It’s that time of year again. The time when my web stats spike through the roof. That’s because, if you are looking for undiscovered Christmas music gems or unexpectedly themed Christmas carol playlists, this site DELIVERS LIKE DOMINO’S. I’m on a one-blog mission to broaden Christmas playlists everywhere beyond the expected, the overplayed and the Josh Groban. We won’t even mention my non-blog efforts. I have lobbied local radio stations to replace all Celine Dion Christmas songs in their rotation with The Who Song (Da-Who Door-Aze) from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Yes, I have been active.
The world responds — especially Eastern Europe. At Christmas time, judging by my stats, every Internet cafe in Zagreb, Kiev, Prague and certainly all of Albania (where I’m clearly Number One) is filled with eager web surfers aiming for Left Coast Cowboy Land. I blame it on years of Godless Communism. They just don’t know how to pull together a Christmas playlist. I’m there for them. I’m there for you. Which brings me to a much overdue playlist. How about I reach into my Christmas music collection — one I boast is as large and varied as any in these United States — and pull out a playlist in honor of our President. (I suspect he could use a lift just about now.) Or call it an early Kwanzaa present. In any case, just step away from the latest insipid Christmas CD by the current forgettable Pop star and listen to some REAL Christimas songs. Once you go Mahalia, you’ll never go back.
1. Go Tell It On the Mountain. The Blind Boys of Alabama. When you have as wide a Christmas music collection as mine, you have more than a few duds. Among those I’d have to include versions of this song sung by Anne Murray (the Whitest Person in North America) and Andy Griffith(!?) Every time they show up in the rotation on the 300 CD player (which only holds a fraction of my holiday music), I have to scream that ONLY the Blind Boys should be allowed to sing this song — unless Odetta or Mahalia want to join them. But this IS the definitive version — it’s Gospel with overtones of Delta Blues that will have you screaming “Can I Get a Witness!” This version comes from the Blind Boys Christmas CD of the same name. But the great thing about Gospel is that pretty much any song can double as a Christmas song. So you could add any one of their excellent albums to your collection. Just make sure you get this song.
2. Christmas Time in Harlem. Louis Armstrong. This one is so good, it also made my list of The Best Christmas Songs You’ve Never Heard. It’s got everything you would expect from a Louis Armstrong song including great lines like, “Cats are sleepin’ warm as toast” and “We’ll be all lit up like a Christmas tree” and “Hydee, Hydee, Hydee Ho. It’s Christmas time in Harlem.” Plus some great Satchmo trumpet solos.
3. Merry Christmas Baby. Charles Brown. Let me just say that Andy, who absolutely HATES Christmas music, would happily put Charles Brown’s Cool Christmas Blues on year ’round. Although Brown was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he’s famous for his mellow club-style Blues. He brings it all including Blues piano and sax to this wonderful collection. This is the Christmas music that would accompany a Scotch and a cigar — or maybe an evening of Scotches and cigars. As the man says, “Feelin’ mighty fine/Got good music on my stereo…”
4. Lonesome Christmas. B.B. King. As long as you’ve got that Scotch open, put this CD in the machine. Because B.B. King has brought along a smokin’ rhythm section. There’s not a weak song on this CD and most will have the joint jumpin’. But what would you expect from B.B. King?
5. Mary Had a Baby. Kathleen Battle. Back to Gospel. And you may accuse me of leaning too heavily on the genre, but I’m trying to present songs that aren’t just by African-American singers, but reflect the unique African-American musical tradition. But let’s give it a twist. Who can ignore the impact that great African-American voices have made on opera? Here’s one of my favorite sopranos, Kathleen Battle, from one of my all time favorite Christmas albums, Kathleen Battle: A Christmas Celebration. Kathleen tackles songs from all over the world — many sung in their original languages. But, in this track, she comes home to a wonderful spiritual with able backing by The Boys Choir of Harlem. Sublime.
6. What Month Was Jesus Born In (Last Month of the Year). Odetta. Another of my favorite Christmas CDs from the woman who was dubbed The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement. Although she and Mahalia Jackson feature prominently in one of my other Christmas playlists, The Come to Jesus Edition, how can I not include them here? Last Month of the Year is an upbeat spiritual in the call and response tradition. And Odetta’s backed by her long-time accompanyist, Bill Lee, Spike Lee’s dad. Can’t get more African-American cred than that!
7. Santa. Lightnin Hopkins. In my quest for an ever larger and more eclectic Christmas collection, I’m all about the compilation CD. I got this track off something I found in the bargain bin called Blues, Boogie and Rhythm Christmas. It’s a treasure! With tracks from Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles and Lionel Hampton, it could make the whole playlist. But I’m especially partial to this song by legendary Blues guitarist Lightnin Hopkins. This is rough Delta type Blues, so don’t expect any candy canes. If I tell you one of the lines goes, “I went to New York City. Saw Santa with a beer in his hand”, I think you’ll know what to expect.
8. Boogie-Woogie Santa Claus. Lionel Hampton. The Jazz great brings his signature vibraphone and his swinging orchestra to this should-be classic. Brian Setzer did a creditable version of this, but for this playlist, we’re bowing to the original.
9. Sugar Rum Cherry. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. The Duke channels Tchaikovsky through Harlem and the great days of the Jazz orchestra. This one should be in everyone’s Christmas music rotation.
10. Sweet Little Jesus Boy. Mahalia Jackson. This beautiful song offers a straight-forward dialogue with Jesus, apologizing for when the world didn’t recognize him:
Sweet little Jesus Boy
They made you be born in a manger
Sweet little Holy Child
Didn’t know who You was?
The world treat You mean, Lord
Treat me mean, too
But that’s how things is down here
We didn’t know was You.
Both the words and the music sound as if it dates back to ante-bellum plantation days. Imagine my surprise to find out it was written in the 30s by a White man. But when Odetta, Kathleen Battle and here, the great Mahalia Jackson choose to sing it, it becomes part of the the tradition.
That’s the list, but there are so many more songs I could have included. (Many you’ll find on my Christmas Dance Party Playlist.) But this will get you started. Especially all you fans in Albania!
Now let me leave you with a bonus track that’s appeared on many of my Christmas playlists. Because it’s THAT good.