The American Christmas Songbook: “Merry Christmas, Darling” (1970)

Frank Pooler with Richard and Karen Carpenter in the mid 1960s.

Some of the Christmas songs we’ve highlighted so far have been written in a very short amount of time, when a gust of inspiration fills the sails in a songwriting teams’ heads. Mel Torme and Bob Wells finished “The Christmas Song” in less than an hour, and Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn had “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” completed in one afternoon. Some songs, however, take decades to come to fruition, and that just so happens to be the case with Frank Pooler and Richard Carpenter’s “Merry Christmas, Darling.”

The story begins in Wisconsin in 1944, when the 18-year-old Frank Pooler composed a yuletide love song for his high school sweetheart. The two were spending the holiday apart, so Pooler’s lyrics reflected his longing to be with her during the most magical time of the year. Unfortunately, like most teenage relationships, the two grew apart. However, Pooler held on to the song. He had it published and recorded, but it was never distributed.

In 1959, Pooler moved to Long Beach, California, where he lead the University Choir at California State University. Two of his students, Richard and Karen Carpenter–siblings from the nearby LA suburb of Downey–were members of a rock band that was starting to get a lot of attention. In 1966, Richard lamented to Pooler that he was growing weary of performing the same repertoire at Christmas parties. Pooler recalled the song he had written twenty-two years earlier, and handed it over to Richard with the suggestion that he give the lyrics a better musical setting than the one he had written himself. Richard did just that, and his trio added “Merry Christmas, Darling” to their set list.

By the fall of 1970, The Carpenters had become a household name. A year after signing with A&M Records, they scored two major hit singles with “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun.” After completing their second album, Close to You, they returned to the studio to record “Merry Christmas, Darling.” Richard worked his arranging magic, and a gorgeous saxophone solo was improvised by Bob Messenger. When the recording was completed, Richard called Pooler to the studio to let him hear the tune. In a 2005 interview with the La Crosse Tribune, Pooler recalled that at first, he had no idea what he was hearing was the song he had written nearly a quarter of a century earlier.¹ The single was released on November 20 and went straight to #1 on Billboard‘s Christmas charts. It would return to that spot again in 1971 and 1973. In 1978, at Karen’s request, the vocals were re-recorded for the release of Christmas Portrait, their first Christmas album. (A second Christmas album, An Old-Fashioned Christmas, was released in 1984, a year after Karen’s death, and included several unused tracks from the 1978 recording sessions.)

So whatever happened to the girl for whom Pooler wrote the song back in Wisconsin in 1944? In 2002, he found her, just a short distance away in Palm Springs! He arranged to meet, where he informed her that she had been his muse. She responded, “Now I have a treasure.”² And so do we. “Merry Christmas, Darling” may have taken over twenty-five years to get from paper to vinyl, but it will forever remain a classic in the American Christmas songbook.


¹http://lacrossetribune.com/courierlifenews/news/local/pooler-s-song-dashed-off-for-a-girl-became-a/article_eb1aeb3a-3466-57fa-ac0a-4951ae9b8c31.html
²Ibid.

The American Christmas Songbook: “Christmas Time Is Here” (1965)

A caricature of Vince Guaraldi by Charles Schulz, signed “for Vince with friendship -Sparky.”

Picture it: San Francisco, late 1964. A young television producer, Lee Mendelson, has just finished filming a documentary on the popular comic strip Peanuts and its creator, Charles Schulz. Mendelson, a fan of jazz, needs a soundtrack for his documentary. He has already been turned down by the legendary Dave Brubek, as well as Brubek’s suggestion, vibraphonist Cal Tjader. He takes a cab ride, and as the taxi crosses the Golden Gate Bridge, a fresh new tune comes across the radio. It’s Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” and Mendelson knows immediately that he’s found the sound he needs. He schedules lunch with the pianist, who is eager to join the project. Two weeks later, Guaraldi calls Mendelson to play him a draft of what would become the theme of the strip, “Linus and Lucy.”¹

Unfortunately, Mendelson couldn’t get a network to pick up the documentary. What he got instead was an offer from the McCann Erickson advertising agency in New York. Following the success of General Electric’s special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, McCann Erickson’s client, the Coca-Cola Company, wanted an animated Christmas special of their own, and they had their eyes on Schulz’s beloved Peanuts. Mendelson got Schulz on board, as well as director and animator Bill Melendez, and in less than a week had a basic storyboard completed. From the start, a central part to the special would be a soundtrack of jazz and traditional holiday music provided by Guaraldi. Coca-Cola loved the pitch, and A Charlie Brown Christmas went into production. The creative team had less than six months to finish the project.

For the score, Guaraldi provided jazz arrangements of “O Tannenbaum,” “What Child is This,” and Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song.” He reused “Linus and Lucy,” which he had written for the unaired documentary, and provided other new tunes including the brisk waltz “Skating,” the energetically anticipatory “Christmas Is Coming,” and the melancholy yet enchanting “Christmas Time Is Here.” The recordings were made in the fall of 1965, just weeks before the special was due to air. A children’s choir from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California, was used to record “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Mendelson and Melendez also wanted to add vocals to Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” for the children to sing, but had trouble finding a lyricist. Mendelson took the job upon himself, and on the back of an envelope, he wrote a poem to fit Guaraldi’s simple melody:

Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of the year

When the special was finished, just ten days before it was due to air, the creative team was worried they had failed. The juxtaposition of simple animations, contemporary jazz, and the recitation of Luke 2: 8-14 in the climactic scene by Charlie Brown’s best friend Linus made Mendelson nervous the network would reject it. Indeed, CBS executives were skeptical. However, the special had already been advertised, and the broadcast proceeded as planned. A Charlie Brown Christmas premiered on Thursday, December 9, 1965. Fantasy Records released the soundtrack that same month.

Lee Mendelson, Charles Schulz, and Bill Melendez at the 1966 Emmy Awards.

To the creators’ and network’s surprise, the reviews were unanimously positive. Richard Burgheim of Time praised A Charlie Brown Christmas for being “a special that is really special” with a “refreshingly low-key tone.”² Lawrence Laurent of The Washington Post lauded Guaraldi “who composed and conducted a delightful score.”³ The following May, the special won the Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program. Just this past Friday, Billboard reported that the soundtrack to the special is back in the Top 40 for the third holiday season in a row at #32. They go on to note that it is the “seventh-biggest-selling Christmas album of the Nielsen era (1991-present), with 3.7 million copies sold.”⁴ In 2012, the Library of Congress added the album to the National Recording Registry to be “preserved as [a] cultural, artistic and/or historical treasure[] for generations to come.”⁵

A holiday song to be treasured by generations? That’s what the American Christmas songbook is all about, Charlie Brown!


¹https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/deck-the-halls-with-vince-guaraldi

²Burgheim, Richard, “Security Is a Good Show,” Time, December 19, 1965, p. 95.

³Laurent, Lawrence, “Loser in ‘Peanuts’ Finally a Winner,” The Washington Post, December 11, 1965.

https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/8070689/billboard-200-chart-moves-charlie-brown-christmas-soundtrack

⁵https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-12-107/new-entries-to-the-national-recording-registry-2/2012-05-23/

The American Christmas Songbook: “This Christmas” (1970)

Hathaway with Roberta Flack in 1972

As the second week of this blog series draws to a close, I can’t help but look back over the composers and songwriters that I’ve highlighted thus far and make some observations. Tell me, do you see what I see? How about a lack of diversity? They’ve all been white, and with one exception, they’ve all been men. (To be even more specific, they’ve mostly been Jewish, but that’s a topic worthy of a blog series unto itself!) That’s what makes today’s entry in the American Christmas Songbook a true gem!

Chicago native Donny Hathaway made his grand entrance onto the soul/R&B music scene with his 1970 debut album, Everything Is Everything (ATCO). After studying music at Howard University here in DC (alongside the legendary Roberta Flack–with whom he would record a highly celebrated duet album in 1972–and his future co-producer, Ric Powell), Hathaway withdrew just before finishing his degree. He had been offered a job by Curtis Mayfield at his record company back in Chicago. After spending two years as a songwriter, studio musician, and producer, he signed with ATCO, a division of Atlantic Records. Vince Aletti of Rolling Stone applauded Hathaway as “…one of the most important black performers to emerge in recent years,” noting that Everything Is Everything “…was a confirmation of Hathaway’s strength and a remarkable, finely-balanced first album.”¹

Nadine McKinnor

That same year, Hathaway decided he wanted to release a Christmas song, but not just any song. He wanted his offering to be distinctly black–by and for African Americans. A friend connected him to Nadine McKinnor, a songwriter who happened to already have lyrics and the beginnings of a melody in mind.² Her verse describes the joy of celebrating the season with the one you love:

Presents and cards are here
My world is filled with cheer and you
This Christmas
And as I look around
Your eyes outshine the town they do
This Christmas

Hathaway worked his magic in the studios, and in December of 1970, a single was dropped: “This Christmas.” Unfortunately, it barely got noticed. ATCO was a small label, and releasing it so close to the holiday probably caused it to get lost in the shuffle. Ten years later, it was covered by both The Temptations (Give Love at Christmas, Gordy) and Gladys Knight & The Pips (That Special Time of Year, Columbia), though neither track got much attention. In 1991, ATCO decided to re-release it’s 1968 holiday compilation album, Soul Christmas, on CD. On it, they added “This Christmas,” and a new generation discovered Hathaway and McKinnor’s song. It was quickly covered by a handful of artists, including Stephanie Mills (Christmas, UMG, 1991) Usher (A LaFace Family Christmas, LaFace, 1993), and Gloria Estefan (Christmas Through Your Eyes, Epic, 1993). Jamie Foxx performed the song at the end of the In Living Color Christmas episode in 1992.

Since then, “This Christmas” has been covered over 100 times! If only Hathaway had lived to see his song become such a standard–he passed away at age 33 in 1979. Phil Upchurch, guitarist and friend of the late Hathaway, said of the work: “‘This Christmas’ is absolutely the premiere holiday song written by an African American.”³


¹http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/donny-hathaway-19710610

²https://medium.com/@unclecrizzle/this-christmas-and-getting-to-know-donny-e7e0b4a838a1

³Hoekstra, David. “Donny Hathaway’s ‘This Christmas'” Chicago Sun-Times, 13 December 2009.

See Our Exhibits Online!

University Libraries is excited to share a new companion website for its current May Gallery exhibit, “Cathedral Quest: Great Churches in Miniature.” Here, you can read more about the exhibit’s background, view high-resolution images of exhibit items, and explore an interactive map.

This website will be the first in a series of companion websites for our exhibits in the May Gallery and elsewhere in our John K. Mullen of Denver Library building. Over the years, the May Gallery has hosted a series of fascinating exhibits, such as “Fine Lines: Discovering Rembrandt and Other Old Masters at Catholic University” and “Sworn to be Free: Irish Nationalism, 1860–1921.” Now these stories can continue to live online after the exhibit has formally closed.

If you haven’t seen our Cathedral Quest exhibit yet, come visit us! If you aren’t able to make the trip, visit our companion website and learn all about it online.

The American Christmas Songbook: “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1949)

The sketch of the cover for May’s original book with illustrations by Denver L. Gillan.

When Clement Clarke Moore penned his famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823, he named eight reindeer that pull Santa Claus’s sleigh:

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!”
“On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixem!”¹

Fast forward to 1939, when the Chicago-based department store Montgomery Ward commissioned copywriter Robert Lewis May to author a children’s book for that year’s holiday promotion. Inspired by Moore’s poem, he created the story of a ninth reindeer, whose glowing red nose guides Santa through an unusually harsh blizzard. He considered several names beginning with “R” to play on the alliteration of a “red-nosed reindeer,” including “Reginald” and “Rollo,” but he ultimately decided upon “Rudolph.” The promotional booklet was a huge success, with over 2 million copies selling across the country.²

Following the second World War, Montgomery Ward CEO Sewell Avery gave May the rights to his story. It isn’t exactly clear why this unconventional move was made, but the struggling ad man, a widower with two children, seized on the opportunity. He handed the story over to his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, a radio producer and songwriter. Rather than use May’s existing verses (which were set in anapestic tetrameter, just like Moore’s 1823 poem), Marks crafted new lyrics that condensed the story of Rudolph’s rise from underdog to hero down to 16 lines plus a short introduction that references “A Visit from St. Nicholas”:

     You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen,
     Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
     But do you recall
     The most famous reindeer of all?

The song was pitched to country singer Gene Autry, who first showed no interest. Autry’s wife encouraged him to change his mind (wives always know best, don’t they?).³ Columbia released the recording on September 1, 1949, and by Christmas, it was a smash hit with 1.75 million copies selling by the end of the season. As a result of the success, Marks started up his own publishing company, St. Nicholas Music. He would go on to write several more classic Christmas tunes, including “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (1958, made popular by Brenda Lee) and “Run Rudolph Run” (1958, recorded by Chuck Berry; also known as “Run, Run Rudolph”).

Rudolph with Hermey the elf in the 1964 television special.

Eventually, Rudolph made his leap to the small screen. In 1963, Videocraft International, Ltd. (later Rankin/Bass Productions) was contracted by General Electric (GE) to produce animated specials for the General Electric Fantasy Hour on NBC. The first special was the conventionally animated Return to Oz, based on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which aired in February of 1964. For the second special, Videocraft adapted May’s story and hired Marks to write additional songs. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer aired on December 6, 1964. The hour-long stop-motion animation special significantly expanded May’s original story introduced viewers to new characters, including a snowman narrator, Sam, voiced by Burl Ives. Ives sings the title song as well as the newly composed “Silver and Gold” and “Holly Jolly Christmas.” The special was a huge success and has aired every year since (it moved from NBC to CBS in 1972), making it the longest continually running Christmas special of all time. Marks had no idea how right he was when he wrote the ultimate couplet of his entry in the American Christmas songbook:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,
You’ll go down in history!


¹”Dunder” and “Blixem” were the original Dutch names used by Moore, which translated to English are “Thunder” and “Lightening.” In an 1844 version, he changed them to the “Donder” and “Blitzen.” When Marks wrote the lyrics to the song in 1949, he used the correct German spelling of “Donner.”

²https://www.npr.org/2013/12/25/256579598/writing-rudolph-the-original-red-nosed-manuscript

³http://www.nytimes.com/1985/09/04/arts/johnny-marks-dies-composed-hit-song-rudolph-in-1949.html

Take some books to go!

You’ve done it! You’ve survived another semester! Now for some FUN reading. Check out SOME of our new additions to the popular reading book collection. You can find them on the first floor of Mullen Library in the Reference Reading Room.

 

 

Beauty and the Beast

 

 

 

 

 

Hold your cursor over the Title to see a short description of the book, or click to view the catalog record. The status of the book is shown beside the call number.

Title Author Status
Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual Jocko Willink
Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery Scott Kelly
In the Midst of Winter Isabel Allende
Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier, No. 2 (Twin Peaks) Mark Frost
Silence in the Age of Noise Erling Kagge
The Sentient Machine: The Coming Age of Artificial Intelligence Amir Husain
Why Bob Dylan Matters
Richard F. Thomas
Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News Kevin Young
God: a Human History Reza Aslan
Signs of Hope: Messages from Subway Therapy Matthew Chavez
Artemis Andy Weir
I’m Fine….and other Lies Whitney Cummings
Smile Roddy Doyle

Looking for more options? You can always see a full list of our Popular Reading books in the catalog, by searching under keyword, “CUA Popular Reading.”
For more great information from CUA Libraries, follow us on Facebook and Twitter:

Mullen Library Facebook; @CUAlibraries
Religious Studies, Philosophy, and Canon Law Collections Facebook; @CUATheoPhilLib
CUA Sciences Facebook; @CUAScienceLib
CUA Architecture & Planning Librarian Facebook; @CUArchLib
CUA Music Collections Facebook; @CUAMusicLib

The American Christmas Songbook: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (1944)

Frank Loesser and his wife, Lynn Garland, 1956. Image courtesy of AP/Anthony Camerano.

As I’ve been chatting about this blog series with friends, more than one person has asked me: “You aren’t going to do ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside,’ are you??

Therefore, let me make this disclaimer on the outset: I am not going to discuss this song in the context of 2017. It was not written in 2017, and if it were, it would be a failure. Frank Loesser wrote it in 1944 to sing with his wife for friends attending a party. Did date rape not exist then? Of course it did. Unfortunately, sometimes lyrics just don’t hold up, and that’s exactly what has happened here. Our tolerance for such humor has changed, but the song remains. I cannot speak on Loesser’s behalf, but if he were around today to defend his work, I believe he would explain that the song represents a game of mutual flirtation–neither want the night to end, but one is worried about her reputation (again, it’s 1944, and respectable women don’t “stay over”). While we could start dissecting the verse to prove whether or not that is the case, I’m not going to do that. It’s already been done, again and again.

I have long admired the music of Frank Loesser. The handful of musicals that he wrote are diverse, both musically and thematically. I best got to know him (and his music) while directing a community theater production of How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, a 1961 show about a scheming window washer who climbs the corporate ladder by fraud and fiddle. My favorite number, which I kept no secret from my cast and crew, was “It’s Been a Long Day.” In the scene,¹ the protagonist, J. Pierpont Finch, meets his new co-workers, secretaries Smitty and Rosemary Pilkington, at the elevator at close of business. The three attempt small talk, but the nervous attraction between Finch and Rosemary get in the way. With the discrete persuasion of Smitty, the two make plans for dinner at Stouffer’s – “service for two [for] $3.58.” The call and response format along with the clumsy flirtation are reminiscent of a song Loesser had written seventeen years earlier.

Ricardo Montalbán and Betty Garrett get fresh in Neptun’s Daughter (1949). Images courtesy of MGM.

In the winter of 1944, Loesser hosted a housewarming party with his wife, former nightclub singer Lynn Garland, in their Navarro Hotel home in New York City. To indicate to their guests that the party was coming to an end, the Loessers sang a duet he composed just for the occasion, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” In the song, which Loesser indicates in the original score is sung by “Mouse” and “Wolf,”² Lynn’s attempts to bid farewell to her husband are met with resistance. While she expresses concern about what her family will think, he encourages her to avoid the bitter temperatures and cozy up with him. The guests loved it, asking the couple for an encore. Following their party, they received requests from other hosts to perform the number at their own gatherings. The song was a hit, but only among showbiz elites.

In 1948, MGM bought the rights to the song. The studio wanted to include it in their upcoming film, Neptune’s Daughter. In the movie, the number is performed twice through:  the first time features romantic leads Esther Williams (singing the Mouse role) and Ricardo Montalbán (singing the Wolf role); the second time around, the gender roles are reversed, with supporting cast mates Betty Garrett as the Wolf and Red Skelton as the Mouse. One may wonder if the decision to have the comedic relief repeat the exchange with the tables turned was an effort to diminish any uneasiness the first scene may have caused. Honestly, I doubt it, but the laughs it gets are certainly appreciated. The scene earned Loesser an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1950.

Before Neptune’s Daughter premiered, Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark had already recorded “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for Columbia records. By the end of year, other versions were offered by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan (Decca), Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer (Capitol), and Laura Leslie and Don Cornell (with Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra; RCA Victor). Mercury released a simple piano/vocal recording of Loesser and Garland singing their own song, just as they did at the parties they hosted and attended. Even the country music world had fun with the tune when RCA Victor released a slightly altered rendition, “with apologies to Frank Loesser,” by Homer and Jethro with the legendary June Carter. As I’ve pointed out with a few other tunes I’ve covered so far in this series, the song has nothing to do with Christmas, and was not written with the holiday in mind at all. Jo Stafford and Dean Martin both included “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” on their “wintertime” albums, Ski Trails (Columbia, 1956) and A Winter Romance (Capitol, 1959), respectively. The first explicitly Christmas album to feature the duet was Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme’s That Holiday Feeling (Columbia, 1964). Ever since then, it’s been a treasured (though recently controversial) part of the American Christmas songbook.


¹This clip is taken from the 1967 film adaption of the musical by United Artists, which starred Robert Morse (the original Finch), Michele Lee, and Kay Renolds.

²Thomas Laurence Riis, Frank Loesser (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), pp. 71–73.

The Archivist’s Nook: National Treasure – Catholic University Students Explore Campus History

Flier for the November 17th National Treasure event sponsored by Campus Ministry. No, Benjamin Franklin Gates did not steal our beloved Gus Garvey. As this recent photo shows, Gus is alive, well, and ready for the holidays!

There are many ways to connect the present with the past. One of the easiest is through physical objects, such as, say, informing students on the history of the physical space of their university campus. The Archives worked with Campus Ministry this past November on an event which had students playing trivia, doing a campus scavenger hunt, and watching National Treasure, a heist film involving a search for a treasure hidden by the American Founding Fathers. The event, inspired by the film and thus dubbed “National Treasure” itself, had students exploring the Catholic University campus for prizes while learning about the layers of history embedded on the campus itself.

A list of the items placed in the cornerstone of Caldwell Hall when the building was erected in 1888.

Indeed, the National Treasure reference is not really that far off the mark. Take the first structure built in 1803 on what is now the University campus, Sidney. Sidney, after the political theorist Algernon Sidney, was built and occupied by Margaret Bayard Smith and her husband, Samuel Harrison Smith, who was invited to move to the District of Columbia by then President Thomas Jefferson in order to publish the city’s first newspaper, The National Intelligencer, which he did. Jefferson, James and Dolley Madison, and other political luminaries visited Sidney back in the early days of Washington, D.C. Later, the house was sold to the Middleton family, and in 1887, to the founders of the Catholic University.

In 1890 the administration saw fit to allow the physicist and astronomer George Searle to construct an observatory at the highest point on campus, which lies just North of Centennial Village. The observatory contained a telescope and was used to observe and study, among other things, comets. Though the observatory burned down in 1924, the base for the telescope remains. On the left is the intact observatory in its heyday. On the right are Alexis Anelli (left) and Ella Wermuth (right) braving the chilly air to learn its history more than a century later.

The scavenger hunt/trivia night involved exploration of some of the earliest physical aspects of the campus, including two of CUA’s founders: Mary Gwendoline Caldwell’s eponymous Caldwell Hall and its cornerstone, laid in 1888, as well as the ginormous marble statue of Leo XIII that found itself in the foyer of McMahon Hall when it was constructed in 1895 and hasn’t moved since.

More recently built structures are quickly acquiring some local historical significance, too. The Great Rooms of the Pryzbyla Center hosted Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the United States in 2008. And the lower level of the Pryz features a painting of a CUA Cardinal done by the actor Jon Voight while he was a student here in the late 1950s—the painting was originally done on the floor of the gymnasium, which was housed in what is today the Crough Center for Architectural Studies.

The American Christmas Songbook: “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (1934)

The balloon of Eddie Cantor–the first to be based on a live person–in the 1934 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Image courtesy of NY.Curbed.com.

In 1934, radio star Eddie Cantor needed a new Christmas song to sing on a live broadcast during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He approached Leo Feist, a music publisher, who happened to have a song he had not yet published by composer John Frederick “Fred” Coots and lyricist James Lamont “Haven” Gillespie titled “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” At first, Cantor was unsure if “childish” appeal of the song would make it a hit, but his wife encouraged him to give it a chance. He was glad she did! Within 24 hours of the broadcast, 100,000 copies of sheet music had been purchased, and another 300,000 had sold by Christmas.¹ A studio recording by banjoist Harry Reese and his Orchestra (with vocals by Tom Stacks; Decca) had also sold over 300,000 copies overnight. Needless to say, it has remained an annual hit ever since. In 1970, Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc. created a stop motion animated special based on the song for ABC, featuring Fred Astaire as the narrator S.D. Kluger and Mickey Rooney as Kris Kringle.

While I could shower you with a list of celebrated recordings, I’d instead like to treat you to a guest blog by my colleague and dear friend, Rachel Evangeline Barham. She shares one of the most unusual interpretations of this jovial holiday hit and a glimpse of the man behind it:


Stumbling Upon the Musical Genius of Joseph Spence

As a professional singer, I have a pretty low tolerance for the “holiday” music that wallpapers America nonstop for the last month of every year (or, to my dismay, more than the last month). I’ve done my share of starting Christmas music rehearsals before Columbus Day, so musical holiday cheer is not a strong motivator for me. Maybe that’s why my first encounter with Bahamian guitar genius Joseph Spence was such an epiphany.

Joseph Spence playing for friends on his front porch. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

My spouse and I were sitting on the couch listening to a local radio show called Traditions with Mary Cliff: “folk music and things you can see from there.” Suddenly, the sounds coming from the radio were unlike anything we’d ever heard. I stared at him wide-eyed, and he scrambled for the volume knob. We listened in pure delight to Joseph Spence’s genre-defying interpretation of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”

We set out to find out everything we could about him. It turned out that we were pretty late to the party. Joseph Spence lived from 1910 to 1984, and among those who cite his influence are Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, and the Grateful Dead. His songs were first recorded and brought to a wider audience in 1959 with the release of the Smithsonian Folkways album Music of the Bahamas Volume One: Bahamian Folk Guitar (below). This album features field recordings taken by Samuel Charters, whose personal interest in the varieties of music made by North Americans of African descent were seminal in bringing to light the influence of the blues on jazz.² His enthusiasm for such music led him to amass field recordings of now legendary folk musicians whose contributions may otherwise have been lost forever, including those done on Joseph Spence’s front porch.

One of the things that makes Joseph Spence’s recordings so delightful is his vocalizations. The actual lyrics of the songs occasionally make appearances, but they are overshadowed by the instantly recognizable scat style that employs his unique idiolect, influenced by the rhythmic lilt of Bahamian creole.³ As easy as it is to get lost in the pure joy of Spence’s vocal style, his guitar technique and facility with improvisation are truly remarkable. The first time Samuel Charters heard Spence, he thought there were two guitarists playing together,⁴ and many accomplished guitarists have found Spence’s plucking technique easy to admire but difficult to imitate. Spence’s fancy finger work on his sometimes out-of-tune guitar, the percussive effects of his vocal sounds, and his rhythmic beating on the body of the instrument make a complete one-man band. Now that’s holiday cheer.

Further listening:

Out on the Rolling Sea

Jump in the Line

The Crow


Rachel Evangeline Barham

¹Eddie Cantor is well known to DC-area listeners as the singer of “I Love to Spend Each Sunday With You (One Hour With You),” the sign-off song for WAMU’s long-running old time radio show “The Big Broadcast.”

²https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/6363760/santa-claus-is-coming-to-town-ascap-list-most-performed-christmas-songs

³Rohter, Larry (March 18, 2015). “Samuel Charters, Foundational Scholar of the Blues, Dies at 85“. New York Times. [retrieved 12/7/2017]

⁴Bahamian English Resources: a clearinghouse for information on Bahamian English, www.cobses.info/BahamianEnglish/index.html [retrieved 12/7/2017]

⁵Thompson, Dave (2002). Reggae & Caribbean Music. Backbeat Books. 274–275.