Sunday, December 8, 2013

C'est Noel, Part 5 (Tracks 13-16)

Time to get back to work with our continuing review of the 35 tracks in my latest holiday mix, C'est Noel! I've already shared some background and thoughts on the first dozen tracks, and today we're going to tackle the next four tunes. Hold on tight, because here we go:

Track 16
Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah, by The Klezmatics (2006)

The Klezmatics (L to R): Frank London, Matt Darriau, Lisa Gutkin, Lorin Sklamberg, Paul Morrissett (Photo: Joshua Kessler)

Even many longtime fans of the late folk singer and social activist Woody Guthrie were caught off guard when the Grammy Award-winning American klezmer group The Klezmatics released their eighth album in 2006, Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah. "Wait a second," you could almost hear people thinking. "Woody Guthrie was Jewish?" No, he actually wasn't, but his second wife, Marjorie, was, and during the late 1940s and early '50s, the "Dust Bowl Troubadour" quietly established a lively partnership with his Jewish mother-in-law, the well-known Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. Guthrie and Greenblatt shared both a love for the written word and a passionate commitment to social justice, and their collaboration and mutual encouragement resulted in a sizable number of poems, song lyrics and other writings that celebrated the history of the Jewish people and the joy of their customs and holidays. Guthrie didn't do much with these works during his lifetime, but when they were discovered by his daughter, Nora Guthrie, some 30 years after Woody's death, she gave the lyrics to The Klezmatics to see if they might be turned into something. The first batch of lyrics were eventually developed into a set of songs that were recorded as Wonder Wheel: Lyrics by Woody Guthrie.  Released in 2006, the album won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album in 2007. Later in 2006, the group released Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah, of which this song is the title track.
It's a fascinating album that on first listen seems weighted toward lighthearted tunes and songs for children. Guthrie's own children figure prominently in the lyrics, and each song seems full to overflowing with good cheer. Woody Guthrie's life was not always easy, but this record is a genuine celebration, and a revelation as well. 

Hear NPR Music Critic Robert Christgau
discuss the album 

Murray Horwitz hosts an NPR broadcast featuring highlights of a 2007 holiday concert by The Klezmatics from Los Angeles’ Disney Concert Hall. Listen

Track 15
1913 Massacre (Excerpt), by Woody Guthrie (1941)
Exactly 100 years ago this Christmas Eve, 73 people, including 59 children, were crushed to death at a holiday party in Calumet, Michigan in what has come to be known as the Italian Hall Disaster, or the 1913 Massacre. Calumet was a coal mining town, and as the holidays approached that year, it was in the midst of a bitter labor dispute. The strike had been spurred by the introduction of the one-man drill, which led to fear among the workers of one-man teams and reduced work. Employees of the Calumet and Hecia Mining Company (C&H) had only just recently organized, and they were striking primarily for an eight-hour day and for a daily wage increase to $3.50. Strike leaders had scheduled a Christmas party for December 24 to rally the troops, and hundreds of striking workers and their wives and children assembled at Italian Hall to celebrate the season. At one point in the festivities, someone apparently yelled "Fire!" and while no fire existed, scores of people were crushed trying to escape through a non-functioning exit. Although it has never been definitively established, many believe that one of the thugs on C&H's payroll was responsible for falsely yelling the warning.
Guthrie read about the incident some 25 years later and wrote "1913 Massacre" as a result. It's a haunting and powerful song, in which the narrator welcomes each listener into the Hall to experience the tragedy first-hand:
1913 Massacre, by Woody Guthrie
(Press HERE to listen)
Take a trip with me in 1913,
To Calumet, Michigan, in the copper country.
I'll take you to a place called Italian Hall,
Where the miners are having their big Christmas ball.

I'll take you in the door, and up a high stairs,
Singin' and dancin' is heard everywhere,
I'll let you shake hands with the people you see,
And watch the kids dance round the big Christmas tree.

You ask about work and you ask about pay,
They'll tell you they make less than a dollar day,
Workin' the copper claims, riskin' their lives,
So it's fun to spend Christmas with children and wives.

There's talkin' and laughin' and songs in the air,
And the spirit of Christmas is there everywhere,
Before you know it, you're friends with us all,
And you're dancin' around and around in the hall.

Well, a little girl sits by the Christmas tree lights,
To play the piano, so you gotta keep quiet.
To hear all this fun you would not realize,
That the copper-boss thug-men are millin' outside.

The copper-boss thugs stuck their heads in the door,
One of them yelled and he screamed, "There's a fire!"
A lady, she hollered, "There's no such a thing!
Keep on with your party, there's no such thing."

A few people rushed, and it's only a few.
"It's just the thugs and the scabs foolin' you."
A man grabbed his daughter and he carried her down,
But the thugs held the door and he could not get out.

And then others followed, a hundred or more,
But most everybody remained on the floor.
The scabs and the thugs they still laughed at their joke,
While the children were smothered on the stairs by the door.

Such a terrible sight I never did see,
We carried our children back up to their tree.
The scabs outside still laughed at their spree,
And the children that died there were seventy-three.

The piano played a slow funeral tune,
And the town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon, 
The parents they cried and the miners they moan,
"See what your greed for money has done."

I opted to include only a short excerpt of this song on my 2013 mix. On the one hand, it's an important piece of history and Guthrie's telling of it is nothing less than brilliant. But it's also a horribly grisly story, and it's bound to be upsetting, especially for small children at Christmas. Of course, the families who suffered so terribly a century ago were spared nothing on that horrible evening. I can't help but notice that the same pernicious forces that caused this tragedy are once again abroad in our country this holiday season. It's evident as WalMart, one of the most successful companies in the world, solicits canned goods for the benefit of its underpaid employees. They are present while the party of Theodore Roosevelt allows the federal government to close in its rabid zeal to deny basic health care to millions of our citizens. If Woody Guthrie were alive today, you can bet he'd be writing lots of new songs, any one of which might easily conclude with the same stark observation with which he ends this song:
"See what your greed for money has done."

Track 14
Clean for Christmas, by James Brown (1999)

Dubbed "the hardest working man in show business," James Brown died on Christmas Day in 2006, which is sadly appropriate, as he left behind an amazingly colorful body of Christmas music. Brown essentially recorded four albums of holiday tunes: Christmas Songs (1966), Soulful Christmas (1968), Hey America (1970)  and The Merry Christmas Album (1999), as well as The Complete James Brown Christmas (2010), a posthumous compilation. I say "essentially" because his songs have been repackaged and reissued in so many different combinations over the years that it's practically impossible to make a definitive count. Even when Brown was alive, a couple of his holiday records were packed with non-Christmas hits to goose the sales up a little. But there's still something
special here – special and unique. While the Christmas records many artists release are typically regarded as separate and apart from their regular catalogue, Brown's Christmas albums ignore that distinction. The holiday records use holiday themes and props, of course, but the musical style is pretty much the next step on Brown's evolving vibe. What's also striking is how much the holiday songs reveal about Brown's background and personality, for while there's lots of strutting, ego-powered funk, there are also a number of sad, plaintive tunes that speak in an outsider's voice. Some of Brown's seasonal selections are laughably bad, with a few bordering on self parody. Others seem to have been thrown together quickly, with minimal care. Frankly, I'm not sure exactly what to make of "Clean for Christmas." It was recorded relatively late in Brown's career, by which time his difficulties with drugs had not only cramped his style but harmed his reputation as well. I'm inclined to believe that this song speaks to that issue, and represents Brown's commitment to getting clean for the holidays. Of course, he might just be needing a shave and some clean clothes. I've added an unrelated clip to the start of this track from a 1968 episode of the TV crime series Adam-12. It involves the arrest of one James Brown, and a potentially illegal search and seizure. (Press HERE to watch the full episode of that dreadful drama. It was produced by Dragnet czar Jack Webb, but that should be instantly clear to most viewers. The final Christmas show of the series, which aired in December 1974, is available HERE.) 

Track 13
Merry Christmas, James Brown! by The Peanuts Gang (c. 2002)
This is a rarely heard track that was originally released in 2002 or thereabouts* on an album titled National Lampoon’s Off-White Christmas, Volume 2. National Lampoon was once a very successful franchise. Founded by former members of the Harvard Lampoon, the name was first applied to a monthly humor magazine whose first issue hit the streets in 1970. The magazine thrived during the 1970s, when it was known for its brash parodies, and the founders expanded their reach to produce books, radio and television show, record albums, plays and movies. Over time, the success of these endeavors led many of the most creative people to cash out or accept better opportunities, and the enterprise began to slip through the 1980s and ‘90s. The last edition of the magazine was published in November 1998. The brand also appears on a number of movies, although exactly what constitutes an official National Lampoon movie is open to some debate. National Lampoon’s Animal House, one of the most successful comedies of all time, featured a number of the magazine’s key players among the credits list. National Lampoon’s Vacation series, including National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, also did well. The Off-White Christmas series of CDs included four separate releases, none of which seems to be commercially available today. I first found this track on the Traitor Vic 2009 Low-Budget Xmas Mix, and it actually made me laugh out loud. Still, I must admit to a certain amount of ambivalence about including this one on one of my mixes. While Brown certainly had some verifiable personal shortcomings, it doesn’t seem quite right to capitalize on them after his death. In the end, however, I decided to use this track because it really is funny and it pokes fun at Brown with a relatively light touch. I’d be interested to hear from anyone with thoughts about whether this track should have been removed for being overly disrespectful. 

*Until just the other day, my best information suggested this song was first released in 1998, but the correct date, I believe, is actually 2002. Most of the CDs I’m distributing this year list the date as “c. 1998.” Do you suppose that by putting the abbreviation for circa in front of the date that I bought myself enough wiggle room to cover myself?

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