Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Goodbye to 2014

It's New Year's Eve!

I'd like to join the Animaniacs, who appear below performing the song that kicks off my latest New Year's mix, in wishing you a fun but safe New Year's Eve and a wonderful new year:

And should you require musical accompaniment:

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

All of My Holiday Mixes Are Now Available for Streaming on Mixcloud

Effective immediately, you can now stream any of my holiday mixes on Mixcloud, an online music service that offers a terrific variety of mixes, compilations and other creative audio programming. I've uploaded all 17 of my holiday mixes to the Mixcloud site, and because each one has an embedded track list, you can follow along with each individual track that's played. The site doesn't allow downloading for copyright reasons, but you can listen to whichever mix you fancy anytime.

One of the side benefits of the posting process is that it forced me to take a fresh look at each of the 450+ tracks I've included in previous mixes. Not surprisingly, I found a number of errors in the descriptions attached to various tracks. I've now corrected whatever mistakes I spotted, so I'm hoping my track lists are more accurate than they had been. Thanks for your patience and kind attention.

Visit Mark's Mixcloud page and listen to any or all of the 17 available holiday mixes.

SyFy Channel Celebrates 20 Years of New Year's Twilight Zone Marathons

Tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. marks the start of another of my favorite holiday traditions — the annual New Year's Eve Twilight Zone Marathon on cable's SyFy channel. I first discovered this annual event in 1998, and I've always watched at least a few episodes each year since then, which means I've been watching for 17 of the marathon's 20 years. And no doubt I'll watch again this year, too. Believe it or not, there are still quite a few episodes I haven't seen yet.

The original version of  The Twilight Zone was a 30-minute weekly program that ran for five seasons on CBS, from 1959 through 1964. It was created and developed by Rod Serling, who had previously established himself as one of the best television writers in the business. Serling had come up during "the golden age of live TV," writing insightful, pathbreaking material when quality programming was more respected than mere ad revenues. By the late '50s, however, the dollar had become king, and skittish sponsors balked at anything edgy or topical that might offend potential consumers. Serling, an outspoken champion of the little guy, devised The Twilight Zone as a way of addressing challenging subjects in a less dangerous fashion. As one critic later noted, it was safer to make certain points with martians rather than people, who could, after all, be liberals or Democrats.

The original series produced 156 episodes, of which Serling wrote 92. He was also the program's host and narrator. Many well-known actors appeared on The Twilight Zone, and numerous actors got their start on the show. But it remains popular today largely because of the creative and profound stories it offers — timeless dramas that explore the endless complexities of the human condition and cause the viewer to see age-old issues in a new and different way. I hope you can enjoy an episode or two at some point over the next several days!

See a Schedule of the Episodes Scheduled for this year's Marathon

The PBS American Masters series looked at the life and career of Rod Serling in this 1995 documentary "Rod Serling: Submitted for Your Approval." It's well worth a look:

Monday, December 29, 2014

Trucker's Salute Offers a Different View of Christmas' Gloomy Gus, Red Sovine

Within a few days of mailing my latest holiday CD to friends and family each year, I can count on a call from my brother with his thoughts about the mix. This year, the first thing he mentioned was the title track, "Is There Really a Santa Claus," by the late great Red Sovine. "That one song," he said "singlehandedly ruined my Christmas." I understand the sentiment. I've used several of Sovine's unique recordings over the years, and each one seems sadder and more pathetic than the one before. After replaying this year's selection, I really do think we've hit rock bottom:

For those who'd rather not subject themselves to Red's gut-wrenching rendition of the whole gruesome story, here's the CliffsNotes edition.  The story is about a widower and his two young children on Christmas Eve. The children's mother had died the previous Christmas, but despite the sad anniversary, they are excited by the prospect of Santa's arrival. "Cut out the nonsense," their father says. "There's no Santa Claus." Well, the children went off to bed with tears in their eyes, but they remembered their poor father in their prayers. This prompted a change of heart in Dad, and he rushes to the store to buy gifts on Santa's behalf. In his haste, however, he is killed by a passing car. The next morning, the newly orphaned tots are overjoyed to find the simple toys they'd asked for from Santa. Since Dad is in the morgue, Red suggests, they must have come from Santa himself. Yikes!

Some of the other little ditties I've used from Red's holiday catalog include "Faith in Santa" (young homeless boy dies in the arms of a street corner Santa Claus), "What Does Christmas Look Like?" (young girl blind from birth wonders what she's missing), and "Here It Is Christmas" (divorced man sobs as he writes his ex-wife on Christmas Eve). These songs all appear on his 1978 LP Christmas with Red Sovine, which was one of the last albums he ever recorded. Sovine's Christmas album reflects the direction his music had taken during the latter part of his career. After years of recording marginally popular country and western music, Sovine had finally found his niche in the mid-'70s with a series of maudlin spoken stories about truckers recorded over a depressing musical background. For example his biggest hit, "Teddy Bear," was about a disabled boy who'd lost his trucker father in an accident and spends his days listening to other truckers on the CB radio. (I just listened to it again, and, as always, it brought tears to my eyes.) Sovine himself died in a motor vehicle accident in 1980. Since then, his music has been widely parodied, for all the obvious reasons.

However, with the glow of the holidays still coloring my home and hearth, I've decided to post what seems to be a heartfelt tribute to Red and his music from a grateful trucker. Red's music was good company on his long drives, he says, and he was grateful to travel with someone who understood the life of someone like him. Here's Tom Lanbert with "A Trucker's Tribute to Red Sovine":

I've got one further Red Sovine story to share this evening — a back story about his hit song "Teddy Bear." This one wasn't merely a hit — it climbed to the top spot on the country music charts almost overnight, and, not surprisingly, Sovine's record company wanted him to milk the story by recording a couple of follow-up records. For whatever reason, Sovine was reluctant to do it, which led a couple of his songwriting pals to write a song called "Teddy Bear's Last Ride," in which young Teddy Bear is killed off. Once he's dead, his pals explained, nobody can pressure you to record any follow-ups. Sovine refused to have anything to do with the song, but it was recorded by a woman named Diana Williams, and to Red's dismay it started to climb the charts. Well, Sovine quickly recorded a song of his own called "Little Joe," in which the real Teddy Bear is not only still alive, but had regained the ability to walk. Sovine's follow-up effectively knocked Diana Williams out of the game, and ended the Teddy Bear saga on a somewhat happier note. Of course, this is a Red Sovine record, so before it ends the narrator loses his sight in a highway accident. If only Red were still around, maybe he could hook that former trucker up with the blind girl from "What Does Christmas Look Like?" Just a thought.

POSTSCRIPT (12.30.14):  Looks like the "Teddy Bear" saga continued even after the release of "Little Joe." Some time later, a guy named John Texas Rocker released a song called "Teddy Bear's Epitaph," in which we learn that the poor little former cripple must have suffered another setback because he's now in heaven using God's CB to keep in touch with his gear-jammer buddies on Earth. There's a scratchy old version of this final monstrosity on WFMU's Beware of the Blog site HERE. As that post notes, this news may help explain what was going on in another of Red Sovine's hits, "Phantom 309." Or not.

Photos of Wartime Christmas Celebrations Underscore the Power of the Holiday

While poking around on the internet this evening, I stumbled on a series of vintage photos of military personnel celebrating Christmas on the front lines during a number of 20th century conflicts. The photographs are stunning, primarily because of the hope and kindness in the faces and eyes of the people depicted. It's surely a testament to the power of the holiday that it can bring some small measure of peace and goodwill to good people even under such appallingly difficult circumstances.

World War I | 1917: Young servicemen bring mistletoe to a London YMCA center preparing for Christmas celebrations in honor of American troops stationed there. | (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
World War II | 1939: A member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service in Britain kisses a soldier under a sprig of mistletoe. | (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

World War II | 1940: A group of soldiers break from clearing London’s air raid sites to have some Christmas pudding. | (William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Korean War | 1954: U.S. troops pass out Christmas gifts and letters sent from home. | (Bettmann/CORBIS)

Vietnam War | 1970: Pfc. James Heckman, 20, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, reads a letter attached to the Christmas present he received while stationed in Con Thein, Vietnam. | (Bettmann/CORBIS)

Thanks to THE WEEK.  See more HERE.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Here's A Brand New New Year's Mix to Help Usher in 2015

In addition to my annual holiday mixes, I've put together several special bonus mixes over the years that are built around a particular theme or style. Two of these special mixes focus on New Year's Eve Happy New Year (2008) and Ringin' In a Brand New Year (2012) — and this morning, I added a third, We Know What You Did Last New Year's Eve. Like its predecessors, my latest New Year's mix celebrates the fun and frolic of New Year's Eve with a number of upbeat party tracks. But the overall tone of this latest mix is a bit more contemplative and thoughtful. We Know What You Did Last New Year's Eve features music from Bing Crosby, Judy Garland and Peggy Lee, as well as songs by Graham Parker, First Aid Kit, The Go Find and David Gray. I'll be posting this mix shortly on my holiday website, along with a track list, printable jewel case inserts and disc labels. In the meantime, you can hear it right now (along with all of my other mixes) by way of the links below or by visiting my new Mixcloud profile page. I hope you enjoy these various New Year's mixes and that the new year brings all good things.

Listen to We Know What You Did Last New Year's Eve on Mixcloud

Listen to Happy New Year (2007) on Mixcloud

Listen to Ringin' In a Brand New Year (2012) on Mixcloud

Check Out My Other Special Bonus Mixes

SNL Saturday Holiday Flashback #5

Every Saturday throughout December, we've been featuring holiday flashbacks from NBC's Saturday Night Live in honor of this festive season and SNL's 40th anniversary. For our final clip, Steve Martin is back to introduce one of his true classics, "Steve Martin's Christmas Wish": 


Thanks for checking out our SNL Saturday Holiday Flashbacks!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Bing Crosby Rediscovered on PBS Tonight

Sorry for the late notice on this, but many PBS stations will be rebroadcasting the documentary Bing Crosby Rediscovered from its American Masters series at 9 pm this evening. It's an interesting piece that reveals Crosby's talents and flaws with what appears to be genuine objectivity:

Missed the broadcast? This one's readily available from various retail outlets and many public libraries, and since it's from PBS, it's a safe bet we'll be seeing it on the air again sometime soon.

Speaking of "The Bing," here's an interesting little number by The Jive Aces that's apparently a parody of the Meghan Trainor song "All About that Bass," called "It's All About the Bing":

Thanks to Stubby's House of Christmas for reporting on this one.

Read the TIME Magazine piece "Bing Christmas: 'Tis the Season to Be Crosby"

Read the People Magazine piece: "Why Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas' Is the Best Holiday Song Ever"

Here's a Post-Christmas Mess for Boxing Day: Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny

Ah, yes, it's the day after Christmas, which has to rank up there among the most emotionally confusing days of the year. On the one hand, there's the afterglow that follows what was hopefully a wonderful holiday; but, on the other, there's the need to clean-up all the mess and deal with the costs of the whole enterprise, not to mention the sad reality that the "days until Christmas" clock has been reset and we've got 365 days until next Christmas. The British have long celebrated the 26th of December as Boxing Day, which provides many folks with an extra day off from work. It's a custom I heartily applaud. The name comes from the traditional practice whereby families of means would box-up those things they no longer needed and give them to the less fortunate to make room for new gifts they'd received. I have no idea whether this practice is currently observed, but I hope it is. At the very least, everyone gets an extra day off of work, which makes good sense, especially when, as is the case this year, there would otherwise be a single working day between Christmas and the weekend.

In 2012, I seized on Boxing Day as an excuse to share a perfectly dreadful film from Mexico called Santa Claus. Effective today, I'd like to launch a new Boxing Day Tradition, such that every December 26 from now on we'll post another monstrously bad holiday-related movie to take our collective minds off how much we overspent, overate and/or overindulged this season. This year's feature isn't just a Christmas film, but a two-holiday blast of ill wind called Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. If you watched any of the Santa Claus movie I posted two years ago, this one, believe it or not, is worse!

This is actually a movie within a movie, as the Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny storylines are featured on either side of a lengthy separate story that seems to have little to do with the footage that precedes and follows it. The story in the middle has something to do with Thumbelina. It starts at 20:46 and ends at 1:23:03, and, as several others have pointed out, has production values that are slightly higher than the holiday-related nightmare on either side.

With that as introduction, let's all take a look at this year's Boxing Day Holiday Horror Show: Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny:

(NOTE: The full unedited version of the movie that I originally posted from YouTube has subsequently been removed from the YouTube site. The best replacement I've been able to locate so far is the above version from the "Too Much Free Time Productions" website, which adds a track of snarky comedy to the film, some of which may be inappropriate for younger and more impressionable viewers. Of course, the film itself is inappropriate for nearly everyone with a working mind, so what the heck. Enjoy!)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

German Voices Singing "Silent Night" Sparked the Storied Christmas Truce of 1914

Exactly one hundred years ago tonight, as the atrocities we know today as the First World War were just beginning to unfold, the uneasy quiet of the bitterly cold front line was broken by the faint sound of a Christmas carol from a foxhole on the German side:

Stille Nacht,
Heil'ge Nacht.
Alles schläft, einsam wacht
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
Holder Knab' im lockigen Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh . . .

The singing slowly grew louder with each familiar line, until  — softly at first, but then with growing assurance  — English voices could be heard joining in:

Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace . . .

The beautiful notes of "Silent Night" kicked-off the Christmas Truce of 1914, which has to rank among the most unusual and uplifting events in the history of modern warfare. As troops on both sides of the line continued to sing Christmas carols, some personnel lit candles and posted makeshift decorations on the edges of their icy foxholes. Others stuck their heads above ground and shouted Christmas greetings. Within a matter of minutes, German, French, English and Belgian soldiers were actually climbing above ground and extending their hands to the enemy. In time, as many as 100,000 soldiers up and down the battle front lay down their arms to share greetings, provisions, cigarettes and laughter with those they'd been trying to kill just hours before. Some soldiers used the time to retrieve their fallen comrades whose bodies lay on the enemy side. Others engaged in projects above ground, or gave letters and packages to the other side so they could be delivered to loved ones. There are even reports of friendly football games between German and Allied personnel.

Sadly, of course, the truce did not last long. Leaders on both sides sent word that fraternizing with the enemy would not be tolerated. Fighting resumed in some areas on the day after Christmas. By New Year's Day, there were few observable signs that the truce had ever taken place at all. But one can't help but wonder how difficult it must have been for the men who were actually doing the killing to shoot at those they'd been singing with such a short time before. One hundred years later, the Christmas Truce remains a powerful testament to man's innate humanity, and our thirst for peace.

Listen to the song "WWI Christmas Day 1914," by Mickey MacConnell

Watch Nuala Kennedy's Music Video, "Christmas in the Trenches"

Watch the BBC Documentary "Peace in No Man's Land"

Watch the History Channel Documentary "The Christmas Truce"

Is There Really a Santa Claus, Part 15

Well, it's another Christmas Eve, and time now to share some random thoughts about the final two songs on my latest holiday mix, Is There Really a Santa Claus?  The mix is available on my holiday music website, which is called (imaginatively enough) Mark's Holiday Mix CDs. In previous years, I've left the mix up through New Year's Eve, and I'll certainly plan to do that again this year. In fact, I'll probably leave it up even longer for anyone who's interested. Keep in mind that my previous mixes are currently available on the Archive page of my website, with the first 10-12 minutes of each mix also available on the Samples page.*  For anyone who wants to have a downloadable copy of this year's complete mix, by the way, click on the album cover near the top right of the website's Latest page. OK, then, with all that out of the way, on to the final two tracks:

Track 39
Oh, Come, Oh, Come Emanuel, by Boyz II Men (2005)
Boyz II Men, circa 1991
I really fell for this song after hearing it performed by the Front Range Christian School Advanced Band, and it occurred to me that the version I've been holding onto by Boyz II Men for the past few years might be a good song with which to end this year's mix. I first heard of Boyz II Men back in the Spring of 1991 when they released their first single, "Motownphilly," which I loved (and still do). The members of the group met and started singing together at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. In 1989, they managed to snag the attention of Michael Bivens, the former New Edition member who'd moved on to co-found Bell Biv Devoe and was looking for new talent to promote. Impressed by their style as well as their musical abilities, Bivens agreed to manage the group, and worked with Dallas Austin to produce their first album, Cooleyhighharmony, which became a big hit and spawned three other hit singles in addition to "Motownphilly" — "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," "Uhh Ahh," and "End of the Road." These three songs, each a slow ballad, came to define the group's principal style going forward. That style proved to be extremely successful, but it lacked the energy and kick that marked "MotownPhilly," and I quickly lost interest in the group, even as they became one of the most successful acts of the day.

These guys must like Christmas, as they've released two full albums of holiday songs. The first was the follow-up to Cooleyhighharmony, titled Christmas Interpretations. I can't think of another group offhand that released a holiday album as their sophomore release. "Oh, Come, Oh, Come Emanuel" appears on their second Christmas album, Winter/Reflections, which was apparently only released in Japan in 2005. Both of their holiday releases are good, although neither breaks any new ground.

I should note that Boyz II Men adopt a different form of the song's title than the Front Range Christian School Advance Band. Boyz II Men use more commas in their version and spell Emanuel with one "m" ("Oh, Come. Oh, Come Emanuel"). The Front Range version omits commas altogether and adds a second "m" ("Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel"). I have no idea which version is correct (if either is), so I decided to use each group's version in connection with its respective track.

Listen to the Oh Hellos' magnificent version of the song, which is presented as Mvmt. 1 of their Family Christmas Album (Rejoice! Rejoice!), below:

Track 38
The Christmas Song, by the Cast of "30 Rock," featuring Elaine Stritch (2008)

I've never been a big fan of show tunes or Broadway musicals; it's not that I especially dislike them — and there have been several (Rent, in particular) that I've truly enjoyed — it's just not been my scene. But I've always been keen on Elaine Stritch, who struck me as one hell of a dame. I first took notice of her maybe 25 years ago during one of the many pledge weeks for our local public television station, WGBH (Channel 2) in Boston. I loved Channel 2 growing up. One of the kids on our block (Tracy) was on the popular kids' show Zoom!, and the Channel 2 Auction in June was always a signal that summer had arrived. Anyway, during that one pledge week, the station was giving away a tribute to Stephen Sondheim and aired a clip of Stritch singing her signature song "Ladies Who Lunch" to promote the deal. It blew me away. She looked to be about 102 years old at the time, but her voice was amazingly strong and she sang with a level of emotion and feeling that simply impressed the hell out of me. That song was from Sondheim's 1970 show Company, in which Stritch played Joanne, a cynical, outspoken older woman who drank too much. From all accounts, she was well-suited for the part.

Raised in suburban Detroit, Stritch's parents were extremely comfortable and devoutly Catholic. Her uncle was the Archbishop of Chicago. She took her first drink at 14 and quickly developed a taste for the stuff, and, with it, a passion for performing. After graduating parochial school, she left for New York and began the customary long, hard slog toward stardom. For Stritch, however, things moved relatively quickly. Tapped as Ethel Merman's understudy in Call Me Madam, she assumed Merman's role in the touring company version of the show after first playing a key role in Pal Joey. In 1961, she was selected for a part in the Noel Coward musical Sail Away, and quickly stole the show. In fact, Coward was so impressed that he wrote the other female lead out of the play altogether and combined her part with Stritch's.

After playing Joanne in Company, Stritch moved to London, where she married John Bay, the heir to the Bay's English Muffins fortune. She appeared in films and on the British television show Two's Company during the 1970s, returning to the United States following Bay's death from cancer in 1982. Stritch's drinking became a noticeable impediment to her career after returning to New York, but she started working again regularly after acknowledging and seeking treatment for her alcoholism. In 2001, Stritch mounted a successful one-woman show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, which won a Tony for Best Special Theatrical Event. In its review of the show, Newsweek offered that it
is in a class by itself, a biting, hilarious and even touching tour-de-force tour of Stritch's career and life. Almost every nook and cranny of "At Liberty" holds a surprise. Turns out she dated Marlon Brando, Gig Young and Ben Gazzara, though she dropped Ben when Rock Hudson showed an interest in her. "And we all know what a bum decision that turned out to be," she says. And then there were the shows. A British writer recently called Stritch "Broadway's last first lady", and when you see her performing her signature numbers from Company and Pal Joey and hear her tell tales of working with Merman, Coward, Gloria Swanson and the rest, it's hard to argue. Especially since she does it all dressed in a long white shirt and form-fitting black tights. It's both a metaphor for her soul-baring musical and a sartorial kiss-my-rear gesture to anyone who thinks there isn't some life left in the 76-year-old diva. "Somebody said to me the other day, 'Is this the last thing you're going to do?'," says Stritch. "In your dreams! I can't wait to get back into an Yves Saint Laurent costume that isn't mine – but [that] will be when the show is over." 
Marc Peyser, “A Stritch in Time,” Newsweek (February 11, 2002).

Stritch continued to act on stage for another decade after At Liberty — for example, succeeding Angela Lansbury in the revival of Sondheim's A Little Night Music. She won three Emmys for her television work during this period, most notably for her role as Colleen Donaghy, the mother of the character played by Alec Baldwin on the hit NBC series 30 Rock. She also performed cabaret at the Carlyle Hotel in New York, where she lived until relocating to Michigan in 2013 to live with family. She died on July 17, 2014 at the age of 89.

I wasn't able to find much in the way of Stritch performing Christmas-related material, but she did shoot two very funny Christmas episodes of 30 Rock and joined Jane Krakowski and Alec Baldwin for a sweet version of The Christmas Song, from which I've added Stritch's part. You should be able to hear the whole song HERE.

Fortunately for Stritch's fans, there is ample evidence of her talent readily available online and elsewhere. I've collected just a few samples, below, that you may enjoy. The first is a clip of Stritch performing the Sondheim classic "I'm Still Here" at the White House in 2010. Her diabetes was beginning to affect her memory by this point, and she seemed very embarrassed to have missed a couple of lines at one point, but I thought she covered pretty well and her presence throughout was just as charismatic as ever (that's Justice John Paul Stevens sitting to the President's left, who had just retired from the Supreme Court at the age of 91):

Here is a film version of Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, her terrific one-woman show, which I offer with a warning — start watching it and you may find it hard to break away:

Here's a classic look at Stritch's efforts at recording "Ladies Who Lunch" for the soundtrack of Company, which, after a frustrating series of attempts she finally nails:

Finally, I couldn't resist posting the following cartoon parody, which I trust was made with love and respect:

Well, that's it for this year's mix — and not a moment too soon. Santa has already taken to the skies to begin his long night of work, and I'm hoping he can find a way to sprinkle a little love, compassion and empathy over our heads this year in addition to the toys and gifts I know he has. Those qualities are in woefully short supply.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Snoopy's Christmas Mission

One of my favorite Christmas songs as a kid was "Snoopy's Christmas," released by The Royal Guardsmen in 1967 as a follow-up to their earlier song "Snoopy vs. The Red Baron." I remember it wasn't played too often on the radio even in the 1970s, so it was always a treat to hear it. I happened to see the following video version on YouTube yesterday that someone made for her mother because it was her mother's favorite holiday song. It's a very professional job, and it speaks to the meaning of Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Is There Really a Santa Claus, Part 14

I started this blog in 2011 for the primary purpose of providing some further background information about the various tracks I include on my annual holiday mixes. My latest mix is called Is There Really a Santa Claus, and over the past several weeks I've been posting comments on its 39 tracks. We've now run through Tracks 1-35, which leaves only four more to consider. We'll do two of those today, both of which are among the nine tracks I selected in honor of nine talented individuals who passed away in 2014.

Track 37
Amazing Peace, by Maya Angelou (2005)
I've known of Maya Angelou as a respected poet, author and civil rights activist for 25 years or more, and throughout that period I've considered her to be a talented and accomplished woman who's lived an extraordinary life. But I have to admit that until today, when I read about her life for the purpose of writing this post, I had no idea just how incredible her life truly was. Born to a poor Missouri family in 1928, Angelou had a difficult and traumatic childhood. At the age of eight, she was brutally raped by her mother's boyfriend, and after she reported what had happened, the boyfriend was apparently killed by members of her family. The trauma of these events had a powerful effect on Angelou, who retreated inward and literally became mute for several years. It was during this period that she developed her love for poetry and literature, which were her principal companions.

At age 17, Angelou settled in the San Francisco area, took a job as a streetcar conductor and bore a child out of wedlock. She subsequently studied modern dance, and, beginning in 1954, began to dance professionally. In 1954 and 1955, she toured Europe with a company of Porgy And Bess, after which she recorded an album of calypso music and appeared in an off-Broadway musical review. In the late 1950s, Angelou began to focus more on her writing, joining the Harlem Writers Guild and networking with other writers. After organizing a successful fundraising event for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1960, she was appointed SCLC's northern coordinator. In 1961, she traveled to Ghana, where she worked on an English-language newspaper and as academic administrator. She became a good friend of both Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and helped to build the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Following King's murder, she wrote, produced an narrated a ten-part series on blues music and the African-American experience.

In 1969, Angelou published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first in a series of widely acclaimed autobiographical books she wrote. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, she continued to write, teach and lecture, receiving over 30 honorary degrees as a result of her increasing body of work. In 1993, Angelou received wide notice for her poem "On the Pulse of Morning," which she read at the Inauguration of President Bill Clinton.

The clip I selected for this year's mix features Angelou's reading of an excerpt from her poem "Amazing Peace" on NBC's Today Show with Katie Couric. She wrote the poem for the 2005 White House Tree Lighting ceremony, where she first read in publicly. The poem was later published as a short chapbook by Random House. Here is the poem itself, followed by a clip of her 2005 appearance on Today:

Amazing Peace
Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.
Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.
We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?
Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.
It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.
Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.
We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.
We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.
It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth's tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.
We, Angels and Mortal's, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.
Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.

― Maya Angelou

Track 36
Snow, Snow, by Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger was a folk singer, songwriter and political activist whose progressive views and commitment to justice left a permanent impression on American society, largely by way of the succeeding generations of schoolchildren who learned and sang his songs as they came of age during the second half of the 20h century. We sang "If I Had a Hammer" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" around the campfire at night at every summer camp I ever attended. In the fifth grade, I can remember my teacher, Miss Richards, gathering the class around a phonograph to listen to The Byrds sing another Seeger song, "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and using the lyrics as jumping off point for a discussion about the War in Vietnam. Seeger believed in the interconnectedness of things, and he rarely missed an opportunity to get people thinking and promote his world view even as he entertained them.

He was raised in a family of musicians and activists, and his father, who taught music at the college level, was especially interested in American folk music. Seeger traveled with his father and brothers through many parts of the South and the Plains states to perform and collect traditional folk songs. For a time, he worked with his father's friend Alan Lomax in the Library of Congress cataloging the large collection of field recordings that sought to capture the largely unwritten music of the American countryside. In 1941, Seeger began to perform with the Almanac Singers, a group of politically active folk singers that included Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston. The Almanacs raised a few eyebrows with their position against American involvement in World War II, although they changed their position after Hitler broke his non-aggression pact with Stalin and Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Seeger joined the Communist Party around this same time, although he did not remain a member for long and he openly rejected communism as it was practiced in the Soviet Union.

After serving in World War II, Seeger and several of the other Almanac Singers formed a new group called The Weavers, who scored several big hits in the early 1950s including "Goodnight, Irene" and "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena." Although the Weavers tried to moderate their political activity in the face of growing public fear of the left, Seeger's history with the Communist Party resulted in his being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he refused to answer questions based on the First Amendment. Held in contempt of Congress, Seeger was blacklisted and denied most opportunities to work, just as his music was really beginning to catch on.

In the mid-1960s, when folk music became all the rage and the paranoia of the McCarthy era had finally faded, interest in Seeger's music began to increase. There were more opportunities to work, and coverage of his career became more positive again. In fact, for the balance of his life, Seeger remained very active both politically and musically — right up until his death this past January, at the age of 94.

“He was a very gentle man and intensely optimistic,” British singer and activist Billy Bragg recently told the BBC. "He believed in humanity and the power of music to make a difference, not to change to the world."

The song I chose for this year's mix is a beautiful if less prominent number in the Seeger songbook called "Snow, Snow." It's a sad, wistful sort of song that could be interpreted as speaking about death, which, like a heavy snow, erases most of the defining characteristics and individual features of those it affects:
Snow, Snow
[Chorus (after each verse):]
Snow, snow, falling down;
Covering up my dirty old town.

Covers the garbage dump, covers the holes,
Covers the rich homes, and the poor souls,
Covers the station, covers the tracks,
Covers the footsteps of those who'll not be back.

Under the street lamp, there stands a girl,
Looks like she's not got a friend in this world.
Look at the big flakes come drifting down,
Twisting and turning, round and round.

Covers the mailbox, the farm and the plow.
Even barbed wire seems - beautiful now.
Covers the station, covers the tracks.
Covers the footsteps of those who'll not be back.
— Pete Seeger 

I'll be back tomorrow or the next day with the two remaining songs from this year's mix — a return appearance for a song that's already appeared somewhere among the first 37 tracks, albeit by another artist, and an excerpt from a Christmas classic sung on TV by a legendary woman of the stage.

A Comforting Christmas Message from President Kennedy

Comforting words from a great man during a challenging and frightening time:

The older I get and the more I see, the more I understand just how much this world lost on November 22, 1963.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Vermont Duo Beard & Glasses Serves Up Grandma's Sad Story with a Fresh Sound

Vermont Duo Beard & Glasses
Vermont duo Beard & Glasses, otherwise known as Matt Scott and Sam Clement, seem to have been very busy lately. On the heels of their excellent 2013 holiday EP Tinsel Babies, Beard & Glasses has just released their unique take on that venerable classic "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" as a Christmas single. What's more, they've got another album due out any day now, too. I guess with the cold and snow that seem to have pummeled New England this Fall, there isn't a whole lot to do in the Green Mountain State nowadays aside from staying indoors and being productive.

If the new single is any indication, I'd say the forthcoming album should be a lot of fun. I've never really been too high on "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" myself. Frankly, it's always struck me as the kind of track you need to be high in order to enjoy. But the Beard & Glasses version — what Scott calls "a Country Mariachi Vaudevillian interpretation" — is another thing indeed. It's fun and fresh and well worth a listen.

These guys are proof positive that Vermont has more to offer than fabulous ice cream, beautiful foliage and sensible politics. Enjoy!

Is There Really a Santa Claus, Part 13

Don't give up yet, friends, because we're now in the home stretch for sure. Counting the two tracks discussed in today's post, we've completed our look at 35 of the 39 tracks on my latest holiday mix, which leaves only four left to review. So let's get on with it!

Track 35
That's What I Want for Christmas, by Shirley Temple (1936)
I was slightly taken aback this past February when I learned that Shirley Temple Black had just died. Frankly, I was surprised she was still among us, as she’d been a well-known celebrity for far longer than nearly any of us can remember. She was fortunate to have lived a long life (85 years), but more importantly, she seems to have lived it to the fullest, from worldwide stardom as a young film actress to her distinguished diplomatic service more recently, including appointments as our nation’s ambassador to Ghana and, during its inspiring Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovakia.

Born in Santa Monica, California in 1928, Temple played her first film role when she was only three. Her mother apparently had dreams of making her daughter a star, and she worked to encourage Shirley's acting, singing and dancing talents. Temple's first roles came in a series of horrific exploitation films in which young children portrayed adults for humorous effect, but in 1933, Fox signed her to appear in Stand Up and Cheer, which was a big hit — and she was off. The nation was still deep in the grips of the Great Depression when Temple first became a star, and she quickly captured the hearts of millions of frightened and weary moviegoers who looked to her for a little relief from the grim news of the day. In the eight years from 1934-42, Temple made 27 films, most of which were box office smash hits and many of which are widely considered to be classics today.

By the 1940s, however, Temple's star had begun to lose at least some of its lustre, and she reduced her work schedule substantially to focus on making a family for herself. Her first marriage to John Agar produced a child but lasted only five years. Her second, to Charles Alden Black, a wealthy and distinguished war hero and business executive, lasted until his death in 2006.

In the late 1960s, Temple, known then as Shirley Temple Black, became increasingly active in politics. She ran for Congress as a Republican but was defeated in the primary by Pete McCloskey, a law professor and staunch opponent of American involvement in Vietnam. Gerald Ford appointed Black as the U.S. ambassador to Ghana in 1974, and under George H.W. Bush, she served as our nation's ambassador to Czechoslovakia. In that position, she played a key role in supporting the overthrow of Soviet control and provided support and assistance with the creation of the new Czech Republic.

"That's What I Want for Christmas" was featured in the 1936 film Stowaway, which also starred Robert Young, Alice Faye and Arthur Treacher.Temple plays a young schoolgirl who's orphaned in China and then becomes in inadvertent stowaway on a ship returning to the United States. You can watch the entire film below:

Finally, you can watch Shirley enjoying Christmas in the following collection of scenes from four different films: BrightEyes (1934), Stowaway (1936), Heidi (1937) and The Bluebird (1940):

Track 34
Sweeney Sisters Holiday Medley, Cast of Saturday Night Live, featuring Jan Hooks (1986)
I've been watching Saturday Night Live (SNL) for as far back as I can remember, so I've probably seen hundreds if not thousands of the show's iconic sketches over the years — good, bad and ugly. If I had to name my single favorite recurring SNL sketch ever, it would have to be the irrepressible if somewhat tacky big-haired lounge act known as the Sweeney Sisters, starring Nora Dunn and the late Jan Hooks as singers Liz and Candy Sweeney. The Sweeneys made their first appearance on SNL in October 1986, and they returned seven more times to charm us with their bubbly personalities, vapid smiles and charming medleys. I don't know what it was about those two, but I could watch them a hundred times and not grow tired of them.

According to Dunn,
[i]t was Jan Hooks who came up with the idea for the Sweeney Sisters. On the spot while we were shooting a commercial parody for Saturday Night Live. It came like a minor explosion, as most of her ideas did, and she delivered the concept and our names in a matter of seconds. Then she started belting out medleys of classic swing songs. There was no way I could keep up with her. She was a seasoned improvisor who never credited herself as a writer and at the heart of her matter she was a genuine actress.

Candy and Liz Sweeney in their milieu
A Georgia native, Hooks broke into show business as a member of the Los Angeles comedy troupe called The Groundlings. She first auditioned for SNL in 1985, but was passed over for the show. When the show tanked during its 1985-86 season, however, NBC brought back former producer Lorne Michaels who set about to rebuild the cast practically from scratch. Hooks was among the group of new additions Michaels recruited to help rebuild the show, including Dunn, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz and Dennis Miller. Many consider that group to be the strongest cast in the show's history, and Hooks certainly added some incredible firepower to the team. In addition to Candy Sweeney, Hooks also played such characters as Nancy Reagan, Sinéad O'Connor, Tammy Faye Bakker, Kitty Dukakis, and Diane Sawyer, among others. Hooks left SNL in 1991 to join the cast of Designing Women, and she appeared on NBC's Third Rock from the Sun and in a number of films.

Hooks was a wonderful comedic actress, and she always made me laugh. She'll be missed.

Watch the Famous Sweeney Sisters' Holiday Medley with William Shatner

Hear an Audio Version of the Sweeney Sisters' SNL Debut

Only four tracks left to go, so we'll be back soon with more. Hope your preparations for the big day are proceeding apace!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Have You Heard the One About Cher and William Conrad Singing Christmas Carols?

As I've repeatedly pointed out, last night's final pre-Christmas Late Show with David Letterman marked the end of two longstanding holiday traditions. Darlene Love has been on-hand to sing her 1963 classic "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" for the past 28 years, while Jay Thomas has appeared nearly every year since 1998 to play the Quarterback Challenge and regale us with his famous "Lone Ranger Story," which Dave calls "the greatest talk show story ever told." With Letterman scheduled to retire next May, those traditions effectively ended with last night's show. But last night was also the swan song for another, less well-known tradition — Paul Shaffer's "Sonny and Cher (and Cannon)" Christmas story. Here's Paul on last night's Late Show describing what he remembers about the 1973 holiday episode of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour:

Well, now, this story intrigued me — first, because I'm a fan of bad 1970s television, and, second, because I like Cannon, the famous Quinn Martin detective show starring William Conrad.* (I know, I know. I'm being redundant.) If Conrad was on TV singing Christmas carols in the '70s, I want to see it. So, I went straight to YouTube where I quickly found the clip Shaffer described from a 41-year-old episode of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour:

All in all, I'd say that Shaffer's description was pretty much spot on. (Conrad saunters at about 1:10 to sing "The First Noel," and Cher, her hands in the famous muff, begins singing "Oh Holy Night" at around 2:50.) I'd never heard Shaffer's rendition before, and even if his telling of it is a genuine holiday tradition, it doesn't hold a candle to Thomas's and Love's longstanding regular appearances. In case you missed them, here are Jay Thomas and Darlene Love on last night's Late Show with David Letterman: 

How did Thomas feel about ending his traditional pre-Christmas appearances?  "I am so friggin' glad this is over," he deadpanned. Not me.

*Brave adult readers who are interested in a different perspective on William Conrad than what we saw on Cannon can listen to his X-rated rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" HERE.

SNL Saturday Holiday Flashback #4

Every Saturday from now through the end of the year, we're featuring holiday flashbacks from NBC's Saturday Night Live in honor of this festive season and SNL's 40th anniversary. This week, we've got two fun clips from the early 1990s, which may have been the heyday of introspection and self-help. The first is "A Dysfunctional Family Christmas," a holiday record parody from 1990 (see others, HERE), starring Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey:

And here is current U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota) in 1992 as Stuart Smalley, proving that with a few self-affirmation exercises and membership in half a dozen or more 12-step programs, everything really can be . . . Oh, KAY:

Be sure to check back next Saturday for one final holiday-themed clip from the vaults of Saturday Night Live, and watch SNL each Saturday at 11:30 pm on NBC. 

Comedy Flashback: A Colbert Christmas

This was a sad week of so-longs and goodbyes for fans of late-night television, as the effects of David Letterman's scheduled May 20, 2015 retirement began to play out. Last night, of course, was the final pre-Christmas Late Show with David Letterman, which featured the last in a long series of annual holiday appearances by Darlene Love and Jay Thomas. Last night was also the end of the road for the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, which had followed Letterman on CBS each weeknight since 2005. I only saw the show a handful of times, but I enjoyed it and I like and respect Ferguson a lot. He made an impressive decision several years ago to stop making jokes at the expense of celebrities facing genuine problems with substance abuse and mental illness, which strikes me as a very decent and principled stand. Ferguson himself has been sober for more than 20 years, and his candor about his own struggle with alcoholism has undoubtedly helped others who suffer from the disease. The opening of his final show was both sad and uplifting at the same time, though mostly the latter.

Finally, Thursday night was the final episode of Comedy Central's Colbert Report, hosted since 2005 by Stephen Colbert, who's leaving to prepare to succeed Letterman next year as host of the Late Show. In honor of Colbert's departure, we thought it might be fun to share a couple of excerpts from his Grammy Award-winning 2010 holiday special, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All. The first features the great Willie Nelson sharing the tale of "The Little Dealer Boy," which I don't ever remember learning as a child, do you?

And here's Colbert's duet with Elvis Costello, which offers some truly worthy sentiments:

A Colbert Christmas - Elvis Costello/Stephen Colbert Duet from AdamSchlesingerMusic on Vimeo.
Video, music, production and performance by Adam Schlesinger

Good luck to all the moving parties!