Discover more from Listening Sessions
Bing Crosby, Ray Conniff & the Ghosts of Christmases Past
On the nostalgic power of the sounds of the season
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
This edition’s essay tries to connect two albums that were staples of my childhood Christmases: Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and Ray Conniff’s Christmas With Conniff, with some thoughts on the healing power of music.
I’m not sure if I make the connection as well as I could have, but do hope that you enjoy the essay and that it may lead you to reflect on what sounds of the season make you most nostalgic.
As an addendum to my previous essay on Lou Rawls and his 1967 album Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho!, I should note two additional connections the LP has to the season. The first is that Rawls was one of the singers featured on the special A Garfield Christmas, a particular favourite of my wife’s and what we watch to officially start our season of holiday binge-watching. As well, the producer of the album, David Axelrod, was the co-writer, with Sam Pottle, of ‘Keep Christmas With You All Through the Year,’ the emotional centre (and even more so now with the passing of Bob McGrath) of the lovely Christmas Eve on Sesame Street.
I have one more essay in the works before taking a bit of a break for the holidays. It will be about the new super-deluxe edition of Vince Guaraldi’s beloved soundtrack to the equally beloved A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
If you’re reading this and are not yet a subscriber of ‘Listening Sessions,’ I hope you'll click the button below to subscribe and get each edition delivered straight to your inbox. I publish a long-form essay on music three times a month, every 10 days or so.
If you are a subscriber, share ‘Listening Sessions’ with any music fans in your orbit.
No matter when or where Bing Crosby performed, there was, almost without fail, one song that he would need to sing no matter how much he protested. His job was to keep his audience’s spirits up, not to remind them of what they were longing for at home, perhaps not making the connection that inducing the latter would achieve the former. In an act high on hijinks and abundant in laughs, when it came time to sing that one particular song, here is what Crosby saw, summarized in a letter one show-goer wrote home.
“…there wasn’t a sound, not even breathing, and suddenly no one was looking at Crosby, but just at the ground and making a little wish. There was no applause following it, just a ghostly silence, which is the noisiest thing I have ever lived thru. Even Crosby had no answer or explanation; he must have known what was going on. And back to our tents, but the men were smiling now.” - from Gary Giddins’ Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946
It was September of 1944. The venue, if it could even be called that, was wherever enough men were gathered for Crosby and his troupe of four other performers to put on a show. The location was France. Crosby was there on a USO tour of the foxhole circuit. The song he inevitably needed to sing was ‘White Christmas,’ already firmly established as his signature song and one of the most popular recordings of all time. Two years old by that point, its beloved status was so formidable—its subtext of an almost existential longing brought on by the Second World War a substantial reason for its profound resonance—that three years later, Crosby had to re-record it as the master was kaput from making so many copies (it’s this re-recording that is heard almost exclusively these days).
It’s thanks to critic Gary Giddins that we have an extensive chronicle of Crosby’s time entertaining the troops. While the opening scene of Michael Curtiz’s White Christmas approximates, in a Hollywood kind of way, the ramshackle conditions in which Crosby performed as well as his proximity to the front, it’s Giddins’ depth of research in the remarkable second part of his Crosby biography, Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946, that gets us up close with the reality.
Akin to a group of itinerant merry-makers—Giddins reports that Crosby was often unsure where exactly he was in France—and joined, at certain points, by special guests Fred Astaire and Dinah Shore, what sticks out, in addition to how close Crosby got to the ravages of the German occupation of France, was the close-up view he had of the battles being waged and the casualties of those actions. Giddins recounts one show in Charnes in which word reached mid-show that the Germans had launched an attack and the soldiers in attendance were gradually called—one company after another—back to base. He also reports the heartfelt response of those Crosby performed for. The letter quoted earlier in this essay from Giddins’ book is just one example. A veteran of the Second World War corresponded with the critic in 2009 to also note: “I wish I could have written to Mr. Crosby and told him how much it meant to use for this group coming that close to the front line to entertain us.”
A few years ago, a Toronto subway musician lost a prized guitar and in a news story in which he hoped for its safe return, he described himself not as a musician but as a “healer.” A lofty notion, to be sure, but one that gets to the heart of why music matters and why it is an enriching and ennobling art form. Think of Bob McGrath, who just recently passed, and how his gift for music-making laid the foundation of goodness and kindness that enabled his character on Sesame Street, Bob Johnson, to reach generations of children and made McGrath as dear and beloved as a member of one’s family.
For all its reputation as the bane of retail staff during the rush of the holiday season and the feeling sometimes of joviality being forced upon one no matter how receptive its recipient may be, the music of Christmas, at its best, possesses a mystical and righteous alchemy. It’s arguably one of our most powerful forms of folk music. Its ability to conjure feelings of nostalgia and memory is potent—the ghosts of Christmases past lie in wait between the notes, creating a pull far greater than the sum of its musical parts.
In The Polar Express, once the merry train reaches the North Pole on Christmas Eve, the caboose comes loose sending the movie’s questioning protagonist Hero Boy as well as the plucky heroine Hero Girl and the uncertain Billy hurtling backwards. The three eventually explore the inner workings of Santa Claus’ workshop and as they do, loudspeakers play music of the season—the sounds echo, existing almost as in a state of eternal suspension. Heard are the Andrews Sisters, Kate Smith, Mario Lanza, Perry Como and, of course, Crosby. Avatars of a bygone era, transporting us back to the holidays that can’t be recaptured but memories of them still burn strongly in one’s heart, the outline somewhat hazy, recalling Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales in which “I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”
When I was young, the music that marked our family’s holiday celebrations was largely the same that had marked festivities when my parents were young. What that meant was that Crosby was never too far from the hi-fi. His Merry Christmas collection, initially released by Decca in 1945 as a box of five 78 rpm singles, was re-released and re-configured twice more before issued as a 12-inch album in 1955, an LP that has remained in print ever since and has sold, in the United States alone, at least four million copies.
Mine is worn, once owned by my grandparents. It’s a later issue with reverb added to the album’s 12 tracks. It’s not how these recordings are meant to sound. It adds an extra resonance to Crosby’s voice, thickening its bass timbre and adding extra weight to his unimpeachable phrasing. As much as it may be heresy to relate, this incongruous element of electronic processing lends an almost spiritual transcendence as Crosby begins a repeat of the opening verse of ‘Silent Night’—similar to ‘White Christmas,’ it’s a re-recording, waxed in 1947, that appears on the LP. It lasts but a second, but the warmth and intimacy of Crosby’s intonation seizes the mind. Above all singers, Crosby, with his almost preternatural timing, tossed off such moments of spontaneous perfection with such devil-may-care casualness that to call them earworms is simply inadequate to the task of explaining what one is hearing and what Crosby is doing.
His duets from 1943 with the Andrews Sisters of ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town’ are chock-full of Crosby’s ability to create on the fly. There’s his speedy “oh, have a lot of fun” on the former as he and the Sisters harmonize on the chorus as well as his hipping up of the rhythm of which the song is traditionally sung—it’s a subtle shift from the hard pauses in the syllables when signing “jingle bells” to an effervescent glide from one to the next and so on. On the latter, there is a giddy trading of phrases in the second part of the first verse, the Andrews Sisters coquettishly starting one and Crosby finishing with an attack on the beat that's light and unruffled yet aggressive nonetheless. Make no mistake, these are benchmark, reference recordings of two of the most-recorded seasonal standards.
I hear the album and the past connects to the present—the Christmases of years ago filtered through the happy realization that the holidays are here once again. The stately introductions to the hymns on the LP are a nod to the season’s rituals. Crosby’s verve at the religious liturgy embedded within ‘Faith of Our Fathers,’ ‘Adeste Fideles’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ are reminders of his adroitness with song forms of all types as well as his own devoutness as a practicing Catholic.
‘Christmas in Killarney,’ recorded in 1951 and first twinned with ‘It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas’ on a 78 brings the ghosts to life in vivid, black-and-white detail. A paean to the old country—here, it’s Ireland but don’t let that specificity deter from attaching some degree of universality to the song’s invocation of family and connection—in which Crosby promises he’ll “take you back with me.” There’s “the holly green, the ivy green, the prettiest picture you’ve ever seen,” a Santa Claus played by “one of the boys from home,” neighbours dropping by and the parish priest, “Father John” who “before he’s gone, will bless the house and all.” All small details that fill in a picture of familial joy which in Crosby’s hands becomes real through his sincerity and warmth. Put simply, this song works so magnificently because it’s Crosby who’s singing it, and that some of those who were once around the table for the festive meal at Christmas and are no longer there marked their lives partly through the songs of Crosby makes ‘Christmas in Killarney’ much more than just a song.
If Crosby’s album gets to the particulars of the holidays exquisitely, there’s another LP from the era that zooms out to capture the ambiance, that immersive feeling of being in the middle of the holiday hoopla.
Save for perhaps Percy Faith, Ray Conniff personified the easy-listening craze of the fifties, music that was unrelentingly inoffensive but was also tinged with the picket-fence optimism of post-war America. He applied that gloss to Christmas music multiple times. His first, 1959’s Christmas with Conniff, comprised of 10 songs from the secular canon plus an obscure original and a carol, was another staple in our family.
Featuring his Singers, a chorus of 25 voices: 12 females and 13 males, Christmas With Conniff has a few surprises up its sleeve for those willing to broaden their ears, befitting a musician who got his start as an arranger for clarinetist Artie Shaw’s band. Consider Conniff’s interpretation of ‘Winter Wonderland.’ It starts with a rather shrill introduction by the voices but then resolves into a far more subtle sound, measured and pleasing, an opening for the warmth of nostalgia to enter. It reappears as the male voices underpin the females who take the lead on the second A section of the verse, and it’s there in the closing, the collective force of the Singers offering a sophisticated harmonic delight like the sigh of contentment as the rush of everyday life gives way to the pleasing pause of the holidays.
These moments of unexpected hipness also surface on ‘The Christmas Song’ after a bizarrely thunderous opening that ushers in an interpretation that mines the beauty of the melody of Mel Tormé and Robert Wells’ timeless song. ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town’ has a pleasing ending and there’s a wonderful, music-box quality to ‘Silver Bells’ that really does click. There’s also an impish sense of fun on ‘Frosty the Snowman’ with its’ gleeful mouth-pop punctuations and keep your ears peeled at the end of ‘Sleigh Ride’ to hear one of the Singers in the middle of the cacophony at the end exclaim “hey, who put the rock in the snowball?”
The lone original on Christmas With Conniff, ‘Christmas Bride,’ written by one Midge Joy, is of an innocence that was a manufactured illusion at the end of the fifties and is seemingly out of vogue with this cynical (not entirely unjustified) age. But, the song is a very pretty one, deeply sentimental (and isn’t Christmas, among other things, a time when that emotion can be most keenly and beautifully felt?) and at the end, there’s a glorious moment when the voices merge before things get over-the-top but then right themselves with a final, delicately formed conclusion.
The carol on the album, ‘What Child is This,’ has Conniff sticking to the measured approach, allowing the mystery at the heart of the song to guide the performance.
Both Crosby and Conniff are artists that are heard almost non-stop at this time of the year but hardly at all at any other point of the calendar, understandably in Conniff’s case but somewhat outrageous in the case of Crosby, who, along with Louis Armstrong, invented the lingua franca of modern singing. To me, they are a big part of what Christmas sounds like. A chance to travel back in time. It’s nostalgia at its best.