Christmas Don’t Be Late

Before the movies, there was the classic Chipmunks Christmas album that featured “The Chipmunk Song.”  Although the version below with puppets does not have the technology of the movies, I still like it best.  Perhaps my fondness for the original results from the fact that my family played this song (and the album) every year when I was growing up.

Alvin and the Chipmunks were created by Ross Bagdasarian Sr., who went by the name David Seville as the human foil to the rascally Alvin. Bagdasarian as Seville had a 1958 hit with a novelty song, “Witch Doctor.” That song and his follow-up featured some use of his speeded-up voice.

But in late fall of 1958, he made more use of the speed technique when he released the first Chipmunks song.  Bagdasarian reportedly got the idea for chipmunk characters when one of the animals had dashed in front of his car while he was driving in Sequoia National Park.  The result, “The Chipmunks Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” became a massive hit.

The popularity of the Christmas song led to other Chipmunk songs. The original song first appeared on the album Let’s All Sing with the Chipmunks (1959). It appeared again on the 1962 holiday album, Christmas with the Chipmunks, which is the album we had in our house.

Bagdasarian also wrote the Rosemary Clooney hit “Come on-a My House.”  And he appeared in some small movie roles before he created The Chipmunks.

In Rear Window (1954), Bagdasarian portrays a piano-player songwriter who writes the song “Lisa.” In this clip, he plays a piano in a scene that also features director Alfred Hitchcock’s signature cameo.

I cannot remember whether I got a hula-hoop before or after I heard “The Chipmunks Song” the first time. But I suppose kids today might question how the hottest toy at the time was a hoop you threw around your waist. Oh well.

In the video below, Bagdasarian, i.e. David Seville, appears with the Chipmunks on The Ed Sullivan Show. Merry Christmas.

What is your favorite childhood Christmas album? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Sounding Joy: A Refreshing Timeless Christmas Album

    The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs In and Out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook provides a wonderful alternative to the glossy over-used Christmas songs we hear every year. On the 2013 album, Elizabeth Mitchell, with a little help from her friends, provides a refreshing break from the commercialization of the holiday with songs taken from a songbook created by Ruth Crawford Seeger.

    The songbook was published in 1953 and used in schoolhouses around the country before it was taken out of circulation. As part of the WPA Federal Music Project during the Great Depression, Seeger worked to help preserve old folk songs. She often worked with her family members as well as John Avery Lomax, Alan Lomax, and Bess Lomax Hawes. Ruth Seeger also worked as a composer in her own right.  And she used her skills in arranging the songs in her songbooks.

    The Songbook

    Seeger arranged her songbooks for families to sing the folk songs in their living rooms. As she wrote, “These songs grew out of and were used in the old-time American Christmas, a Christmas not of Santa Claus and tinseled trees but of homespun worship and festivity.” Her 1953 songbook, American Folk Songs for Christmas, followed two songbooks she created of folk songs for children.

    Ruth Seeger died of cancer the year her Christmas songbook was published. But her children Mike, Peggy, Penny, and stepson Pete Seeger helped continue the American folk revival she helped start. Peggy Seeger is one of the friends who joins Elizabeth Mitchell on two of the carols on the CD.

    There are a few songs you will recognize, like a version of “Joy to the World” with lovely banjo and vocal harmonies.  But most of the songs will be new to the casual listener. Some are more religious than many songs usually played today. Yet others capture other aspects of the holiday season like the Winter solstice.

    As Mitchell writes in her liner notes for the album, “Through her song choices, Ruth Crawford Singer shined a light on a distinctly American Christmas tradion that might be unrecognizable to us today.”

    The Album

    Mitchell adds her own touch to the songs.  But she also keeps the simplicity of the folk songs that reflect certain regions and times in America. The album also features other friends largely from around her community in Woodstock, New York.  Other performers include Natalie Merchant, Aoife O’Donovan, Amy Helm, John Sebastian, Dan Zanes, and Happy Traum.

    One of my favorites on the album is “Singing in the Land.” The song features vocals by Mitchell, Merchant, Traum, Sebastian, Ruth Unger, Daniel LIttleton, Michael Merenda, and Lyn Hardy.

    The album also features photos and wonderful liner notes.  The notes include essays by each of Natalie Merchant, Daniel Littleton, and Elizabeth Mitchell. Additionally, Mitchell wrote comments for each song on the album.

    If you are looking for some holiday music that warms your heart and seems significantly removed from the commercialization of Christmas, check out this album. The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs In and Out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook by Elizabeth Mitchell and Friends is available from Smithsonian Folkways.

    Information in post comes from the liner notes to The Sounding Joy. What is your favorite lesser-known Christmas album? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    What Becomes of All the Little Boys?

    On December 7 in 1949, Thomas Alan Waits was born in Pomona, California.  While in elementary school, Tom began learning to play some instruments.  His father, who would divorce Tom’s mom when Tom was ten, taught the boy to play the ukulele.  And an uncle’s gravely voice would later inspire the singer-songwriter to adopt his own singing voice as the adult Tom Waits.

    One of my favorite Tom Waits song is “On the Nickel,” a song he calls “a little wino’s nursery rhyme” in the video below from a 1978 Austin City Limits episode.  I first fell in love with the song when it stood out for me on his 1980 Heartattack and Vine album, which also features his original version of “Jersey Girl.”

    As Waits further explains, the name “the nickel” is a reference to Fifth Avenue in Los Angeles.  But even if you did not know the song was about the homeless, you cannot help feeling the melancholy sound of the song.  “On the Nickel” intertwines nursery rhymes that connect hopeful childhoods to lost adults, with themes that could apply to anyone.

    So what becomes of all the little boys?
    The sandman takes you where
    You’ll be sleepin’ with a pillow man,
    On the Nickel over there.

    If you know the song, you may have wondered about the reference to Grady Tuck (“You can skip the light with Grady Tuck on the nickel over there”). Tuck was a San Diego musician.

    Check out this live 1978 performance of “On the Nickel.”

    What is your favorite song by Tom Waits? Another one of my favorites is “San Diego Serenade.” Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    “MTV Unplugged” Begins

    The first episode of MTV Unplugged made its television debut on Sunday, November 26, 1989. The series would eventually feature many classic episodes and recordings, such as four years later with the November 18, 1993 show featuring Nirvana.

    But back in 1989, the show had not established a reputation so the performers on the first episode were not superstars. The show featured Squeeze, Syd Straw, Elliot Easton (of the Cars), and Jules Shear.

    Below Shear, Straw, Chris Difford, Glenn Tilbrook, and Elliot Easton come together to cover The Monkees during that first show. Check out “I’m a Believer” from the very first episode of MTV Unplugged.

    Many credit Paul McCartney with helping make MTV Unplugged a popular show that would attract major artists. During the second season, after his appearance, he released a recording of the show, Unplugged – The Official Bootleg, which went on to be quite successful.

    MTV Unplugged aired regularly between 1989 and 1999. The show appeared less frequently during most of the next decade usually called MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.

    Since 2009, MTV has occasionally run the show as a special, sometimes in online-only versions. But for those of us who were around during the decade that was the show’s heyday, it was an important cultural touchstone of that time.

    What is your favorite episode of MTV Unplugged? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Mary Gauthier’s Thanksgiving at the Prison

    One may tell from the prison setting that Mary Gauthier’s “Thanksgiving” is probably not a cheery holiday song.  But that does not make it any less beautiful.

    The song, which appeared on Gauthier’s 2007 album Between Daylight And Dark, recounts the point of view of a child with a grandmother standing in line to visit someone in prison.

    They make her take her winter coat off,
    Then they frisk her again;
    When they’re done she wipes their touch off her dress,
    Stands tall and heads in.

    Yes, “Thanksgiving” is a Thanksgiving song.  But it views the holiday from the perspective of the families of those in prison.  During this period of mass incarceration in the United States, we often forget about how prison affects the family members of those we lock away.

    The song is set at Tallulah State Prison, which was once a notorious horrible prison for youths. In 2004, due to outcries from the community, the juvenile prison was shut down.

    Mary Gauthier, who grew up in Louisiana, often reminds us of the common humanity that links us.  “Thanksgiving” is a wonderful song that tells a story you might not expect in a holiday song.  And if you listen closely, it might change you just a little bit.

    It’s Thanksgiving at the prison, surrounded by families;
    Road weary pilgrims who show up faithfully;
    Even though it ain’t easy, even though it ain’t free;
    Sometimes love ain’t easy, I guess love ain’t free.

    What is your favorite song about Thanksgiving? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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