By Gillian Atkinson
A Christmas music playlist is a feature of modern life and we have â¨thousands of festive tracks to choose from. It seems it is in our blood to enjoy music connected to a winter festival.
We can trace the â¨development of ‘Christmas musicâ’ back to the 4th Century when St.â¨Hilary of Poitiers composed the Latin carol âJesus refulsitâ¨omniumâ (âJesus illuminates allâ).
Christmas sheet music has been with us for centuries too. One of theâ¨earliest collections âPiae Cantionesâ, a songbook from Finland was â¨first published in 1582. It contains a number of songs that haveâ¨ survived today, as well-known Christmas carols.
By the late 1700s, the festival of Christmas was so popular that itâ¨ produced the secular favourite âThe Twelve Days Of Christmasâ. Byâ¨1865, Santa Claus was making an appearance in two popular tunes byâ¨Benjamin Russell Hanby âUp On The House Topâ and âJolly Oldâ¨Saint Nicholasâ.
He composed âUp On The Housetopâ as a Christmasâ¨sing-along, originally entitled âSanta Clausâ.â¨â¨ Interestingly, this was also the year that Harper’s Magazine sought to â¨forge a link between spending money on gifts and Christmas: âLove isâ¨ the moral of Christmas…What are gifts but the proof and signs ofâ¨ love !â
What with buying trees, gift giving, drinks and oodles ofâ¨ food, Christmas was becoming a costly business, enshrining the modernâ¨ festivities, as a festival of idealised family life and perfect homes.
There was a nod to the less fortunate but it would take another sixtyâ¨ years until blues singers began to expose the reality of life forâ¨many, over the yuletide, with their songs of abandonment, poverty,â¨domestic chaos and hard times, in a seeming world of plenty. â¨â¨By 1900, sound recordings had become a growing, new, international â¨industry, with the most popular titles selling millions of units.
However, the recording companies themselves had not really thought ofâ¨the potential that Christmas records could offer, though that was soonâ¨ to change.
The first Christmas recordâ¨
On 30th October, 1889 banjo player Will Lyle was invited into the Edisonâ¨ studios and unwittingly made history by recording âJingle Bellsâ,â¨which is now generally agreed to be the very first Christmas record.â¨ It was and remains, one of the most sung Christmas songs in the world,â¨though its composer did not have Christmas in mind when he wrote it.
Written by James Lord Pierpont (1822â1893) in the autumn of 1857, itâ¨ was published under the title âOne Horse Open Sleighâ and wasâ¨first performed by blackface minstrel Johnny Pell in Ordway Hall onâ¨September 16th of the same year. Initially, the song had no connectionâ¨to Christmas and would not become associated with the holiday seasonâ¨until decades later.
The Roaring Twenties -The Jazz Age
The majority of the Christmas record output of the early 1900s wereâ¨ carols or novelty songs but this was to change radically when thoseâ¨early blues singers stepped up to the recording horn!
The question often arises as to which is the first Christmas blues â¨record. As blues and jazz were somewhat interchangeable in the earlyâ¨ 1920s, it is hard to say, though it is generally presumed to be âAtâ¨the Christmas Ballâ performed by the âEmpress of the Bluesâ,â¨Bessie Smith, but I beg to differ.
I am tempted to go with âCrazyâ¨Bluesâ written by Perry Bradford and performed by Mamie Smith. This â¨landmark recording is also the first blues record made by a popularâ¨ black singer.
The song was recorded in August 1920 but it was not actually released â¨by OKeh Records until October or November that year. It was pushed andâ¨promoted all over the Christmas period and must have stuck in the mindâ¨of many as being associated with Christmas.
The next real contenderâ¨must be âSanta Claus Bluesâ as performed by the Red Onion Jazzâ¨Babies, recorded in New York City on 26thNovember 1924. Theâ¨ recordingâs stellar line up was Louis Armstrong, cornet; Aaronâ¨Thompson, trombone; Buster Bailey, clarinet; Lil Hardin-Armstrong,â¨piano and Buddy Christian, banjo.
Maybe we can discount it because itâ¨is an instrumental but what about the remake, recorded on the 8thâ¨October 1925 by Clarence Williamsâ Blue Five with Eva Taylor,â¨ vocalis; Clarence Williams, leader; Louis Armstrong, cornet; Busterâ¨Bailey, saxophone; Buddy Christian, banjo; Charlie Irvis, trombone;â¨Don Redman, clarinet.
The merry bells are ringing today,
But they don’t mean nothing to me.
I hear the children singing today,
But I’m as blue as I can be.
Ol’ Santa Claus forgot my address,
Thatâs one thing I can plainly see.
It may be Christmas to some folks,
Itâs just December 25th to me!
There was another more sentimental and slower version cut by theâ¨ Clarence Williams Trio on the 16th October and this is really bluesy.â¨ Interestingly, it was written by Charley Straight and Gus Kahn, twoâ¨ white songwriters but it was published by Clarence Williams. Afterâ¨ Bessieâs hit with ‘At the Christmas Ball’, which, incidentally, is oneâ¨ of her very few ‘cheerful blues’, at least in terms of lyrics, theâ¨stage was set for the many hundreds and hundreds of Christmas and Newâ¨Year Blues, Gospels and Sermons (and Jazz and Soul) records that â¨followed.
Anything that might sell to a black (and white) audience was fair gameâ¨ for the early record labels. Consequently, Christmas sermons jostledâ¨ with raunchy or humorous recordings. Recorded Sermons by fieryâ¨ preachers, like the Rev J.M Gates, Rev Nix, Rev Claybourne and Revâ¨Dickinson were very popular and sold in droves during the mid-1920sâ¨ through to the early 1930s.
The titles of many of these recordings wouldâ¨astonish us now, such as âDeath Might Be Your Santa Clausâ, âThe Wrong Way To Celebrate Christmasâ, âDeath Might Be Your Christmas â¨Giftâ, âWill the Coffin Be Your Santa Claus?â, âWill Hell Be â¨Your Santa Claus?â, âThat Little Thing May Kill You Yet (Christmasâ¨Sermon)â, âDid You Spend Christmas in Jail?â.
The counter point â¨to these, were the best selling records: âChristmas in Jail (Ainâtâ¨that a Pain)â by Leroy Carr, with Scrapper Blackwell, and the â¨amusing innuendo filled âPapa Ainât No Santa Claus (Mama Ainâtâ¨no Christmas Tree)â from the pen of Andy Razaf and performed by the â¨popular comedic duet of Butterbeans and Suzie.
By now, the termâ¨ ‘Santa Claus became interchangeable with the jolly old man â¨himself and an actual Xmas gift.â¨â¨ In 1927, whilst middle America was listening to Vaughn De Leath (Theâ¨Radio Girl) crooning âThe Night Before Christmasâ and âChristmasâ¨ Songs For Childrenâ, Harlemites and Chicagoans were rocking toâ¨ Lonnie Johnsonâs guitar and sympathising with Victoria Spiveyâsâ¨words:
My man’s so deep in trouble the white folks couldn’t get him free
He stole a hog the charge was murder in the first degree
I never had a Christmas with trouble like this before
I Ain’t never had a Christmas with trouble like this before
Sleigh bells is my death bells, and hard luck’s knocking at my door
Back in 1928, a year before his untimely death, Blind Lemon â¨Jefferson, one of the most popular blues singers of the 1920s and Â â¨”Father of the Texas Blues”, waxed a double-sided, festive hit,â¨âChristmas Eve Bluesâ / âHappy New Year Bluesâ, which may be â¨the first New Year Blues Record .â¨In 1929 Frankie âHalf Pintâ Jackson, the wildly popular Africanâ¨American vaudeville singer, stage designer and comedian, and erstwhileâ¨female impersonator led The Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers andâ¨ choir, with the noted musician Ernest “Punch” Miller, in a jazzy â¨stomping romping version of the spiritual ‘Christ Was Born On Christmasâ¨ Morn’.
In 1921 the Harlem situated, black owned and operated, Black Swanâ¨record Label had thought there might be a market in Christmas recordsâ¨and they placed an ad in the New York Age on Christmas Eve of thatâ¨ year: âBlack Swan Xâmas Recordsâ.
The December list features â¨numbers for the Christmas Season â Sacred Songsâ, which featured aâ¨mixture of Carols, Classics, Jazz and Blues by their artists.
The 1920s did not produce much in the way of black festiveâ¨ gospel/carol singing, though there were some artists who recorded someâ¨carols, notably the Elkins-Payne Jubilee Singers with their renditionâ¨ of âSilent Nightâ, back in 1926.
The early blues recordings of the 1920s were dominated by the women nâ¨ known as âThe Classic Blues Singersâ, so it is no surprise to findâ¨the standard blues laments of âSanta bring my man backâ by theâ¨likes of Bertha Chippie Hill, Ozie Ware and Elzadie Robinson, on â¨record.
By 1930, recording techniques had improved markedly. Drums and otherâ¨ powerful instruments could be used on records and singers did not haveâ¨ to bawl to make themselves heard.
The Christmas / New Year bluesâ¨ market was well established and the themes of love, loss, death andâ¨ sexual innuendo were well established and becoming increasinglyâ¨ sophisticated to meet an expanding black and white market. Therefore,â¨it is surprising and interesting to find the 1930, Lil McClintock â¨recording, entitled âYou Must Think Iâm Santa Clausâ. McClintockâ¨ was an older man, who had been in the medicine and tent shows and thisâ¨recording mirrors a âminstrel and medicine show routineâ made upâ¨ of four separate songs but containing the lines.
Please donât think that Iâm Santa Claus,
âCause Christmas comes every day,
You can hear dem sleigh bells a-ringinâ now,
Every time you turn around this-a-way,
You need not think that Iâm a human beinâ,
Itâs nothinâ but a fraud,
âCause I bring you present everâ
Once in a while,â¨Donât think Iâm Santa Claus. â
The original (comic) song had been written by Irving Jones, with musicâ¨by Maxwell Silver and was released both on an Edison cylinder andâ¨Columbia 78 back in 1904/5.
The late 1930s saw the increasing use of electrification and theâ¨electric guitar would come to dominate later blues recordings but theâ¨themes remained the same although one notable exception is theâ¨joyously infectious âSwinging Them Jingle Bellsâ by Fats Waller â¨and his Rhythm waxed in 1938.
In the 1940s and 1950s, there were still plenty of blues and jazzâ¨ Christmas platters to be spun but musical tastes were changing andâ¨there were Big Bands, Swing Bands, Gospel Singers, Doo Wop and Rock â¨and Rollers on the Christmas Record scene, which only added to theâ¨ festive mix.
The late 1950s and 1960s brought a whole host of R&B, Tamla and Soul â¨offerings.â¨ As the century came to an end, there were more musical genres than youâ¨could shake a stick at and they all produced festive offerings forâ¨ discerning aficionados of Christmas music. It was hard to keep trackâ¨ of what was available. This century saw technology keep up and evenâ¨out strip musical trends enabling us to have a diverse Christmas â¨playlist on our phone or PC that is longer than our arms.
Somethingâs never change though and if we have a song that speaks ofâ¨the difficulties of life at Christmas, the loss of a lover or the â¨threat of homelessness, we have (most probably) a blues song or a songâ¨that can and should look back to the Blues as its ancestor.
Of course,â¨the very best of these blues songs can actually lift our spirits,â¨rather than drag us down. They can elevate our mood, or make us want â¨to dance.
This was always the purpose of the blues; to ease oneâs â¨mind, when the vicissitudes of life got you down. The Blues is asâ¨important to modern life for its observational and healing qualitiesâ¨as it ever was and this Christmas, with its uncertainties, might beâ¨the very time to revisit some of the earliest offerings to put ourâ¨lives, hopes and dreams into context.
The blues tells us that there isâ¨nothing new under the sun and that might be our best comfort and joy â¨this Yuletide.
You can hear the above selections and almost 200 more tracks from theâ¨ years 1922-1963 on our 5 Double CD, Series âBlues Blues â¨Christmasâ, with illustrations and notes by Blues Historian and DJâ¨Jeff Harris from Jazz90.1 c/o âBig Road Bluesâ, Rochester, Newâ¨York.
Gillian Atkinson is Director of Document Records