Thursday, December 11, 2003

Eenie meenie

If I recall correctly, I cast my first Democratic primary vote, in Illinois in 1992, for Paul Tsongas.

This time I have no idea.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

When they met it was moyda

Don't forget that the Junkers' "Murder for Christmas" makes a great stocking stuffer! Download, burn, stuff!
Introductions all around

Kiddies, may I present Robin. She's my college chum, confidante, traveling companion, muse, boss, teacher and soul sister. She's seen me at many of my best moments and many more of my worst. I'm not worthy, etc.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Longing to be up north

Apropos of Martin's post on Christmas music, here is a New York Times article from a few years back. It's by Michael Beckerman, and it's about Christmas music. I like to bust it out every yuletide.


Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
The New York Times

December 20, 1998, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section 2; Page 35; Column 1; Arts and Leisure Desk

LENGTH: 1249 words

HEADLINE: California Dreaming, Christmas Wishful Thinking

BYLINE: By MICHAEL BECKERMAN; Michael Beckerman is a commentator on PBS's "Live From Lincoln Center."

IT is little short of astonishing that at a time when most people are obsessed with music of the last week, and classics may be no more than a year old, listeners still plug into several centuries of musical tradition every holiday season. Mall Muzak includes medieval, Renaissance and Baroque tunes ("O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "What Child Is This," "Joy to the World"), carols from the last century ("Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear") and hits from just about every decade through the 1960's ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Jingle Bell Rock").

Most of these deal with themes of winter ("Jingle Bells"), jubilation ("Joy to the World"), awe ("Adeste Fidelis") or purity ("Silent Night"). But the most popular American yuletide offering, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," is about something altogether different.

This song, one of several numbers written for Bing Crosby to sing in the 1942 movie "Holiday Inn," has nestled so comfortably into the Christmas repertory that most people have probably stopped thinking about it. Yet there is far more here than generally meets the ear or the eye. The surprises begin at the real beginning, with the original verse, which is almost never included in recordings of the song:

The sun is shining, the grass is green,

The orange and palm trees sway.

There's never been such a day

In Beverly Hills, L.A.

But it's December the 24th,

And I am longing to be up north.

The sensuous glories of the sunny south cannot be fully experienced, the text makes clear, because a more elusive state is obscuring them: the even more ideal image of a white Christmas. So the song is set up as a vision of Utopia through a scrim of longing: not the depiction but the dream of the thing. The otherworldy ambivalence is summed up in the rhyme of the last two lines. Because "it's December the 24th," the singer is "longing to be up north."

North of Beverly Hills, of course, lie the Yukon and the Donner Party; nobody really wants to be up there. But we understand this as Hollywood's cockeyed diagonal ache for the cozy wooded spaces north of New York: Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.

The musical setting of the verse is tranquil, at first, with a slight Latin lilt on "There's never been such a day." An unexpected dissonance on "But it's" resolves almost immediately on "December the 24th," but the next line is even harsher and more unstable, as the piercing "And I am longing to be up north" leads to the famous chorus: "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas/ Just like the ones I used to know."

Here the song becomes inscrutable. While the words "I'm dreaming of a" are given a rhapsodic turn, the ascent through the title words is wrenching. The phrase "white Christmas" is sung as surface tension pierced by an icicle. Yet this harshness dissolves instantly, and the music for the next snippet of text dips into the old tradition of idyllic sound used to depict both pastoral visions and Christmas. Indeed, the charming musical phrase "Just like the ones I used to know" might have come out of an 18th-century Christmas concerto.

The next lines, "Where the treetops glisten/ And children listen/ To hear sleigh bells in the snow," parallel the first two, since "glisten" and "listen" both have a darkly sentimental character but "sleigh bells in the snow" is lighthearted and sensuous. (At this point in the film, Crosby strikes the Christmas tree ornaments with his pipe.) This invocation of bells recalls the performance convention that adds a wisp of "Jingle Bells" as a kind of coda to certain Christmas songs. Such practice is especially apt in "White Christmas," for not only do the two pieces share a particular shape, but the harmony at "To hear sleigh bells in the snow" is identical to that at "In a one-horse open sleigh (hey!)," suggesting that "Jingle Bells" was a model for Berlin's song.

After a literal repetition of the chorus on the words "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas/ With every Christmas card I write," the most revealing moment occurs. "May your days be merry" builds up static energy, then there is that wonderful climactic leap to the word "bright," boldly extended. In Crosby's recording, the sound quality fulfills expectations of increased intensity and brightness, but there is an immediate move to a minor chord on the second half of the held note. Why should the word "bright" suddenly turn dark?

Something about this whole song is discomfiting. After all, the false paradise of Beverly Hills has been exposed, and the world of the white Christmas, which should be an authentic Eden, is also filled with dissonance and disturbing shadows.

Yet this may be the most successful popular song of all time. How does one account for the popularity of such a dark song?

HAS it been so successful because people do not notice these subtleties or because people are listening to them carefully? A common explanation for the triumph of "White Christmas" is that the song's sentimentality plugged into the fears and longings of Americans during the dark days of World War II, when the enticing image of Christmas stood in stark contrast to the harsh reports of losses and harrowing letters from the front. But that war has been over for a long time, and the song goes on.

Although great songs defy simple explanations, one might propose some reasons that "White Christmas" has become a kind of national treasure. It is curious to discover that the same harmonic darkening that infects the word "bright" also discolors the phrase "children listen." The singer is dreaming of, among other things, children listening for sleigh bells.

Does the dreamer ever hear that silvery tinkling? Do even the children in the dream hear it? Those unheard sounds may be a clue to the song's popularity, for what is "White Christmas" but a kind of holiday "Moby Dick," a distant image of things that can never be reclaimed: the past, childhood and innocence itself.

Much is made of the need for food, shelter and sex as a biological imperative, but one might consider another human activity almost as profound: the search for purity. There is no culture without purification rituals, and the huge role played by interlocking institutions like church and marriage reflects an attempt to mediate between the reality of our animal selves and our striving to place ourselves beyond them. Since music is a profound reflection of human consciousness, it should not be surprising to find both states represented. Yet while there are tens of thousands of musical moments devoted to suggesting states of purity, and a hundredfold more that can be associated with less pure images, only a few songs illustrate the pain of longing for the lost golden spaces of the imagination.

But at this season, many of us become one with Crosby, sitting among baubles, wishing for that unattainable and oxymoronic cold warmth of the holidays. The commercialization of Christmas is not the cause of our unease; the buying mania is but a symptom. As part of our humanity we long for a "bright" childhood that can never come again, and make ourselves neurotic and depressed searching for a perfect past, which in all probability never existed.

Because it preserves the ambiguity of the human condition in a reasonably truthful way, "White Christmas" is not only the great American holiday song but also one of the most enduring insights into the human imagination ever to come out of American popular culture.

GRAPHIC: Photo: Sung by Bing Crosby in "Holiday Inn" in 1942, "White Christmas" returned draped in kitsch in the 1954 movie of the same name with, standing from left, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, Crosby and Vera-Ellen. (Photofest)