Monday, December 12, 2011

Gee Whiz ... It's Christmas (Again!), Part 5

I've been sharing some background and thoughts over the past several days about the individual tracks on my latest holiday CD, Gee Whiz ... It's Christmas (Again!), which is available now for download from my principal website. Time now for some thoughts on Tracks 17 through 20:

Rev. Horton Heat
Track 20
What Child Is This? by the Rev. Horton Heat (2005)
This is the first appearance of this song on any of my holiday CDs, which is a little surprising to me as it’s always been one of my very favorite holiday tunes. I guess I’ve always been partial to songs that are written in minor keys. There are some interesting stories behind both the music and lyrics of this song, and still more to report about Reverend Heat and his unique interpretation. Of course, I can only scratch the surface here. The carol is credited to the English writer William Chatterton Dix. At the age of 29, Dix suffered a near-fatal illness that left him confined to bed for many months. This brought on a severe depression, which condition apparently spurred Dix to write several notable compositions, including this one. There are numerous different versions of the lyrics, and even two different versions of the title (“What Child Is This?” vs. “Whose Child ...?”) According to the Lutheran Service Book's version, the lyrics not only celebrate the birth of Christ but ultimately go on to preview the manner of his death in rather explicit language:

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping,
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word Made Flesh,The babe, the son of Mary!

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
Come, peasant, king, to own Him!
The King of Kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone Him!
Raise, raise the song on high!
The virgin sings her lullaby
Joy! joy! for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!

I was taken aback upon reading these lyrics for the first time several months ago. My church used a different set of lyrics that replaced the second half of the second and third verses with the second half of the first. The result sounds slightly repetitive, I suppose, but I like it better myself. Of course, we all know what fate had in store for Jesus, but I'm not so sure we need to make such a full disclosure while celebrating the day of his birth. 
The Ranger (Robert Bray) and Lassie

The lyrics are sung to the tune of a traditional English folk ballad titled Greensleeves.” It’s a hauntingly beautiful piece of music. I remember it best as the theme for the television program, Lassie. I adored that show as a child, and even named our first cat "Timmy" after the young farm boy who owned Lassie on TV. At one point in the show, Lassie left the farm Timmy’s family owned to travel the West with an itinerant forest ranger. The intention, I’m sure, was to provide new plot ideas, but it took me awhile to get used to the change. Once I did, naturally, the producers killed off the ranger in a massive forest fire too big for even Lassie to control. I’m pretty sure that the haunting melody of Greensleeves was playing in the background as the flames consumed the forest. I was pretty upset after watching that episode, and I can still remember my parents trying to explain to me that death was simply another part of life, and that what had happened was only a story, in any case. I didn’t like their explanation then, and I don’t care much for it now.

You want to know more about Rev. Horton Heat? You're welcome to check out his website HERE. His version of this song is less melancholy and maybe a bit darker than most, which is kind of refreshing during certain moments of this festive season.  I'm neither a fine diner nor a wine drinker, but I guess it's like a spoonful of sorbet between courses to cleanse the palate.

Track 19
Alka Seltzer for the Holidays, TV Commercial (1979)
For the makers of Alka Seltzer, the coming of each new holiday season provides cause for celebration. This is, after all, an exceptionally busy time of year, and one in which eating and drinking -- even to excess -- is considered more acceptable than usual, even something to be expected. While the occasional night of holiday overindulgence is rarely cause for alarm, this time of year can be particularly difficult for those who suffer from alcoholism, chemical dependency or certain types of mental illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of alcohol- and drug-related accidents and illness more than doubles during the holidays, not to mention the anguish of the millions of people each year whose holiday plans, marriages and relationships are ruined due to excessive drinking and drug use. If you or someone you love is affected by alcohol- or drug-related problems this year, help is available. Contact your local Public Health Department or Alcoholics Anonymous. For further tips on healthier living during the holidays, visit the special web page created by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). They've even created their own holiday song for the occasion, which is available HERE.  Incidentally, the part of Santa Claus in the Alka Seltzer commercial is played by none other than Sammy Davis, Jr.!

Track 18
Dean Martin's Christmas in California, NBC-TV Promo (1977)
During my interminable adolescence -- indeed, for some years afterward -- the annual Dean Martin holiday television special was as much a part of Christmas as the three wise men and Rudolph (although from what I recall, Dino was supposed to have had more in common with the latter). The premise of the shows might change from year to year, but whether it was Dean Martin’s Christmas Special, Dean Martin’s California Christmas or Dean Martin’s Christmas at Sea World, they all came with lots of print ads, radio spots and television promos. The clip featured on this year's CD promotes Dean Martin's Christmas in California, an NBC-TV "BIG EVENT" that was filmed "[a]gainst a lovely Hidden Valley setting" and aired in 1977. Growing up in New England, of course, I was fascinated by the notion of Christmas in California. I could barely imagine what it would be like to spend the holidays riding horses in one's shirtsleeves. It was 21 years later before I spent my own first Christmas in California, and I was thrilled to be able to call home to report that I had spent a good part of the afternoon playing miniature golf! Anyway, Dino's guests, while better known than my golfing partners, were no better than B- or C-list celebrities. I was never too keen on Jonathan Winters or Crystal Gayle myself, but Linda Lavin was OK, I guess. I’d never heard of Mireille Mathieu before stumbling on this promo, but I understand she was touted by the French press for awhile as the successor to Edith Piaf, who was, of course, formidable. (A little Christmas trivia: Dean Martin died on Christmas morning of 1995 at the age of 78. Although his public image suggested he was a heavy drinker and probably alcoholic, that was apparently only a comedic affectation. In reality, Martin was reportedly a moderate social drinker.)

Track 17
Candlelight, by the Maccabeats (2010)
The Maccabeats
Founded in 2007, the Maccabeats are an all-male a cappella group from New York’s Yeshiva University. Their song “Candlelight,” which I include on my 2011 mix, was a big hit on the internet during the 2010 holiday season. (That’s me, a dollar short and a year behind!) It’s apparently based on Mike Tompkins' a cappella version of the Taio Cruz smash "Dynamite," which was named Billboard magazine’s top Hot 100 Pop Song of 2011. The Maccabeats’ version tells the story of the Maccabees, a Jewish rebel army whose successful struggle against the oppressive Hellenic regime that ruled Judea approximately 150 years BC led to the founding of the Hasmonean dynasty. This was an important event for the Jewish faith, as it effectively reversed the trend toward assimilation that had begun under Hellenic rule and allowed the faithful to resume the open practice of Jewish rituals and tradition. “Candlelight,” like the song on which it was based, has the kind of infectious beat that sticks in your head after a single listen. If all of history could be taught this way, we’d sure have a few more historians walking around.

That’s it for now.  Stay tuned for another set of comments, hopefully tomorrow.

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