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Strictly Country Magazine Northwoods Country Christmas

Creating the best Christmas album of all time.

 

By: Gina Kay Singerhouse and Jack Rosenquist

Hosts of Around The Campfire

radio show

 

   Deep among the dense forest, the trees that were once so vibrant with yellow, orange and red have now faded into the dull color of brown.  The  leaves gently fall as the trees give way to embrace winter as they look forward to their long nap while saving their energy for the spring thaw.

  Out of the north it comes with a rush, the cold winds wisps through the branches of the fading trees.  The fallen leaves ride the unseen winds only to land in oblivion.

   The vibrance of the evergreens emerges to create a beauty that is welcomed at this time of the year.  The crisp air turns to cold as the smell of firewood lingers amongst the pines.

   Quietly and softly it comes.  Petite flakes of snow gently fall to create a winter wonderland amongst the forest.  It’s a peaceful, serene and tranquil scene.  One that very few humans will ever see.  The landscape is all dressed in pure beauty and is set for another winter season. 

   If you are blessed enough to observe this scene, you will observe the sounds around you.  Far out in the distance you may tune into mankind.  But that is not why you are here. Deep in the forest there is a beautiful song that many never take the time to hear.  It’s the sound of the Northwoods as it comes alive each day.

  The song is of black-capped chickadees flying from branch to branch as they hurry to collect the day’s meal.  Always busy, but not to busy to sing while they gather.

   The song is of the squirrels rushing to gather nuts while chattering amongst each other.  It’s the sound of the cardinal vocalizing to his mate as they too gather for the day’s meal.  It’s this song that captures the hearts of those who look, listen and cherish it up here in the Northwoods.

   Slightly up a hill, hidden from all but the wildlife is a small cabin.  The cabin is nestled in a grove of balsam firs and Norway pines that protect it from the cold north winds.  The front porch is dressed in fresh cut pine boughs and graced upon the door is a wreath of green. 

   A gentle knock and a warm greeting will welcome you in.  The fire is roaring and the smell of hot chocolate permeates the air.  The fireplace is adorned with the nativity as stockings are hung with hopes of Santa’s arrival.  The twinkling lights of the Christmas tree send a warm and fuzzy feeling that lights your soul.  The scene is set for a Northwoods Country Christmas.

   One minor detail is missing.  We can not celebrate Christmas with out music. But what Christmas music shall we choose?

   Throughout music history, entertainers have graced us with a wide variety of Christmas carols.  Carols range from songs about Santa Claus, snow and of course the real reason for the season.  Many carols have been immensely recorded, while others are a mainstay of their original recordings.  Each year, we are graced with new albums filled with old classics and new songs with an attempt to become new classics.  However shall we choose which songs to play?

   Through the years we have gathered and compiled an ever growing list of the best Christmas carols.  So, grab a cup of hot chocolate and find a cozy seat and let us entertain you with the best Christmas album of all time. 

   We begin with the ever popular “White Christmas.”  Written by Irving Berlin in 1940, this song has sold over 150 million copies and is classified as the most recorded Christmas song with more than 500 recorded versions in several different languages.  Nearly every year we hear a different version of this song.  However, there is only one version that must be embraced and celebrated.  Of course we are talking about the original version recorded by Bing Crosby in 1942.  Crosby first recorded the song on Christmas Day in 1941, on his NBC radio show The Kraft Music Hall.  This song has become a staple in Christmas music due to it’s mix of melancholy and comforting images of home that resonated especially strongly with soldiers and listeners during World War II.

   Another song from the film White Christmas that we have to include is “Snow.” All the songs from the film were written by Irving Berlin, including this one.  Performed by Big Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye, this song brings a sense of nostalgia as you listen.

   Another song written by Irving Berlin and recorded by Bing Crosby to hit our list is “Happy Holiday.”  This song is commonly known as a Christmas song and was written for the movie Holiday Inn and encourages listeners to enjoy “happy holidays” throughout the entire year.

   “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is another classic favorite that was originally released shortly after Thanksgiving in 1962.  The original recording was made by the Harry Simeone Chorale.  However, Bing Crosby made the song a hit when he released it a year later.  This song is another that has been recorded by hundreds of artists, but it’s Bing Crosby’s version that we consider the best.

   Bing Crosby teamed up with The Andrew Sisters in “Mele Kalikimaka” also known as the Hiawian Christmas song.  This song is most notable because of the movie Christmas Vacation

   One of our favorites is a fun tune called “Little Jack Frost, Get Lost.”  The song was originally recorded by Frankie Carle And His Orchestra in 1948.  In 1952, Bing Crosby teamed up with Peggy Lee to record his version.  Both versions are quite stunning, however we have to go with the original on this one!

   The Andrew Sisters are from our neck of the Northwoods.  In their careers they have treated us to some timeless classics including their song “Jing-A-Ling, Jing-A-Ling.”  We wonder how long it took them to get this fast paced song down?

   In the early 19th Century in New England a poem was written by Lydia Maria Child.  The poem, “The New-England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day” is also known as “Over The River And Through The Wood,” celebrates the author’s childhood memories of visiting her Grandfather’s house.  The author was known as a novelist, journalist, teacher and poet who wrote extensively about the need to eliminate slavery.  The poem was eventually set to tune by an unknown author.  Over the years, the poem has changed to celebrate Christmas rather than Thanksgiving.  In 1950, The Andrew Sisters teamed up with Danny Kaye to record their version of this poem, calling it “A Merry Christmas At Grandmother’s.”

   Another classic song is “(Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With The Bag.”  Written by Irving Taylor, Dudley Brooks and Hal Stanley in 1950 and was made popular by Kay Starr.  Performed in a big band swing mood, the man with the bag refers to Santa Claus.

   A lot of the songs that we have chosen are classic songs from the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s, including “Hello Mr. Kringle.”  This fun big band song was recorded in 1939 by Kay Kyser and his Orchestra and features the vocal chorus by Ginny Simms, Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason and Ish Kabibble. 

   Two years prior, Chick Webb and his orchestra featuring the vocal stylings of Ella Fitzgerald, recorded a song called “There’s Frost On The Moon.”  There is some discrepancy as to who wrote the song as Webb and Artie Shaw claim they both composed the song.

   Throughout the Christmas music genre there are many fun child like songs including “Suzy Snowflake.”  Written by Sid Tepper and Roy C. Bennett, this song was made famous by Rosemary Clooney in 1951.  The song is commonly regarded as a Christmas song, however it makes no mention to the holiday.  The child oriented lyrics in this song celebrate the fun of winter as it characterizes a snowstorm as a playful girl named Suzy Snowflake.  In 1953, Centaur Productions released a cartoon-short based on the song and is annually shown during the Christmas season on WGN-TV in Chicago.

   Also in 1953, Gayla Peevey (who was only 10 years old at the time) recorded and released a fun child like song called “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas.”  As the legend goes, this song was recorded as a fundraiser to bring the city zoo a hippo.  However during an interview in 2007, Peevey dismissed the legend by telling the story of how a local promoter picked up the popularity of the song and Peevey’s local roots and launched a campaign to present her with an actual hippopotamus on Christmas.  The campaign was a success and Peevey was given an actual hippopotamus which she donated to the city zoo.  The animal lived for nearly 50 years.  This novelty song was written by John Rox and has been recorded by several entertainers, though none can match to the original recording.

   Another popular child like song is “Frosty The Snowman.”  Written by Walter “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson, it was first made popular by Gene Autry in 1950.  The song recounts the fictional tale of a snowman who is magically brought to life through a silk hat that a group of children place upon his head.  Although the song falls under the Christmas music genre, it makes no mention to the holiday. The song supposedly takes place in White Plains or Armonk, New York;  Armonk hosts an annual parade dedicated to Frosty.  Throughout the years many entertainers have recorded their version of this classic song, however, it’s Jimmy Durante’s version taken from the 1969 Rankin-Bass animated Christmas special of the same name that we classify as the best version.

   Throughout our childhood a Christmas tradition in both of our households was the tradition of watching many of the Christmas television specials produced in stop motion animation by Rankin-Bass Productions, including Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.  This special first aired on Sunday, December 6, 1964.  Through the use of DVD we are able to carry on this tradition in our homes today.  The television special featured the story of Rudolph that was based on a poem written in 1939 by Robert L. May, and was turned into a song by May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks.  The show is the longest running Christmas TV special in history and celebrated it’s 50th anniversary in 2014.  The story was enhanced by a wide variety of songs including the title track.  Burl Ives plays the part of Sam the Snowman as well as lends his vocal talents to many of the songs included in the show such as “Silver And Gold” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” Although many entertainers have recorded covers of these two favorite songs, not a one can surpass that of Burl Ives. 

   Rankin-Bass also created a cartoon based on a poem published in 1823 called “’Twas The Night Before Christmas.”  The poem was first published anonymously, however, fourteen years later Clement Clarke Moore claimed authorship.  In 1942, Ken Darby set the poem to music and it was recorded by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians in an arrangement by Harry Simeone.

   Another show that we enjoy watching during the Christmas season is a show based on a group of characters that were created by another person from our neck of the woods, Charles M. Schulz.  Of course we are talking about A Charlie Brown Christmas, which debuted on December 9, 1965, on CBS.  As the story goes, the Peanuts comic strip became a worldwide phenomenon by the mid-1960’s.  It was the Coca-Cola Company who commissioned the special, but what many don’t know is that the producers and network envisioned the project as a disaster proceeding its broadcast.  The show produced many great songs, nevertheless our pick is “Christmas Time Is Here” recorded by Vince Guaraldi Trio.  There are two versions of this song, an instrumental and one that includes vocals.  Both are well done, but the instrumental is the one that reminds us of our childhood memories.

   It seems that some of the best music in the Christmas music genre comes from films, television and even Broadway.  Taken from the Broadway musical Mame, we have “We Need A Little Christmas.”  This song was first performed by Angela Lansbury in the 1966 production.  However, it’s Percy Faith and his orchestra’s version that we enjoy the most.

   Very few people know that the most performed Christmas song was born during a blistering hot summer and was written as a way to stay cool.  “The Christmas Song” (commonly subtitled “Chestnuts Roasting on and Open Fire”) was written in 1945 by Bob Wells and Mel Torme. As the story goes, Mel saw some notes that Bob had written on a pad of paper.  Bob thought that if he could immerse himself in winter then he could cool off.  Mel seen the notes and within forty minutes had written the rest of the lyrics as well as the music.  The first recording of the song was a year later by Nat King Cole.  Nearly anyone who has ever recorded a Christmas album has recorded their version of this song.  However, Nat King Cole’s version prevails every time.

   Another popular song is “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.”  Written in 1963 by George Wyle and recorded by Andy Williams.  It’s Williams’ version that strikes a chord in us.

   Jim Reeves hit it big in country music in the 1950’s with his well known baritone vocals.  In 1963, Reeves released his first and only Christmas album called The Twelve Songs of Christmas.  The album featured twelve cuts including “C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S,” “An Old Christmas Card” and a fun song called “The Merry Christmas Polka.”

   In 1967, Roger Miller wrote a song called “Old Toy Trains” for his son Dean Miller.  Late in the year he released the song on Smash Records.  As the story goes, the song ended an eight-year ban on Christmas single releases by the label.  Glen Campbell recorded the song a year later.  However, it’s Miller’s version that sounds the best.

   Sometimes you just need to hear an instrumental to get you into the spirit.  Manheim Steamroller has created several Christmas albums.  From them we take “The Holly And The Ivy” as well as their version of the 1904 song “Carol of The Bells.” The 1833 song, “I Saw Three Ships,” is another song best enjoyed as an instrumental, provided it is performed in a Celtic feel.

   Christmas is about many things including love.  Over the years there have been several Christmas love ballads that we have heard.  Gina’s favorite Christmas love ballad comes from Barbara Mandrell in her 1984 performance of “It Must Have Been The Mistletoe.”  Jack’s favorite Christmas love ballad is one that has been recorded by many.  “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written by Frank Loesser in 1944 and originally recorded for the film Neptune’s Daughter.  However, it’s Dean Martin’s version that is considered the most prolific.

   In 1972, Johnny Cash released his second Christmas album called The Johnny Cash Family Christmas.  The album featured ten cuts including  “Christmas As I Knew It.”  This recitation song features Cash telling us the story of a Christmas in his childhood, one that speaks of being poor but being blessed.

   One of the greatest story - recitation songs in Christmas is called “The Christmas Guest.” Written by Grandpa Jones and Bill Walker, this song has been recorded by many.  While visiting the Grand Ole Opry, we heard George Hamilton IV perform Gina’s favorite song live.  But it’s Andy Griffith’s 2003 version that is the best.

   One of Jack’s favorite Christmas carols is “The Little Drummer Boy.”  Originally known as “Carol of The Drum,” was written by Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941.  It was first recorded in 1955 by the Trapp Family Singers and then recorded by many entertainers.  However, the most beautiful version of the song was recorded by the Harry Simeone Chorale in 1958.

   We have to close our our list with one of the most iconic songs in the Christmas genre with “Silent Night.”  Composed by Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr in 1818, this song has been recorded by a large number of singers from every music genre. A version sung by Bing Crosby is the third best-selling single of all-time. Through the years we have heard many many versions.  But it was while watching the movie Fred Claus that we found the most perfect version of this quintessential song.  To our surprise we found that Sinead O’Connor’s version captures the true beauty of this song.

   Now this is just a partial list, for there are more Christmas songs than there are presents in Santa’s sleigh.  We just wanted to touch on some of our favorites, especially those that rarely get played. We will certainly play these and more on our radio show, come December.  You can also find more great Christmas music and a complete list on our website at: www.Strictly-Country.com

   Before you leave, we invite you to grab a cookie or two that we baked just for you.  Dress warm, for it’s cold outside.  Don’t mind the wildlife out there, well they’re just friends to us.  Thank you for stopping by.  We hope that we were able to get you into the Christmas spirit! Just remember, the door is always open up here in the Northwoods, especially around Christmas time...

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