Saturday, December 18, 2010

`Distant Courtesies and Formal Salutations'

On Thursday it was the school choir accompanied by synthesizer performing eleven “holiday” songs, not one of which employed the word “Christmas.” The playlist was dominated by relentlessly up-tempo numbers, “My Favorite Things” among them, though not the Coltrane arrangement. On Friday, twenty band members – clarinets, trumpets, flutes, trombone – filled the halls with similarly Christmas-free “holiday” songs, though they worked in “Jingle Bells.” Charles Lamb, that happy writer, would have been appalled. In “A Few Words on Christmas,” an essay he published in The London Magazine in December 1822, Lamb writes:

“One mark and sign of Christmas is the music; rude enough, indeed, but generally gay, and speaking eloquently of the season.”

Eloquence is the last thing on the minds of Christmas censors. The phrase "safe as milk" comes to mind, thin fat-free stuff with little value as sustenance. One need not number among the faithful to feel gypped. The censors not only deny us “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” they substitute deracinated inspiration, offending only those who love music and Christmas.

The musical news grew even grimmer Friday when my oldest son told me of Captain Beefheart’s death at age sixty-nine. I remember listening to Trout Mask Replica for the first time, in 1969, when a high-school friend played it on the stereo in his bedroom. This was weirdness I could understand. Here’s a favorite Beefheart lyric, from “Steal Softly Thru Snow,” from that album:

“Steal softly thru sunshine,
Steal softly thru snow.
The wild goose flies from winter,
Breaks my heart that I can’t go.”

Imagine a Christmas celebration on which Lamb and Beefheart collaborated. In Lamb’s words:

"Oh! merry piping time of Christmas! Never let us permit thee to degenerate into distant courtesies and formal salutations. But let us shake our friends and familiars by the hand, as our fathers and their fathers did. Let them all come around us, and let us count how many the year has added to our circle. Let us enjoy the present, and laugh at the past. Let us tell old stories and invent new ones--innocent always, and ingenious if we can. Let us not meet to abuse the world, but to make it better by our individual example. Let us be patriots, but not men of party. Let us look of the time--cheerful and generous, and endeavour to make others as generous and cheerful as ourselves.”


Jonathan said...

Well said.

On Tuesday we were treated to future Christmas classics such as "I Don't Think I Can Make it Through the Winter", "Snorkeling Santa", "Surfing Santa" and "Limbo Santa Limbo".

We also learned that Christmas is "all about giving" and, bizarrely enough, fair labour practices.

William A. Sigler said...

"And that pantalooned duck
white goose neck
quacked, ‘Webcor, Webcor.’"

Thanks for the news. Captain Beefheart was an interesting case, specializing in the elements of Delta blues mere rock’n’rollers evaded: the mud that won’t come out, the rhythms that can’t conform to meters, the obsessive dissonant digging deeper into the wound than blue sadness could produce. One just knows that a young Son House or Lightnin’Hopkins would if they could make like van Vliet did on “Clear Spot” and run with three slide guitars.

Ah, but that was a different age. Painters were not yet millionaires. The diversity police had yet to be given badges. I’ll never forget a few years ago we did a nice little holiday banner showing a sled with wrapped-up presents on top that was pulled by the nervous Southern corporation because it got a little too close to Christmas.

Joe Keller said...

Please don't blame us Druids--I love Christmas songs, no matter your theft of the solstice!

By the way, Mr. Shane Macgowan, the author of a truly great modern Christmas song, returns to magnificent vocal command with this year's performance with The Priests on "The Little Drummer Boy". Really, he sounds as good as "Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash" era Pogues.

Helen Trimpi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Helen Trimpi said...

Three comments:
1) As a child at Hawthorne public school in the mining town of Butte, MT, in the mid-1930s, I remember that we all memorized and sang in unison the traditional Christmas carols, including "Silent Night," Away in a Manger," "We Three Kings," "Hark the Herald Angels," "Adeste Fideles" (my first brush with Latin) etc. Butte was for its size probably the most multi-ethnic city in the country. Three of my classmates were daughters of Immigrant Korean farmers. Yet every child learned these songs with no objections being made. And in our annual all-school Christmas pageant even my usually obstreperous brother calmed down to play one of the Magi, while I remember being a Shepherd.
2) This season, our classical radio station, originating in Berkeley (!), began playing traditional Christmas music right after Thanksgiving, ranging from Medieval carols, through the great composers of the 17th to 19th centuries. Not a single "Jingle Bells" or "Rudolph" to be heard.
3) George Weigel writes of John Paul II about three months before his death: "He enjoyed Christmas as he always did, singing Polish Christmas carols over the phone with his old Srodowisko kayaking companions, who had gathered around a phone in Krakow for this annual rite."