Sunday, November 16, 2014

Christmas music of the 1960s

Music and the sense of smell are two of the strongest memory triggers. The first fall furnace run, filling the air with duct dust, triggers childhood memories of colored lights on a live Christmas tree and Christmas music on a monaural record player.
Each December in the 1960s we eagerly went with our father to Goodyear Hall in Akron for an early Christmas treat, where every child of Goodyear employees received a Christmas present and a bag of hard candy. The exciting part was that you chose your toy from the racks, and the toys were not cheap junk that broke in an hour; they were exciting, good-quality toys. My older brother, obsessed with things on wheels, always chose models. Sometimes an inflatable parade float hovered in the hall, movies were shown, and, if I remember correctly, the model railroad club ran its trains on the room-size layout.

The toys are long gone, but the Goodyear gifts I still have are the Christmas records. Employees each year were given the annual “Great Songs of Christmas,” made for Goodyear by Columbia Special Products, which also made Christmas LPs for stores such as Grant’s and JC Penney. The “Great Songs of Christmas” LPs featured popular artists singing traditional and new sacred and secular songs. From Mahalia Jackson’s powerful bluesy-spiritual treatment of “Away in a Manger” to Pablo Casals playing cello on “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” the records presented a wide range of artists and styles.
One of our favorite songs was Jim Nabors’ “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” backed by chorus and orchestra and driven by rock drums and tambourine, an invigorating version of the gospel classic. Back then I knew Nabors only as goofy Gomer Pyle, and I couldn’t understand how he could sing so well. I also liked the multipart singing and guitars, banjo and mandolin of the New Christy Minstrels, a group that arose out of the folk boom, on “The Shepherd Boy” and “We Need a Little Christmas,” a song from “Mame”: “… for I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older; and I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder / We need a little Christmas now.” 
We had one Firestone Christmas record, “Your Favorite Christmas Music Volume 6” featuring Jack Jones, Roberta Peters, the Vienna Choir Boys, and the Firestone Orchestra and Chorus. Despite my older brother’s claim that Firestone was inferior to Goodyear, the album was superb, and the use of the same artists in differing combinations made the record cohesive but interesting and varied. We also had an Avon Christmas record of songs and instrumentals by the Longines Symphonette done in an uplifting traditional style.
The only single-artist Christmas record we owned was Burl Ives’ “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” released in 1965, a year after the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” TV special first aired. Ives sang “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Rudolph” on both the show and the album. Songs such as the light-hearted “Snow for Johnny,” about a Louisiana boy who asks God to tell St. Nicholas to please send some snow for Christmas, were balanced by religious songs such as “Christmas Is a Birthday,” all done in Ives’ fireside folk style. Ives came across as a kindly Santa figure, and being a boy who took people at face value, I was quite bothered when I later saw him play mean guys in movies.
That same year saw the release of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Charlie Brown’s holiday depression prompted Linus to tell him he was the only person who could take a perfectly good holiday and turn it into a problem, and the score by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, sprinkled with a touch of melancholy, perfectly complemented Charlie Brown’s depression.

The Royal Guardsmen, a Beatles haircut pop band, augmented the Peanuts Christmas tradition with “Snoopy’s Christmas,” a follow-up to the novelty songs “Snoopy and the Red Baron” and “The Return of the Red Baron.” In “Snoopy’s Christmas,” the Red Baron has Snoopy dead in his sights but doesn’t shoot, perhaps because he hears “the bells of the village below.” He forces Snoopy to land behind enemy lines but offers a holiday toast instead of an attack. “Snoopy our hero saluted his host / And then with a roar they were both on their way / Each knowing they’d meet on some other day.” Christmas arrives quickly when you’re an adult, sometimes before you ever get in the spirit, but the magic memories of music can awaken that spirit. And the memories are better than duct dust.

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