Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Great Songs You May Never Have Heard (5) Special Christmas Edition

You can't miss hearing "seasonal" music this time of year, especially on any contemporary music station (and I'm including CBC Radio 2 in this category). It used to be, I think, that Christmas music was something done by some artists, those who were already prone to doing special events songs (Elvis, for instance) those who were inclined to do so, usually by virtue of religious background (plenty of country artists), novelty acts (The Royal Guardsmen, natch) or those who had decided to make a statement (like Jethro Tull or Greg Lake - and argue as you will about the pretensions of these two, but I believe my point about trying to make a statement stands). And no, I'm not forgetting the Vince Guaraldi music for A Charlie Brown Christmas.

I'm not sure when the change happened. Was it Bruce Springsteen and his live version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"? Or maybe it was the success of the A Very Special Christmas and its sequels and offshoots, all of which gave radio programmers more fodder for the days (weeks, actually) leading up to Christmas.

Outside of this possible sequence, recording artists have done excellent Christmas music. I think now specifically of John Lennon with "Happy Xmas (War is Over)", of the Pogues with the late, great Kirsty McColl (more on her in a future posting in this series) doing "Fairytale of New York" (and yeah, that's Matt Dillon as the cop), and The Band with "Christmas Must be Tonight."

Beyond that, well, name your favorites. As programmers have cast about for more to play, we're hearing a lot more, although often we're hearing more recent acts doing versions of older faves, even if they're slavish copies. The Pogues and Kirsty McColl come close to being my favorite song of the season, but in the spirit of music snobs everywhere, I tend to not like something as much when it receives so much airplay, and when everyone else professes to like it so much.

Instead, the song that speaks the most to me is one I first heard performed live and solo in the middle of summer, by an Australian who is revered Down Under but, aside from those familiar with the folk fest circuit and a few other fans of music to be found in odd nooks and crannies, unknown on these shores. Paul Kelly is a singer/songwriter who may show up on this list again a little later. The stories he tells are marvelous, powerful pieces, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, always smart and precise. And I wonder: who else could write a Christmas song told as a letter written home by someone in jail? With cooking reminders, to boot. "How to Make Gravy" is that track, a deeply moving song that rises in emotion and even in temper as it proceeds, that with a sad economy of words tells you all you need to know about the man writing the letter. Enough to both feel sorry for him, and to worry not only about him but about his family on the day he finally gets out.

One final note. As I've been putting this together, I visited Paul Kelly's website for the first time in what is apparently a long time, and I find he has a book and CD box set and an iPad app, all titled How to Make Gravy. This is a thrilling, almost secret discovery, and I shall be partaking.

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