Justin Smallbridge: Hed – Deck us all with Boston Charlie

justin_Smallbridge_headshot_01You’re probably pretty sick of the burnt holiday chestnuts that get played at you relentlessly at this time of year. They seemed to start earlier than usual this year — like, a couple days after Halloween. And prolonged exposure to the severely narrow range of seasonal favorites doesn’t make them any easier to take; it’s sharp proof that familiarity breeds contempt.

Still, music’s a large part of this time of year: carols, traditional secular numbers, and the Christmas album is something just about every singer or player is expected to produce at some point in his or her career, as well as the mandatory club residency through the end of December. But there are some less obvious or at least less burnt chestnuts you can play while you’re decorating your tree, nogging eggs, mulling wine, re-opening old psychological scars, seething with barely-contained fury or bitterly resenting family and friends.

James Brown soulful christmasIf you’re one of the few people who still spins albums — vinyl or CD — there are a few reliable items. There’s the 1963 classic “A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records,” although given what happened to Phil Spector, maybe it’s now too chilling a selection; depends whether you can successfully enjoy the Ronettes’ work without imagining the screwball at the mixing console. Any of James Brown’s three Christmas LPs is a great option, and 1995’s “James Brown’s Funky Christmas” is a best-of distillation of all three. And, of course, there’s Vince Guaraldi’s 1965 soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” released in a remastered version this year, as well as being added to the Library Of Congress’s National Recording Registry.

walt_kellyWhatever your soundtrack, it must include “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie.” That’s the first line of Walt Kelly’s version of the old seasonal standard, “Deck The Halls.” (Most of you sprats is prolly too young to know that Walt Kelly wrote and drew a comic strip called “Pogo,” about anthropomorphic animals that lived in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. It was the “Doonesbury” of its day.) Among Kelly’s many unparalleled achievements were his malapropisms and the lyrics-mangling mondegreenery he enjoyed visiting on well-known songs. Take the childhood classic, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Here’s Kelly’s “Pogo” version:

pogoRow, row, rover both

Jetly don extreme

Marilyn, Marilyn, Marilyn, Marilyn

Lie fudge Esther theme.

Christmas was always a major event in the swamp, and carols were no less a part of the holiday there than out here in consensus reality. The Okefenokee’s denizens warbled in the funny papers — or on the editorial page, where many papers preferred to run “Pogo” — their favorite holiday numbers: “Good King Sauerkraut,” who looked out on his feets uneven; “MacTruloff,” (“Conifers stay of crispness, MacTruloff sentimie a parsnip Anna Pantry…”), but the one number that always came up in late December was “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie.”

03_waltkelly_deckusallwithbostoncharlie_1967

01_waltkelly_deckusallwithbostoncharlie

Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, and Annie RossJazz vocalese trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross (who recorded the original version of “Twisted” in 1959 — Annie Ross wrote it and first cut it solo in 1952 — that Joni Mitchell introduced a subsequent generation to on “Court and Spark” in 1974, in which Cheech Marin interjects “Flip city,” which Elvis Costello used as a band name in the mid-1970s) cut a version in 1961, but it’s really just a “churchy” take on the first verse bracketing a quick round of scatting.

“Twisted” (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross)

“Twisted” (Joni Mitchell)

“Deck Us All With Boston Charlie” is definitely the version I prefer to the original. It’s more fun to sing, and it’s a litmus test for identifying people of a certain type . . . mainly, the type who know “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie,” with all — or whatever — that implies.

There’s a link to the lyrics a couple of ‘grafs back. Use that and sing along with this crew of anonymous parlor warblers calling themselves The Walt Kelly Memorial Choir, directed (and possibly accompanied) by Roger May in 1981 until you know it by heart.

“Deck Us All With Boston Charlie” (The Walt Kelly Memorial Choir with or without Roger May)

Christmas is about repetition; doing the same wonderful things over and over and over every single goddamn year, and calling it tradition. Some people aren’t prepared for Christmas until they’ve watched Bing Crosby’s 1977 last-gasp duet a with scrawny coke-addled David Bowie — who strongly disliked “Little Drummer Boy” and wrote his part with the show’s musical director immediately before the now-iconic sequence we all get either misty or weirded out by every year.

Even folks who don’t know a plié from a grand jete won’t let December slip past without reliving the magic of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.” If you just want the hits or the hooks and don’t have an evening or matinee to spare, there’s Brian Setzer’s economical jump blues orchestral seven-minutes-and-change highlights package…

Too long? Yearning to enjoy Tchaikovsky’s majestic melody played on a tinny tack piano with eight bars of twanging surf guitar and the world’s cheapest drum kit? Then you’ll want B. Bumble & the Stingers’ two-minute “Nut Rocker.”

“But this is the interweb instant-on age,” I hear you moaning. “And while that’s quick, I need something faster, with an edge of boozy Irish-American menace; a nut rocker that makes me worry — just for a moment — that its title might be all too literal, that I might actually get kneed in the groin.” You need the briefest, belligerent, bar-fight version, courtesy of those charming Dropkick Murphys.

Sticking with Christmas with surly Irish drunks, you can laugh with Denis Leary’s Christmas special, or wipe away a tear or two as you return to “Fairytale of New York,” by the Pogues and the late Kirsty MacColl.

It was only this year — as that song turns 25 — that Guardian reporter Dorian Lynskey found out about its surprisingly difficult two-year gestation. It’s worth reading. The BBC tried to re-edit this Christmas classic five years ago because it was worried about offending people, excising the line “You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap, lousy faggot.” Yet they never considered altering Bing Crosby’s seasonal secular hymn to “I’m Dreaming Of A Caucasoid Christmas.” Even weirder: while BBC Radio 1 recut the song, BBC Radio 2 played it as-is.

Offense? At Christmas? Why, that’s as much a part of the season as a decorated pine tree.

The other approach to the possibility of offense is, of course, to get out in front of it and careen over the offensive line before anybody else can. And what better way than the Can-Con-Christmas cover of the Korn Kobblers’ classic “Don’t Give Me No Goose For Christmas, Grandma,” as performed by McKenna Mendelson Mainline on their 1969 LP, “Stink”?

Still on the Can-Con Christmas tip, there is, of course, The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” but that seems to have been lately latched onto by various radio formats and may be in danger of edging toward burnt. But maybe that’s just what I get for listening to a little too much Canadian Broadcorping Castration as I punch the car radio buttons looking for three minutes of something that isn’t fake-old-timey bullshit or over-processed, over-compressed, maliciously auto-tuned sleeg.

Canucklehead composer and erstwhile member of the late, lamented Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, David Wall, wrote a fine song humorously honoring the sons of Abraham we have to thank for practically every scrap of holiday jingle-bellery there is. A once-great metropolitan newspaper is said to have commissioned this, but their site’s behind a paywall now and the file’s not there any more anyway, so please enjoy “A Christmas Ditty.”

While we’re on the subject of Christmas songs about Christmas songs, here are two more. First, a theoretical take on a number Mel Torme wrote in Los Angeles during a blazing summer day, using his melody to illustrate how that melody works. (Ed. note: This is Brilliant!)

And the kickoff number from Stephen Colbert’s “A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift Of All” considers how lucrative coming up with a perennial Christmas favorite (“Another Christmas Song”) can be, especially if you manage to scramble everything connected with the end of December together in a sacrelicious seasonal scrapple.

The music for almost all the songs in that Colbert Christmas special was written by Adam Schlesinger, one half of the Fountains Of Wayne, who’ve cut two Christmas classics (at least they’re considered classics in this house) — “Valley Winter Song” — another song about writing songs — (even if L.L. Bean did use a fragment in their Xmas marketing a couple of Christmases ago) and “The Man In The Santa Suit.”
Valley Winter Song” (Fountains Of Wayne):

The Man In The Santa Suit” (Fountains Of Wayne):

Fountains Of Wayne took their name from a garden-supply and fountain store in Wayne, New Jersey, which has, sadly, closed — but not before it was featured in an episode of “The Sopranos,” whose music supervisor Katherine Dayak I have to thank for introducing me to two Christmas songs I love by including them in the series’ soundtrack.

Winter” (The Rolling Stones)…

http://youtu.be/frt_f0eP_Hs

…and “Glad Tidings” (Van Morrison)

Maybe cheer and jollity aren’t your default Christmas mode. I’m not suggesting moping and snarling. (It’s no way to get through the holidays — take it from one who knows, having wasted a number of Christmases years trying both options, singly and in combination.) But you could try some music that’s a little more low-key and reflective; not obviously Christmasy, but set in this part of the year and telling some kind of Christmas story, even a bleak, out-of-left-field one.

Charlie Freak” (Steely Dan)

Or consider things from the perspective of being outside the whole Christmas thing and imagining what it’s like.

White Christmas” (Sandra Bernhard)

Or try establishing a brand new Christmas song, and wonder, as Crow T. Robot did on Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Satellite Of Love, “how long before it becomes a standard?”

Let’s Have A Patrick Swayze Christmas” (Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo & Joel Robinson)”

Now that you’ve come to the end of this screed (and thanks, if you persisted), here is the pay-off: nine one-hour mixes of off-beat seasonal selections, premixed for your holiday ho-ho’s. Please download  ’em and drop ’em into your preferred digital audio organization and reproduction software. Tell a friend, tell a neighbor — share. It’s ’tis the season, as The Waitresses said.

Merry Chrismachanukwanzaakanalias and a Happy New Year, y’all.

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XmasMix 09

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Justin’s column will appear here on Friday every 4 weeks

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS_ButtonJustin Smallbridge is, among other things, a writer, producer, broadcaster, voiceover artist and record collector.

2 Responses to “Justin Smallbridge: Hed – Deck us all with Boston Charlie”

  1. This is great. So well worded and packed with critical insight, pure information and the right tone of whimsy. To paraphrase Walt Kelly “We have met the enemy and it sure isn’t Justin Smallbridge”

  2. Excellent work, Justin. Welcome to the clown car. Segarini has the keys.

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