On "12 Songs of Christmas," Alex Rawls talks to musicians about Christmas music to consider what different contexts tell us about the music, the business, and the culture. How can something so beloved be so disliked?
New Orleans' Panorama Jazz Band (an encore presentation)
COVID-19 forced major changes to Mardi Gras, including no parades, but New Orleanians still found ways to honor to day and spirit of the holiday. Since I take Mardi Gras seriously, my family and I were out on Fat Tuesday to see - and be a part of - a socially distanced Mardi Gras.
In honor of the holiday, I've scheduled an encore presentation of the first episode of 12 Songs with Ben Schenk of New Orleans' Panorama Jazz Band. Panorama plays music from the traditional jazz repertoire and folds in music from other cultures that makes sense with it. Not surprisingly, the band has made good, interesting Christmas music that is musically and conceptually true to who they are.
In honor of Mardi Gras, the show opens with a new cover of the '70s Philly soul instrumental "T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)" by Panorama's parade band incarnation, the Panorama Brass Band.
If you like that or other music in this episode, you can get it by subscribing to Panorama's Good Music for You/Song of the Month Club.
Sufjan Stevens' "Music for Christmas" with Chris Marchand
Last December, listener and Anglican pastor Chris Marchand wrote to tell me about Let Nothing You Dismay--an EP of Christmas music that could serve as a the soundtrack to A Blade Runner Christmas--and a book he wrote, Celebrating The 12 Days of Christmas: A Guide for Churches and Families. While we swapped email, we started talking about Sufjan Stevens' five-CD Music for Christmas.
Pitchfork.com reviewed it and contended that the album's plain-spoken embrace of Christianity felt punk in an indie rock context. The review felt a little like an effort to hold on to Stevens and pull him into indie's doubt-everything ethos that he might not really share, but to be fair, Music for Christmas sends enough signals that it's hard to feel certain about readings of it. Because of that, I thought Chris brought a perspective that would prove useful, so we met online early in January to break it down a bit.
In this episode, I also went into the collection to pull out another favorite that's hard to explain. The fiercely Canadian Stompin' Tom Connors released Merry Christmas, Everybody in 1970, and it's hard to put your finger on what's so great about it. I try though.
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A Latin Ska Christmas with Mento Buru
Mento Buru from East Bakersfield, California has played around California's Central Valley since the early 1990s. Bandleader Matt Munoz explains how they, like many bands, have made a living and endured as a regional act.
Last Christmas, Mento Buru released the East Bakersfield Christmas EP, which features Christmas classics adapted to suit the band's Latin ska sound. Munoz talks about how and why they made it, along with the two Spanish-language Christmas songs--"Donde Esta Santa Claus" by Augie Rios, and "Feliz Navidad" by Jose Feliciano. We discussed his fascination with Augie Rios in an earlier episode, but this time we talk about where he found the Spanish lyrics for the song that was written in English.
Along the way, Munoz shares some of his holiday favorites, including songs by the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Cheech and Chong, and Alexander O'Neal.
This week's episode also pays some attention to Earth, Wind & Fire's 2014 Christmas album, Holiday, and the 2015 Sony Legacy repackaging of it with a few extra tracks as The Classic Christmas Album. I'm fascinated by it because the band doesn't simply lend its grooves to Christmas favorites. On a number of the tracks, it either adds seasonal lyrics to pre-existing EWF songs, or it reuses familiar horn flourishes and signature parts to make their versions explicitly theirs.
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"Joyeux Noël, Bon Chrismeusse" from Lafayette with Chas Justus
Chas Justus' musical taste ends around 1965, he says, and he has made his living playing in roots music bands in Southern Louisiana--the swing band The Red Stick Ramblers, and more recently in The swamp pop band The Revelers. Last fall, he brought together a number of his musical friends to record Joyeux Noël, Bon Chrismeusse, an EP of classic Christmas songs sung in Cajun French. He talks about how the project came about, and how COVID-19 helped make it possible.
Along the way, he turns me on to a couple of tracks--Belton Richard's Cajun French version of Buck Owens' "You're All I Want for Christmas," and Chicago guitarist Joel Paterson's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
I first interviewed Justus in 2015 for MySpiltMilk.com. Here's that story on The Revelers.
In this week's episode, I also talk about My Holiday by Mindy Smith, a Christmas album that I think merits more far attention than it gets.
Peggy Lee with Holly Foster-Wells
Before Christmas, I talked to Holly Foster-Wells, the president of Peggy Lee Associates, about her grandmother, singer Peggy Lee. In the episode that also included conversations with Joey Burns of Calexico and Grant-Lee Phillips, we talked about Lee's Christmas parties and her songwriting, which seemed to be aimed at children more than fans might expect.
Today, we resume the conversation to talk more about her songwriting, her role in her career, and the challenges she dealt with as a woman that men didn't.
During the Christmas season, Capitol Records released a two-CD/two-record set of her Christmas music, Ultimate Christmas.
This episode also includes one of my favorite bizarre Christmas songs, "Jingle Bell Hustle" by Wayne Newton.
Amy Grant's "A Christmas Album" and Patrick Droney
Host Alex Rawls talks with guitarist Patrick Droney about covering Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" and the role Christmas music has played so far, and the singer Boyfriend talks about her love for Amy Grant's "A Christmas Album."