Friday, December 23, 2011

Gee Whiz ... It's Christmas (Again!), Part 12

Here are a few quick thoughts on the two remaining tracks from my 2011 holiday CD:

Track 43
Christmas Must Be Tonight, by The Band (1977)
Robbie Robertson
Many years ago, my elementary school band teacher, Mr. Whittaker, gave our class some wise advice about performing for an audience. The two most important parts of any performance, he said, were the beginning and the end. Start strong and you grab the audience’s attention. Finish strong, and that’s the memory they’ll take away. I think of Mr. Whittaker when I start to assemble each of my new holiday CDs, and I pay particular attention to creating coherent sets of tracks at the beginning and end that set the appropriate tones. I tend to end each CD with a couple of quieter songs with deeper meanings, for as much fun as Christmas undoubtedly is, there are serious principles to reflect on as well. For the final song on this year’s CD, I selected “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” by the venerated group known simply as The Band. Written by the great Robbie Robertson, this song was originally recorded in 1975 for The Band’s Northern Lights, Southern Cross album; in fact, there were plans to release it that year as a holiday single. However, the track was pulled at the last minute, and was ultimately featured on the group’s final studio album, Islands, which was released in 1977, after The Band had formally dissolved. Robertson wrote the song shortly after the birth of his son, Sebastian, and one can sense his reverence for the miracle of birth and the beginning of each new life. Some of the lyrics are lifted directly from the King James version of the Bible, but Robertson recounts the story from a populist perspective, and while he pays due deference to the magnitude of this event, one gets the sense that he might paint a similar picture were he to write about the birth of your son or daughter. In this version of the song, the lead vocal is handled by Rick Danko rather than Robertson, although Robertson subsequently recorded two additional versions of the song as a solo artist, one of which appears on the soundtrack to the 1988 movie Scrooged (see HERE). I’m a huge fan of Robertson’s, but I prefer Rick Danko’s version myself – not only over Robertson’s, but also the dozen or so others who have covered the song, including Darlene Love. For me, this song is nothing less than a modern day Christmas classic, and it’s one of the few songs from the past 50 years that’s worthy to stand next to "Silent Night," "Joy to the World" and the like as legitimate carols. It tells this most miraculous story in simple yet beautiful terms, and it never fails to move me.

Track 42
The La La Christmas Song, by Sherwin Sleeves (2008)
Sean Hurley (or is it Sleeves?)
This song was written and performed by Sherwin Sleeves, an older fellow in his mid- to late 70s, I'd guess, who lives in a small cabin on top of Marked Mountain, in Lemon, New Hampshire. Sleeves writes songs for fun, and he does a great deal of walking. Due to his lack of technological sophistication, he relies on a neighbor named Sean Hurley to record his songs and serve as his public spokesman. As near as I can tell from Sean’s reports, Sleeves wrote this song in 2008 with the idea of submitting it to a radio station’s holiday songwriting contest. It's not clear whether he won or not, but from the feedback on the station’s website, it sure looks like this was the popular favorite. The song itself is filled with beautiful imagery, and there’s something very poignant in the notion of an older man respectfully observing his town’s pre-Christmas activities from afar, with love. 

Sleeve and Sean Hurley share a little community of websites, and you might begin your exploration of them HERE, should you be so inclined.

UPDATE (3.25.14): I recently stumbled on a piece featured on New Hampshire Public Radio that tells the fascinating story behind this wonderful song. Check it out!

Thus ends this lengthy exercise, and just in time to celebrate Christmas Eve tomorrow. More later. Anything is possible, if you’re good.

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