irvin Berlin’s “White Christmas” and get back to me.
I think I’m in the Christmas spirit now!
Did I say K-tel?