Other people’s songs: The Christmas Song


by Aaron Galbraith (in the USA) and Tony Attwood (in the UK)

(Note: a list of the other articles in this series is published at the end).

Aaron: It’s funny to think that most Christmas songs are written and recorded in summer, “I saw a spiral pad on his (Bob Wells’s) piano with four lines written in pencil”, Mel Tormé recalled. “They started, ‘Chestnuts roasting…, Jack Frost nipping…, Yuletide carols…, Folks dressed up like Eskimos.’ Bob didn’t think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter he could cool off. Forty minutes later that song was written. I wrote all the music and some of the lyrics.”

Nat King Cole recorded this song by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé three times, twice in 1946 and again in 1961. The 1961 version is generally regarded as definitive. In 2022, the recording was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Recording Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”   It is probably my favorite Christmas song.

Tony: He really did have an utterly astonishing and beautiful voice.  My dad (who rarely sang although he was a fine pianist and saxophonist) loved this song and this particular version.   So it is a recording I knew while living at home with my parents.

Aaron: Here is Bob’s version

Tony:  There’s a review of the 2009 album which says that “Dylan’s horse vocals had taken on a timbre so coarse that even the most fearsome Clint Eastwood character would tremble upon hearing him croon…. At times, it even seems like Dylan could’ve written ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ back in 1739 and was simply reanimated by a festive Dr Frankenstein to mark the 270th anniversary of the track….  Perhaps as Leonard Cohen once suggested, Dylan was merely trying, in his way, to be free, ala ‘Bird on the Wire’.”

I’ve always regarded it as Dylan singing the songs he learned in his childhood at Christmas.  And in a way I can understand that, as for many years every Christmas I would go to the house of some friends for a party on Christmas Eve and play Christmas songs on the piano and everyone would sing along.   The singing was pretty awful (and after a few drinks so was my piano playing) but it was also fun seeing everyone again.

Bob’s recordings by and large aren’t something that I would want to play, and I don’t actually have a copy of the album in any form at home.  But, apparently, all the proceeds in the USA went to “Feeding America” (which I am told – as being English I didn’t know – is the largest charity working to end hunger in the USA.)  So on that basis the whole project gets a very positive vote from me.

And so, having found that out I feel a bit better about the whole thing. Not that I am going  to have this song playing in my house this Christmas but I think I get it.

Aaron: As you can imagine there are literally thousands of covers of this song. So here are just two that I like.

First, Paul McCartney from 2012, recorded with Diana Krall

Tony: I was never a Beatles fan, but here again I am moved to say, the guy had a good voice, which perhaps I had never appreciated, not liking the band’s music very much.  Perhaps that is because no matter where I have lived I’ve always thought of myself as a Londoner (which is where I was born and brought up, and where I studied for my research degree).

What can I say of this?  It’s gentle, it’s sweet, how can I object to it?   I won’t be seeing my youngest grandchild this Christmas (she lives with her father and my daughter in Australia) but yes if I were there and she had woken in the night I can imagine I might have ended up holding her in my arms and singing this to her.  It probably wouldn’t have put her back to sleep, but in my dreams it would.

Aaron: The Monkees from the album ‘Christmas Party’ (2018)

Tony: If I didn’t care much for the Beatles, then I certainly cared even less for the Monkees in my youth.   I think I’ve had enough of this song by now, and to my utter amazement if I had to say which version was best out of this lot I’d got for McCartney, which is not something I think I have ever said before.  The Monkees is the worst one for me.

So, Bob wanted to sing the songs he remembered from his youth.  Nothing wrong with that, and I hope it raised a lot of money.   Can I listen to something else now?

Previously in this series…

  1. Other people’s songs. How Dylan covers the work of other composers
  2. Other People’s songs: Bob and others perform “Froggie went a courtin”
  3. Other people’s songs: They killed him
  4. Other people’s songs: Frankie & Albert
  5. Other people’s songs: Tomorrow Night where the music is always everything
  6. Other people’s songs: from Stack a Lee to Stagger Lee and Hugh Laurie
  7. Other people’s songs: Love Henry
  8. Other people’s songs: Rank Stranger To Me
  9. Other people’s songs: Man of Constant Sorrow
  10. Other people’s songs: Satisfied Mind
  11. Other people’s songs: See that my grave is kept clean
  12. Other people’s songs: Precious moments and some extras
  13. Other people’s songs: You go to my head
  14. Other people’s songs: What’ll I do?
  15. Other people’s songs: Copper Kettle
  16. Other people’s songs: Belle Isle
  17. Other people’s songs: Fixing to Die
  18. Other people’s songs: When did you leave heaven?
  19. Other people’s songs: Sally Sue Brown
  20. Other people’s songs: Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street
  21. Other people’s songs: Step it up and Go
  22. Other people’s songs: Canadee-I-O
  23. Other people’s songs: Arthur McBride
  24. Other people’s songs: Little Sadie
  25. Other people’s songs: Blue Moon, and North London Forever
  26. Other people’s songs: Hard times come again no more
  27. Other people’s songs: You’re no good
  28. Other people’s songs: Lone Pilgrim (and more Crooked Still)
  29. Other people’s songs: Blood in my eyes
  30. Other people’s songs: I forgot more than you’ll ever know
  31.  Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  32. Other people’s songs: Highway 51
  33. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  34. Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  35. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  36. Other people’s songs: Highway 51 Blues
  37. Other people’s songs: Freight Train Blues
  38. Other People’s Songs: The Little Drummer Boy

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