Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Come, They Told Me

Some things wound us, things so trivial to others. Wounds so deep and so abiding. Some things open them up. This is the worst time for that.

Shall I play for you
Most of my Dad's music was on tape, but he owned a handful of vinyl albums, mostly the remainder of a collection acquired in his sojourn to London, that rarely saw play. His two Christmas LPs, however, got an outing once a year, on the weekend before Christmas: The Magic of Christmas by Nat King Cole (1960) and the Harry Simeone Chorale's The Little Drummer Boy: a Christmas Festival (1959).

What's to say about Nat? It's an aural experience of brass, strings and tinsel, the crooner who, my dad would tell me every year, never got a chance because of his heritage, singing with a voice warm like a log fire. There is none more festive, no Christmas album that more personifies a certain kind of festive devotional  kitsch, where you go to the Nine Lessons in your brand new jumper and think no more of it when the tree comes down.

The Little Drummer Boy is a different proposition. Each side is a more or less continuous medley of Christmas carols and songs, linked with sung and spoken lines from the Christmas scriptures. I imagine them as wholesome, woolly hats and sweaters, girls with perfect Doris Day hair, young men tall and white-smiled, quiffs immobile, and this one (yes, token) African-American baritone who gets to solo on "Go Tell It" and "Rise Up Shepherds", slightly older, wearing a suit. A full orchestra, strings and brass loud when it needs to be, quiet at times, joyful and triumphant when appropriate, pulls hard on every emotional string. Some of the arrangements are dated, seem clichéd and silly to the modern listener: moving into a swing beat for the second verse of "Deck the Halls" is a weird, jarring choice. Much of it showcases the language of pre-Motown virtuoso pop singing, which pre-Beatles was the province of choirs, and it can be hard to imagine how one got from here to Mariah Carey to Taylor Swift. It feels like you might need a diagram.

For me the second side of the LP is an emotional battering ram; it reminds me of those times when we could pretend that everything was all right, that we were not as fractured as we were. I don't tear up exactly – that's not a thing I do – but it's the closest I ever get.

It wrecks me.

In "O Holy Night", a solo soprano sings something that sounds wobbly, old, far away, and yet I choke up at the moment the brass and strings, the heaving tubas join in; the male voices on "Adeste Fideles" singing low, deliberately pitched to evoke a Gregorian chant, joined by the altos and sopranos on the English version and the orchestra growing in power and feeling at the end. The way that at the close of the album someone cries out "Merry Christmas!" and another repeats it, and they all say Merry Christmas in unison. It's saccharine. But if ersatz goodwill is the best you get as a kid, a thing like this can affect you powerfully. It chokes me up.

Every time, knowing that the majority of the people involved are dead, knowing these are voices, wishing a stranger good will, that will never again be heard outside of a recording.

Then He smiled at me 
At the beginning of side two, between the only pauses in the record, sits "The Little Drummer Boy" itself. A low marching beat made by the bass and tenor parts, the altos and sopranos the voice of a child. Only the most minimal percussion interferes. It has an exquisite restraint the rest of the album lacks, the sense of hesitancy of a child unsure if the talents he has are worth showing to someone transcendent, a poor boy, just like him.

As the boy describes how he plays for the infant Christ, the underlying basses and tenors speed up, each line a stick rattling with skill and control on a drumskin, the alto-soprano line rising just a little, just enough to betray all the triumph permitted a poor boy with a drum. And the coda: Then He smiled at me, me and my drum.

Quiet again. The fond, close embrace of a treasured memory.

I am a poor boy too
"The Little Drummer Boy", the song, feels like it should be Victorian; it has that same sense of wilful anachronism as "In the Bleak Midwinter", in which Christina Rossetti used the seasons of the Northern hemisphere to evoke the sense of a timeless Christ born into an eternal present, long ago and yet contemporary.

But the Little Drummer Boy himself is a mid twentieth century invention, American, made popular by Simeone. The boy is depicted on the album cover as an idealised Dickensian child soldier, the trappings of Dickens' fiction (which is not strictly Victoriana exactly) being, thanks to old Ebenezer Scrooge's haunting, definitive of the English-speaking world's Christmas.

The rest of the album that carries its name is really only a wrapper to contain it, a sparkling gift box, and you are to lift it out, separate it from its container, just as Simeone did, it being his one defining hit single.

His wasn't the original version, but that quiet haunting, the ghost of a child telling an anachronistic fiction of doubt and good will, is the best. David Bowie and poor, doomed Bing Crosby's queasy duet bleeds awkwardness. The Dandy Warhols laugh at it; look, they say, we can make any old crap into rock'n'roll. The a capella quintet Pentatonix are so concerned with demonstrating their undeniable technical skill they lose the song's rhythm and with it its meaning. Low's slowcore version respects the song but doesn't quite sell the work of a child.

No one has ever done a version as good as the Harry Simeone Chorale's.

I have no gifts to bring
Harry Simeone apparently managed pretty well on "The Little Drummer Boy" alone for a few years, it reappearing in the Christmas singles chart annually; but eventually it seems he felt he had to do something else.

The Wonderful Songs of Folk (1963), his only other album, was also owned by Dad and hence it was part of my childhood, but not in the way of those Christmas records. It was a thing of curiosity. It was a thing of mystery.

It's a strange record. Songs like Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" and Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "Blowin' in the Wind" performed by that same wholesome choir, this time given a cheery down-home big band country hoedown backing. Christmas songs benefit from overproduction (it's why Phil Spector's Christmas record is so legendary) but these songs aren't made for that, and it shows, the arrangement sometimes jaw-dropping in how wrong-headed they are, how inappropriate the way the choir treats these songs. You can hear them smiling, imagine them pumping their elbows as the men sing "I'm walking on the dark side of the road". You can hear their eyes twinkle as they explain the burning ring of fire.

It almost goes without saying that it's terrible.

The only moment of genuine charm is in a song called "Sweet Potatah", which is simply a song about how tasty and versatile sweet potato is as a foodstuff. It has verve and humour, and it's an original composition, not really a folk song at all. It's again with the ersatz, the pastiche; Simeone's talent seemed to lie in making the unreal sound as good as the real thing, and I suppose that to my boyhood ears, the simulacrum, expertly executed, was the best I could hope for.

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