Death Might Be Your Santa Claus: Early Christmas Blues Jazz, Sermons & Gospel Recordings

By Gillian Atkinson

A Christmas music playlist is a feature of modern life and we have 
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 
development of ‘Christmas music“’ back to the 4th Century when St.
Hilary of Poitiers composed the Latin carol ‘Jesus refulsit
omnium’ (‘Jesus illuminates all’).

Christmas sheet music has been with us for centuries too. One of the
earliest collections ‘Piae Cantiones’, a songbook from Finland was 
first published in 1582. It contains a number of songs that have
 survived today, as well-known Christmas carols.

By the late 1700s, the festival of Christmas was so popular that it
 produced the secular favourite ‘The Twelve Days Of Christmas’. By
1865, Santa Claus was making an appearance in two popular tunes by
Benjamin Russell Hanby ‘Up On The House Top’ and ‘Jolly Old
Saint Nicholas’.

He composed ‘Up On The Housetop’ as a Christmas
sing-along, originally entitled ‘Santa Claus’.

 Interestingly, this was also the year that Harper’s Magazine sought to 
forge a link between spending money on gifts and Christmas: “Love is
 the moral of Christmas…What are gifts but the proof and signs of
 love !”

What with buying trees, gift giving, drinks and oodles of
 food, Christmas was becoming a costly business, enshrining the modern
 festivities, as a festival of idealised family life and perfect homes.

There was a nod to the less fortunate but it would take another sixty
 years until blues singers began to expose the reality of life for
many, over the yuletide, with their songs of abandonment, poverty,
domestic chaos and hard times, in a seeming world of plenty. 

By 1900, sound recordings had become a growing, new, international 
industry, with the most popular titles selling millions of units.

However, the recording companies themselves had not really thought of
the potential that Christmas records could offer, though that was soon
 to change.

The first Christmas record

On 30th October, 1889 banjo player Will Lyle was invited into the Edison
 studios and unwittingly made history by recording ‘Jingle Bells’,
which is now generally agreed to be the very first Christmas record.
 It was and remains, one of the most sung Christmas songs in the world,
though its composer did not have Christmas in mind when he wrote it.

Written by James Lord Pierpont (1822–1893) in the autumn of 1857, it
 was published under the title ‘One Horse Open Sleigh’ and was
first performed by blackface minstrel Johnny Pell in Ordway Hall on
September 16th of the same year. Initially, the song had no connection
to Christmas and would not become associated with the holiday season
until decades later.

The Roaring Twenties -The Jazz Age

The majority of the Christmas record output of the early 1900s were
 carols or novelty songs but this was to change radically when those
early blues singers stepped up to the recording horn!

The question often arises as to which is the first Christmas blues 
record. As blues and jazz were somewhat interchangeable in the early
 1920s, it is hard to say, though it is generally presumed to be ‘At
the Christmas Ball’ performed by the “Empress of the Blues“,
Bessie Smith, but I beg to differ.

I am tempted to go with ‘Crazy
Blues’ written by Perry Bradford and performed by Mamie Smith. This 
landmark recording is also the first blues record made by a popular
 black singer.

The song was recorded in August 1920 but it was not actually released 
by OKeh Records until October or November that year. It was pushed and
promoted all over the Christmas period and must have stuck in the mind
of many as being associated with Christmas.

The next real contender
must be ‘Santa Claus Blues’ as performed by the Red Onion Jazz
Babies, recorded in New York City on 26thNovember 1924. The
 recording’s stellar line up was Louis Armstrong, cornet; Aaron
Thompson, trombone; Buster Bailey, clarinet; Lil Hardin-Armstrong,
piano and Buddy Christian, banjo.

Maybe we can discount it because it
is an instrumental but what about the remake, recorded on the 8th
October 1925 by Clarence Williams’ Blue Five with Eva Taylor,
 vocalis; Clarence Williams, leader; Louis Armstrong, cornet; Buster
Bailey, saxophone; Buddy Christian, banjo; Charlie Irvis, trombone;
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,

That’s one thing I can plainly see.

It may be Christmas to some folks,

It’s just December 25th to me!

There was another more sentimental and slower version cut by the
 Clarence Williams Trio on the 16th October and this is really bluesy.
 Interestingly, it was written by Charley Straight and Gus Kahn, two
 white songwriters but it was published by Clarence Williams. After
 Bessie’s hit with ‘At the Christmas Ball’, which, incidentally, is one
 of her very few ‘cheerful blues’, at least in terms of lyrics, the
stage was set for the many hundreds and hundreds of Christmas and New
Year Blues, Gospels and Sermons (and Jazz and Soul) records that 

Anything that might sell to a black (and white) audience was fair game
 for the early record labels. Consequently, Christmas sermons jostled
 with raunchy or humorous recordings. Recorded Sermons by fiery
 preachers, like the Rev J.M Gates, Rev Nix, Rev Claybourne and Rev
Dickinson were very popular and sold in droves during the mid-1920s
 through to the early 1930s.

The titles of many of these recordings would
astonish us now, such as ‘Death Might Be Your Santa Claus’, ‘The Wrong Way To Celebrate Christmas’, ‘Death Might Be Your Christmas 
Gift’, ‘Will the Coffin Be Your Santa Claus?’, ‘Will Hell Be 
Your Santa Claus?’, ‘That Little Thing May Kill You Yet (Christmas
Sermon)’, ‘Did You Spend Christmas in Jail?’.

The counter point 
to these, were the best selling records: ‘Christmas in Jail (Ain’t
that a Pain)’ by Leroy Carr, with Scrapper Blackwell, and the 
amusing innuendo filled ‘Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus (Mama Ain’t
no Christmas Tree)’ from the pen of Andy Razaf and performed by the 
popular comedic duet of Butterbeans and Suzie.

By now, the term
 ‘Santa Claus became interchangeable with the jolly old man 
himself and an actual Xmas gift.

 In 1927, whilst middle America was listening to Vaughn De Leath (The
Radio Girl) crooning ‘The Night Before Christmas’ and ‘Christmas
 Songs For Children’, Harlemites and Chicagoans were rocking to
 Lonnie Johnson’s guitar and sympathising with Victoria Spivey’s

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 
Jefferson, one of the most popular blues singers of the 1920s and  
”Father of the Texas Blues”, waxed a double-sided, festive hit,
‘Christmas Eve Blues’ / ‘Happy New Year Blues’, which may be 
the first New Year Blues Record .
In 1929 Frankie “Half Pint“ Jackson, the wildly popular African
American vaudeville singer, stage designer and comedian, and erstwhile
female impersonator led The Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers and
 choir, with the noted musician Ernest “Punch” Miller, in a jazzy 
stomping romping version of the spiritual ‘Christ Was Born On Christmas

In 1921 the Harlem situated, black owned and operated, Black Swan
record Label had thought there might be a market in Christmas records
and they placed an ad in the New York Age on Christmas Eve of that
 year: “Black Swan X’mas Records”.

The December list features 
numbers for the Christmas Season “ Sacred Songs”, which featured a
mixture of Carols, Classics, Jazz and Blues by their artists.

The 1920s did not produce much in the way of black festive
 gospel/carol singing, though there were some artists who recorded some
carols, notably the Elkins-Payne Jubilee Singers with their rendition
 of ‘Silent Night’, back in 1926.

The early blues recordings of the 1920s were dominated by the women n
 known as “The Classic Blues Singers“, so it is no surprise to find
the standard blues laments of “Santa bring my man back” by the
likes of Bertha Chippie Hill, Ozie Ware and Elzadie Robinson, on 

By 1930, recording techniques had improved markedly. Drums and other
 powerful instruments could be used on records and singers did not have
 to bawl to make themselves heard.

The Christmas / New Year blues
 market was well established and the themes of love, loss, death and
 sexual innuendo were well established and becoming increasingly
 sophisticated to meet an expanding black and white market. Therefore,
it is surprising and interesting to find the 1930, Lil McClintock 
recording, entitled ‘You Must Think I’m Santa Claus’. McClintock
 was an older man, who had been in the medicine and tent shows and this
recording mirrors a “minstrel and medicine show routine” made up
 of four separate songs but containing the lines.

Please don’t think that I’m Santa Claus,

’Cause Christmas comes every day,

You can hear dem sleigh bells a-ringin’ now,

Every time you turn around this-a-way,

You need not think that I’m a human bein’,

It’s nothin’ but a fraud,

’Cause I bring you present ever’

Once in a while,
Don’t think I’m Santa Claus. “

The original (comic) song had been written by Irving Jones, with music
by Maxwell Silver and was released both on an Edison cylinder and
Columbia 78 back in 1904/5.

The late 1930s saw the increasing use of electrification and the
electric guitar would come to dominate later blues recordings but the
themes remained the same although one notable exception is the
joyously infectious ‘Swinging Them Jingle Bells’ by Fats Waller 
and his Rhythm waxed in 1938.

In the 1940s and 1950s, there were still plenty of blues and jazz
 Christmas platters to be spun but musical tastes were changing and
there were Big Bands, Swing Bands, Gospel Singers, Doo Wop and Rock 
and Rollers on the Christmas Record scene, which only added to the
 festive mix.

The late 1950s and 1960s brought a whole host of R&B, Tamla and Soul 
 As the century came to an end, there were more musical genres than you
could shake a stick at and they all produced festive offerings for
 discerning aficionados of Christmas music. It was hard to keep track
 of what was available. This century saw technology keep up and even
out strip musical trends enabling us to have a diverse Christmas 
playlist on our phone or PC that is longer than our arms.

Something’s never change though and if we have a song that speaks of
the difficulties of life at Christmas, the loss of a lover or the 
threat of homelessness, we have (most probably) a blues song or a song
that can and should look back to the Blues as its ancestor.

Of course,
the very best of these blues songs can actually lift our spirits,
rather than drag us down. They can elevate our mood, or make us want 
to dance.

This was always the purpose of the blues; to ease one’s 
mind, when the vicissitudes of life got you down. The Blues is as
important to modern life for its observational and healing qualities
as it ever was and this Christmas, with its uncertainties, might be
the very time to revisit some of the earliest offerings to put our
lives, hopes and dreams into context.

The blues tells us that there is
nothing new under the sun and that might be our best comfort and joy 
this Yuletide.

You can hear the above selections and almost 200 more tracks from the
 years 1922-1963 on our 5 Double CD, Series ‘Blues Blues 
Christmas’, with illustrations and notes by Blues Historian and DJ
Jeff Harris from Jazz90.1 c/o ‘Big Road Blues’, Rochester, New

Gillian Atkinson is Director of Document Records

This entry was posted in 78rpm, Blues, Gospel, Jazz, Rare Records, Rock & Roll. Bookmark the permalink.

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