Songs of terror, violence earn Holiday Hall of Fame honors

by | Dec 25, 2021 | Arts and Entertainment | 0 comments

A rollicking version of a song about life in an authoritarian surveillance state. And a jazzy, fun cover of a song about a horrible accident and mankind’s indifference to the cries of others in need.

These are the 2021 honorees in my (completely fictional) Holiday Music Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame exists to enshrine those particular performances of holiday music classics that are so definitive they never should be recorded again, especially by Pentatonix, Neil Diamond or John Legend. Because of my enduring respect for the First Amendment, I would allow these songs to be performed live in concert, but would require the artist to announce beforehand that the song has been enshrined in the Hall of Fame — and that concertgoers should seek out these definitive versions.

Last year’s inductees, like the year itself, tended to be downers: Joni Mitchell’s “River” and the Billie Holiday recording of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.”

This year’s honorees, at first glance, appear to be peppier, happier. But — again like the year itself — a closer examination reveals a dark shadow inside the sunshine.

This year’s addition to the Hall of Fame are the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s live version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Diana Krall’s recording of “Jingle Bells,” from her excellent 2005 album “Christmas Songs.”

There’s little question that Springsteen and the E Street Band’s live recording of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is the definitive version of the song, written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie. (Gillespie supposedly came up with the lyrics and scrawled them on the back on an envelope during a 15-minute subway ride.) The song was an immediate hit and has been recorded more than 200 times — but never better than in this 1975 live version from Springsteen, who clearly has a blast throughout, and who gets a big boost from the Big Man, in this case, the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Clemons’ sax solo here isn’t quite as good as his break in “Born to Run” — still, arguably, the greatest sax solo in rock ‘n’ roll — but it’s pretty good.

The song, of course, is about life under a brutal authoritarian regime that keeps its citizens under 24-hour surveillance — and which has the sole authority to determine which citizens are “nice” and which are “naughty.” In other words, just like today.

The other new honoree, Diana Krall’s rendition of “Jingle Bells,” has been on my short list for the Hall of Fame for years and finally has claimed its spot. Krall clearly is having fun here — which is not always the case on her recordings — and the arrangement, by John Clayton, swings. Krall adds the rarely heard fourth verse of the song — and even scats right afterward. The recording boasts a sprightly solo from Krall (the solo on the video is different from the one on the album, which I prefer), and I love her signoff at the end: “I’m just crazy about horses.”

The song itself dates back to 1857 and was written by James Lord Pierpont. Originally titled “The One Horse Open Sleigh,” it apparently was written either as a Thanksgiving song for a Sunday school class — or as a drinking song. Let’s hope it was the latter, because a close reading of the lyrics clearly shows that this is a song inappropriate for children. In the second verse, a mysterious “Miss Fanny Bright” suddenly appears, shortly followed by a high-speed crash. In the third verse, the narrator suffers a nasty fall on the snow, which draws only laughter from a rival — who drives away without offering help. In the fourth verse, the narrator concludes that what he needs is a faster horse so that he can pick up some girls. I can’t speak for you, but this is not the sort of education I got in Sunday school.

As always, I expect these additions to the Hall of Fame to spark controversy. And my response to this criticism remains the same: Tough. Start your own Holiday Music Hall of Fame.

And here, for your listening pleasure, is a playlist featuring all of the songs that have been enshrined to date in the Hall of Fame. The first 15 tracks are full-fledged honorees; the final four have earned honorable mention status.

Looking for something to do in the mid-valley? Check out my curated calendar of arts-and-entertainment events.

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