Rock ’n ’roll is old enough to have its share of Christmas classics. You know it’s the holiday season once you start hearing John and Yoko’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and any of the tracks on Phil Spector’s classic Christmas album.
But rock ’n’ roll also has produced some terrific Christmas songs that exist under the radar. You are unlikely to hear them while you’re shopping at the mall or listening to the radio in your car, but with Christmas Day around the corner, here are five suggestions for a change of pace from the usual holiday music fare.
The Band: “Christmas Must Be Tonight"
“Christmas Must Be Tonight" tells the Christmas story from a different perspective – that of a shepherd who sees a manger, a newborn baby and wise men from the East and concludes: “This must be Christmas, must be tonight.”
Robbie Robertsons’s lyrics are akin to a journalist reporting the birth of Christ. The song is a third-person narrative with all the detail, color and significance of a major news story.
But if the journalism perspective doesn’t pique your interest, Rick Danko’s vocals alone make “Christmas Must Be Tonight" worth a listen.
Peter, Paul and Mary: “The Cherry Tree Carol”
Numerous artists have recorded “The Cherry Tree Carol,” a ballad that originated in the 15th century.
Like “Christmas Must Be Tonight," the song adds a new dimension to the Christmas story. The lyrics paint a very human picture of Joseph who is none too pleased that he is not the father of Mary’s child. But after the unborn baby Jesus performs a minor miracle, Joseph repents.
Musically, “The Cherry Tree Carol” is not an angry song. The Peter, Paul and Mary version, included on the trio’s 1988 “A Holiday Celebration” album, features the group’s classic harmonies backed only by acoustic guitar. The song lends itself well to Peter, Paul and Mary, allowing each of them to play the different roles in the story and join their voices together in the chorus.
Patti Smith: "White Christmas"
A Patti Smith recording of “White Christmas” in 2018 would be unusual. Smith’s actual recording of the Christmas classic in 1978 was bizarre for its time.
Today, Smith is widely known as a singer-songwriter, poet and visual artist who has been an influential figure for decades. In 1978, she was pioneering the fusion of rock music and poetry and playing an influential role in the birth of punk rock – and she also found time to get into the studio and record a relatively traditional version of “White Christmas."
Hearing a young Patti Smith sing “White Christmas” during the early years of the punk rock movement demonstrates the universality of Christmas.
Details about the recording are murky. Search the Internet and you’ll find stories about the recording being part of as contractual obligation, credits filled with pseudonyms and eBay prices in excess of $50. You’ll also find the song easily on YouTube.
Laura Nyro: "Christmas in My Soul"
If you want something unusual in the way of Christmas recordings, look no further than “Christmas in My Soul” on Laura Nyro's "Christmas and the Beads of Sweat" album. The lyrics contain references to the Black Panthers, the Chicago Seven and homeless Native Americans.
Nyro wrote several songs that became hit singles for popular artists – “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Stoned Soul Picnic” for the 5th Dimension, “Eli’s Coming: for Three Dog Night and “And When I Die” for Blood, Sweat and Tears. “Christmas in My Soul” starts off sounding like another Nyro composition bound for commercial success as she bellows “Come young braves, come young children, come to the book of love with me,” but it quickly becomes more complex musically and lyrically.
Written in 1970, the lyrics continue to ring true today:
I love my country as it dies
In war and pain before my eyes
I walk the streets where disrespect has been
The sins of politics, the politics of sin
The heartlessness that darkens my soul
John Fahey: "The New Possibility"
This is not one song but an entire instrumental album of familiar Christmas songs performed on steel-string guitar by a highly talented and well-respected musician who never achieved the commercial success he deserved. Tragically, the man ranked 35th on Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest guitarists of all time list spent many of his later years in poverty and poor health.
“The New Possibility” was John Fahey’s greatest commercial success, selling 100,000 copies after its release in 1968. It contains Fahey’s versions of 14 Christmas classics, including “Joy to the World,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” The sound is simple – just Fahey’s guitar. But it also warms the heart and is the perfect soundtrack to accompany the sounds of a crackling fireplace during the holiday season.
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Musical tastes vary. So if these five suggestions don’t work for you, don’t despair. I’m sure someone will be recording a new version of “Run, Run, Rudolph” very soon.