EDITOR’S PICK
DECEMBER 22, 2010 10:41AM

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When it came to music my father and I had little in common. He couldn’t abide the rock music I played for a living.  I had no use for the idol of his youth, Bix Biederbeck. Or any other jazz for that matter.  We briefly agreed on liking folk music – with Peter, Paul and Mary. But he never got Dylan even before Bob went electric.

 The one place we came together musically was at Christmas. Fraught as that time was for me,  I always enjoyed carols with him.

 In his later years he complained about the decline of Christmas music, ‘Where’s the stuff I loved? All I hear is junk.”  I would have chalked it up to the crankiness of old age, except I felt the same way.  What we bemoaned was that our dear old carols, which came from Europe, were being publicly buried beneath piles of American stuff of more recent origin, written mostly in the 40s.

 Sometime around the late 70s, as I battled throngs of other seasonal deadbeats on Christmas Eve - having typically procrastinated – I noticed that the old carols were disappearing. I found myself assailed by Rudolf and his Red Nose, by that icky scene of Mommy kissing Santa. And by “Jingle Bell Rock” –which coming after Hendrix and the greats was an insult to the genre. It was about as rocked out as Mel Torme, the crooner responsible for “The Christmas Song,” otherwise known as “Chestnuts roasting round an open fire.”  A chestnut, indeed.

 The song I absolutely can’t abide to this day is the Little Drummer Boy. Now I love drums. They were my first instrument. Drums do that pounding, beating sound we call percussion quite well. Voices don’t. And a big chorus of them doesn’t help. Voices are for singing, not drumming, Yet they persist in trying to do just that throughout what always feels to me like at least a half hour. I’ve come to think of it as the “rumpa-bump-bummer song.”

                                                ------------

 What made all that music so hard on my father’s ears, and mine, was how it suffered in comparison with the old stuff.  “Joy to the World.”  “What Child is This.” Hark the Herald Angels,” and my favorite, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.” They all have great melodies.

 I enjoyed playing piano for carol sings in our college community.  I’m told that my father had a few drinks and sang loudly. But I don’t remember, because I was busy at the piano faking my way through all those songs, because I couldn’t read music. What I do remember is how when we got to my favorite song some of the Profs showed off their erudition by singing it in Latin: “Adestes Fidelis.”

 So what is the deal with all this American music replacing the traditional carols? You might think it was because people got tired of the old, except that by the late 70s all those 40s songs were a generation old.  Their crooning style –the sounds of  Bing and Dean and Frank - was exactly what the rock revolution intended to overthrow. Eleven months of the year it’s long been obvious who won that war, hands down.  Yet every year at Christmas the otherwise despised sounds of the 40s are back, louder than ever.

 Is it nostalgia for a time of American innocence?  Is it because we’re more comfortable with songs that celebrate fun than that serious old religious stuff?  Perhaps.  But I think there’s a different reason.

 There’s a clue in the career of  Irving Berlin. He wrote the most popular American Christmas song. “White Christmas” not only tops the Christmas lists, but has sold more singles than any record in history. Berlin was a founding member of ASCAP.  ASCAP was started to insure that musicians, who’d once made their living in live performance, could benefit from what ASCAP deems “performances” of recorded music – their lucrative theory being that every time a piece of recorded music is played in public, its creator should benefit.

 Thanks to ASCAP,  “White Christmas” made Berlin very rich. Doubly so, because he was his own music publisher.  By long tradition music publishers split revenues 50/50 with their writers. 

 I’m a music publisher myself. I work hard for my 50% - promoting the music I own, and collecting the royalties worldwide. That’s how I discovered the key to why traditional carols are disappearing. I have a few CDs of classical music in my library. I got a recent ASCAP statement and was shocked to find that a piece of Mozart’s from my library only paid a tenth of what the other pieces did for playing on the same TV station. I inquired and was told that it was because the Mozart is in the Public Domain: i.e., was written before 1922.  

 Though the writers of those American Christmas songs from the 40s are all dead, their publishers are alive, and the songs are still under copyright –which means they pay the full rate.  The publishers naturally push the music that will make them the most profit. As most of them will tell you, they are not in the music business for their health.

 Who can blame them? They’re just getting with the spirit of contemporary Christmas. The spirit of Ka-ching. Dreaming of a green Christmas, and I’m not talking ecology. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

Luminous, Eye-opening piece here. Prior to 1922? Geez, maybe it's an over simplistic thought but like antiques you'd think some of this could have more value. I love the traditional carols, my favourite probably being Good King Wenceslas but have been known to be seen "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree" too. I posted a few not-so traditional songs for the season. I wonder what your take on them might be. Happy Solstice!
I kind of understood this from selling vintage sewing patterns..
Honestly? I do not think anything should be in public domain.
Really interesting blog..
rated with hugs
I love the old carols. The tenderness of Silent Night and the beautiful calm of O Little Town of Bethlehem will remain a part of me forever. The newer songs have a secular tone I have noticed.
Thank all of you, and David - love those two videos! Darlene Love has got the biggest voice. And I recognize some of those musicians from sessions....
So funny, our differing views of Xmas music (with a little crossover - just out my latest piece). 

I had no clue Berlin was a founding member of ASCAP - interesting, indeed.

Wonder if you listen to the show Sound Opinions very much...seems up your alley.

Happy holidays!
You're a music publisher, eh? I've often wondered how that works. A classic radio station will play the same songs over and over everyday. It seems like someone is getting rich. Along with you that is!
Beth - Happy holidays to you, too! I will check out sound opinions and your post - always open to new music. 

Scanner - I am a SMALL publisher. Just getting by, but we would starve without ASCAP. So thanks, Irving Berlin.
Interesting, and I guess I'm not surprised that Mozart doesn't bring in the bucks. Kind of like why the classics (books) don't cost much at all, while a pedestrian James Patterson paperback is a small fortune.
You'd have loved the xmas music at our house--1963's Andy Williams Christmas on the Magnovox, featuring "the Little Drummer Boy." My favorite hymn was "We Three Kings" and ditto "What Child Is This""--I love music in minor key. 
Personally, nowadays I listen almost nonstop to Chant by those Spanish Benedictine monks. I wonder if they're ASCAP members, or if they answer to a higher power? (r)
This was very interesting indeed. I do love the '40's carols - as well as the older ones. Each period has its own mood and magic, to me. But realizing there's money behind it makes that all turn a bit sour... Oh dear....
Once again it's economic determinism, or in the vernacular, follow the money. I might have been dimly aware that something like this was afoot so thanks for clarifying it.

Wouldn't there be some incentive for radio stations to play public domain music? Savings on royalties?

As for the traditional carols, I'm partial to I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In and the hard-to-sing Carol of the Bells.
I remember when the Little Drummer Boy came on the scene. It was considered very new and modern. I respect that you and your father loved the old songs but as a non religious person I find them very difficult to listen to. I like the more secular zippy songs that do not remind me of the power plays of the church over these last centuries.
I confess to loving the modern Christmas songs, but love the traditional carols, too. I've always wondered why the classic hymns and carols have fallen out of fashion -- I figured it was an issue of religion (I have no problem singing about baby Jesus, as I also am a disbeliever in Santa but still sing about him, but I guess I can see why other atheists might object) or perhaps vocabulary (who nowadays can pronounce Wenceslas? And what is wassail?). Thanks for casting some light on the mystery!
Interesting reading a bit more about music publishing and learning how ASCAP works. There are many modern Christmas songs that I enjoy, but of the traditional ones " What Child Is This" is my favorite.
I don't mean to be a pill, but I believe Elton John broke Berlin's best selling record with his "Candle In The Wind" rewrite for Princess Diana-
At a big house party the other night the requests for traditonal Christmas tunes was astounding. We had a Louisiana based group of musicians on hand and the big rolling stride piano stylings a al Professor Longhair kept them rockin'. 
Even though Irving Berlin's " White Christmas" gumbo style eventually evolved into " Rudolph the Frosted Snowman" , I could feel the pull for the old days coming from people who for just a few hours allowed themselves the magical feeling of yesteryear.
I guess I'm one of those enigmae.
I'm an atheist who enjoys saying merry christmas because it soulnds warm a friendly.
I like some of the traditional christmas music(carols) and am a life long lover of jazz, including christmas jazz.
Where would we be without The Christmas Song written by a great jazz artist/composer, Mel?
Too bad we can't suggest to Mozart and Bach that they need new publishing deals.
Here I am dreaming of a Green Xmas. It's just like spring time as well. Thanks for the memories. May you have a musically fabulous Christmas and more.
At a folk open mic I played at a few nights ago one of the musicians did a pretty nice version of "The Christmas Song". Part way through it one of my fellow folkies in the front row whispered jokingly to his friend "Hey that has more than three chords. That's not allowed here." 
I grew up with Christmas and Christmas carols. Although I am no longer part of organized religion, I love the story, the festivity and hopefulness of the songs. But I also like some of the non-traditional songs as well. Songs that deal with winter rather than the holiday itself. Or the funny ones that poke fun of some of our customs like Santa Claus. They're fun to do and to write but it's impossible to top the classics.
At a folk open mic I played at a few nights ago one of the musicians did a pretty nice version of "The Christmas Song". Part way through it one of my fellow folkies in the front row whispered jokingly to his friend "Hey that has more than three chords. That's not allowed here." 
I grew up with Christmas and Christmas carols. Although I am no longer part of organized religion, I love the story, the festivity and hopefulness of the songs. But I also like some of the non-traditional songs as well. Songs that deal with winter rather than the holiday itself. Or the funny ones that poke fun of some of our customs like Santa Claus. They're fun to do and to write but it's impossible to top the classics.

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