Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Modern Christmas Carols

Ah yes, it's that time of year. Chestnuts roasting on an open butane-gas heater and the sounds of a traditional Spanish Yuletide in Mallorcan supermarkets - a Phil Spector Christmas collection ronetting over the public address systems - punctuated only by the Gregorian drone of the El Gordo lottery children, an interminable monotone almost as jolly as the Apocalyptic lyrics of the ancient Sibil·la chant.

The Mallorcan, and Spanish come that, Christmas musical tradition is not as strong as that which was born in Tin Pan Alley by Jewish songwriters indulging in heavy doses of sentimentalism and which ultimately became a Transatlantic and essentially Anglo-Saxon phenomenon - the Christmas hit. Spain, as a rule, has kept to the older Christmas song tradition. It has stuck with its "villancicos", with its "El Burrito Sabanero" or "Noche de Paz", occasionally veering off into the wider popular music market by José Feliciano-ing "Feliz Navidad" in both Spanish and English or by committing some truly unforgivable acts of musical vandalism by borrowing an English song and making it Spanish. Raphael's "La Ultima Navidad", a version of Wham's "Last Christmas", is such a sin. It serves as a good example of why the Christmas song is best left to others and why therefore Spanish supermarkets opt for Phil Spector or indeed Wham.

The Christmas carol, where the English are concerned, was first popularised by wassailers in the fifteenth century. The Spanish tradition of the "villancicos", which have come to mean carols as well as other songs at Christmas, is the product of a similar time. But it wasn't until the nineteenth century - Prince Albert, Dickens and all that - that the carol really took off and when, eventually, it was also sung in church. The English carol of late mediaeval and then Victorian times was, in a sense, a folk song. Though there may have been some liturgical origin, it was secular and it was also, as evidenced by itinerant wassailers, a form of street music. The communal, outdoor experience of singing carols has a long, long history.

So the carol was the musical staple of Christmas until Irving Berlin and others popped up in the US and created the Christmas hit, and in Spain, "Blanca Navidad" eventually found its way into the Spanish consciousness and into a list of all-time "villancico" classics.

The Spanish, despite not having embraced the Christmas hit in the same way as the British or the Americans, make no real distinction between a Christmas song and a carol. "Villancico" can apply to either and, in this regard, the Spanish may have been one step ahead of the pop world in Britain and America. The Christmas hit was something different. It wasn't a carol. But now, it is reasonable to place the Christmas hit alongside the carol. The Christmas hit has become as much a part of musical folklore as the carol. It is, therefore, as symbolic of Christmas as its very much older antecedent.

There is a point at which any popular and enduring song passes from being or having been a "hit" song into being folkloric. It's impossible to identify when that point in time occurs, but it occurs nonetheless. And Christmas songs, with their associated nostalgia, sentimentalism and messages, are the most obvious candidates for entering into this folklore tradition. "Let It Snow", another product of that mid-40s Jewish Christmas song production line, is, as with "White Christmas", as much a part of the Christmas tradition as "Silent Night", and "White Christmas" and "Silent Night" were both found on the album which did more than any other to create this tradition - Phil Spector's. It was an album which, as with the "villancico", juxtaposed the carol and the Christmas song.

That album didn't truly become popular until the early 1970s, but once popular, it unleashed Roy Wood's Wizzard, who aped the wall of sound, and Noddy Holder, who wrote the lyrics for what has every right to be considered a song in a folk tradition. In one line alone, and Holder knew he had a hit when he had written it, Slade simultaneously captured the mood of an everyman family Christmas and the nostalgia for the Irving Berlin era - "Does your granny always tell you that the old ones are the best".

So now, and it is no different whether it is a Spanish supermarket or BBC Radio One, the Christmas song is established as part of Christmas. Slade, Wizzard, John and Yoko, Wham and The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, they are all later additions to the 1940s tradition and the older one of the carol. Being more recent, it might be said that they don't have the longevity demanded in order to qualify for folklore, but their place in Christmas tradition and their popularity is vastly greater than it might otherwise have been because of popular technology - the download. And they, the Christmas hits, are the modern Christmas carols.

If you can bear it, Raphael's "La Ultima Navidad"

No comments: