Nov 22, 2019
By Arthur George
The great popular songs of Christmas seem like they’ve been around forever, but mostly go back only to the 1930s and 1940s, with interesting histories, including Sonoma County connections. Many will be showcased in “A Gift of Holiday Music,” a concert Sunday December 22 from 2 to 3:30 p.m. under “The Dome,” the rotunda acoustic music space at Sebastopol Methodist Church, 500 North Main Street.
The December 22 concert will feature two vocalists, Nancy Berger and Gail Bowers, backed by a jazz and pop quartet of pianist Jim Johnson, saxophonist Rob Wegner, bass player John Schlesinger Jr., and drummer Karl Forsyth. Johnson created the program to be educational and family-friendly, an entertaining break in the days immediately preceding Christmas. Most of the songs are rarely heard live, particularly by younger listeners.
One of the most popular, “White Christmas,” was written for the 1942 movie “Holiday Inn” by Irving Berlin, along with “Happy Holiday.” The movie starred Bing Crosby as a nightclub singer who wants to run a country hotel. In a kind of rural “urban legend,” the Village Inn in Monte Rio is said to have been used for part of the film while Crosby was at the nearby Bohemian Grove, but most of the film obviously occurs on movie sets. The story and song were reworked in 1954 for the movie “White Christmas,” starring Crosby again, trying to save a Vermont inn financially endangered by a lack of snow.
“Christmas Time Is Here” was written by San Francisco jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi in 1965 for “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the first animated “Peanuts” special of characters created by Santa Rosa cartoonist Charles Schulz. Guaraldi and Duke Ellington pioneered a “Jazz in Church” tradition at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in the late 1960s, bringing popular music into church environments, as by “The Dome” here.
“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Walking in A Winter Wonderland” were unknown until 1934; “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” greeted 1935. In the 1940s, the longings of World War II resonated in “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” again by Bing Crosby in 1943. Others new back then were “Little Drummer Boy” in 1941, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” both in 1944. In 1945 Mel Torme wrote “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting Over An Open Fire).” Composers Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne dreamed of cooler conditions writing “Let It Snow” during a July Los Angeles heat wave that same year.
“Silver Bells” was introduced in 1950, yet again by Bing Crosby. “Home for the Holidays” came in 1954, and was the wake-up song for astronauts of the Space Shuttle Discovery on their last morning in space before returning to earth December 22, 2006.
“Jingle Bell Rock,” “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas,” and “Blue Christmas” by Elvis Presley all originated in 1957, and Brenda Lee was “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in 1958, written by Johnny Marks.
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is a relatively late arrival, from 1961. “Frosty the Snowman” was first recorded by Gene Autry in 1950, but the 1963 arrangement by The Ronettes will be heard in the December 22 event. “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” again by Johnny Marks, was unheard until 1965.
Jewish composers and lyricists wrote many of these songs: Irving Berlin, Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne, Mel Torme, Johnny Marks, Eddie Cantor (“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”), Jay Livingstone (“Silver Bells”), and Felix Bernand (“Winter Wonderland”). Jewish persons were active in the songwriting and music publishing industries, and as immigrants and their descendants they created visions for celebration in their new homeland.
Not all the Christmas classics are of recent origin. “Deck the Halls” was first published in 1862, but the melody traces back to the 1700s. “Jingle Bells” originates in 1857. Hymns go back centuries. Not many holiday favorites appears from the most recent decades, with all manner of performers instead presenting their interpretations of the past.
The December 22 concert is free, with a $10 donation encouraged, to benefit music programs. Parking is available on adjoining streets and opposite the Sebastopol Safeway.
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