George Beres: As carols get overlooked, the sounds of Christmas can become strange





Half-a-century again I started having misgivings over what was described as Christmas music. Where, I wondered, did "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" fit in?

It has grown worse with the years. Now there's Yule music from Southern rap called "crunk" and dance hall reggae with Santa on stage. That was the focus of a recent Wall Street Journal feature called "Santa's Greatest Hits." It's a commentary not on Christmas nor on music, but on the times that find us victimized by promotions of a $12-billion music industry that reflects preferences of a young market.

It must be right about the market, because business depends on selling, so chooses to produce what is wanted, regardless of taste. I can't be part of that market, nor can anyone who values the sentiment and meaning in music of traditional Christmas Carols during the holiday season.

It may be passe to baby boomers and younger, but "Silent Night" still ranks at the top for many who used to go Christmas caroling in neighborhoods such as that of my boyhood in Illinois. It could be freezing, but we stayed warm with the hot chocolate and cookies given the singers by families that relished traditional sounds, especially with a soft Midwest snow falling around us.

Roots of many old carols-- not their tunes-- are lost with passing generations. But the history of "Silent Night" continues its holiday fascination. It was written for a banjo or mandolin on a moment's notice on Christmas Eve 188 years ago, in 1818. The church rector in Obendorf, Germany, gave his organist, Franz Gruber, words to a new Christmas poem by Joseph Mohr.

"Put some music to this, and let's sing it tomorrow," the rector instructed.

He obviously was accustomed to the idea of miracles-- and Gruber's spur-of-the-moment composing qualifies as at least a minor one. He fit an inspired melody to words that have been sung worldwide in all languages for two centuries.

Back to the listing in the Journal, one of this year's promotions is for "A Very Special Acoustic Christmas." It features "Only You Can Bring Me Cheer" by bluegrass queen Allison Krauss. For an antidote, I turn to "Adeste Fideles" and "Away in a Manger."

Another anticipated hit this year is an album by the Blind Boys of Alabama, whose title track is described as Gospel meets barfly. Stodgy as I may seem to today's music industry, I can find a refreshing escape with "Deck the Halls," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear."

A contemporary label features "Yule Be Miserable" with items such as "Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney." The pitch is to the college crowd, as the cover drawing is of Santa asleep at an empty bar. Santa and the crowd would not be shaken from slumber by the elation I recall from "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," or even the sounds of modern warfare that have changed "Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem."

Another label (there are dozens and dozens of them) is distributing "Christmas Remixed," claiming to be "respectful in adding new dance beats" to old Christmas music. The company president puts himself into sorry perspective when he asks, "Who wouldn't want to shake up an old Bing Crosby track?"

There's little room for anger here, especially at this season-- only regret that producers today have missed out on what an older generation continues to value.

Passe? Just listen to "Joy to the World," "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," and "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." They tell us how fortunate we were to have heard our carols on banjos and church organs instead of what we get today from those who merchandise a Christmas that sounds so very strange.


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