I've been doing a Christmas blues show for something like the past dozen years and was always frustrated with the lack of a really good collection of early blues Christmas songs. Luckily in 2005 I hooked up with the Document label to put together a 2-CD, 52 track collection of blues and gospel songs from the 1920's to the 1950's. The result was Blues, Blues Christmas and the majority of today's show comes from that collection. For some reason the CD is currently out of stock so good luck finding a copy – and no I don't have any extras! A few months back Document contacted me about writing the notes to a sequel to Blues, Blues Christmas, another 2-CD set although I did not compile the tracks for this one. This was slated to come out this year by Document ran into some financial problems so I don't know the status of the project.
We take the name of today's program from Fats Waller's "Swingin' Them Jingle Bells", one of the most viciously swinging, jivey and just plain fun Christmas ditties ever laid down. The number is just part of a remarkably productive period for Waller from 1934 through 1942 in which he recorded about 400 sides, well over half of Waller's lifetime recorded output.
The idea of Christmas themed blues and gospel numbers stretches back to the very dawn of the recorded genres. "Hooray for Christmas" exclaims Bessie Smith to kick off her soon to be classic "At The Christmas Ball", which inaugurated the Christmas blues tradition when it was recorded in November 1925 for Columbia. A year later, circa December 1926, the gospel Christmas tradition was launched when the Elkins-Payne Jubilee Singers recorded "Silent Night, Holy Night" for Paramount Records. After these recordings it was off to the races with numerous Christmas blues numbers recorded by singers of all stripes, a pace that continued as blues evolved into R&B and then rock and roll. For some reason there's far fewer gospel Christmas songs although there were plenty of Christmas sermons in the 1920's and 1930's when recorded sermons rivalled blues in popularity among black audiences. Going hand in hand with Christmas is quite a number of New Year's songs, a good vehicle for juxtaposing the problems of the past year with the glimmer of hope that that the upcoming year will bring better fortune. Whether these artists sung these numbers as part of their regular repertoire is unclear but it's almost certainly the case that many of these songs were recorded at the prompting of the record companies. Like any business they were always looking for a new angle or gimmick to sell records and advertised these boldly, often with full-page ads, in black newspapers like the Chicago Defender.
Santa Claus Blues: The 1920's & 30's
The earliest Christmas blues songs that I tracked down date from 1925. On Oct. 8 of that year Eva Taylor featured with Clarence Williams' Trio cut "Santa Claus Blues" for the Okeh label and recut the tune again on Oct. 16 with a slightly larger band, the Clarence Williams' Blue Five. Both versions feature Louis Armstrong on cornet. The song is more pop than blues however. On November 18th Bessie Smith cut At The Christmas Ball [Lyrics] for Columbia. She recut the song again Dec. 9 but this version remained unissued. Many blues artists from the 20's cut Christmas songs including: Elzadie Robinson "The Santa Claus Crave" (1927), Victoria Spivey "Christmas Mornin' Blues" (1927), Blind Lemon Jefferson "Christmas Eve Blues" (1928), Bertha Chippie Hill "Christmas Man Blues" (1928), Blind Blake "Lonesome Christmas Blues" (1929), Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers w/ Frankie 'Half Pint' Jaxon "Christ Was Born On Christmas Morn" (1929)
Among Paramount's biggest blues stars of the 1920's were Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake who made their debuts for the label several months apart – Jefferson in December 1925 or January 1926 and Blake around August of 1926. Paramount ramped up their blues and gospel recordings considerably in 1927 and a new Jefferson and Blake record appeared every month. Paramount resorted to several novel promotions for their big artists; In 1924 Ma Rainey's sixth release was labeled "Ma Rainey's Mystery Record" with prizes
given to the best title while Charlie Patton's "Screamin' And Hollerin' The Blues" was listed as by The Masked Marvel with a corresponding advert that bore a drawing of a blindfolded singer – looking nothing like Patton – and the clue that he was an exclusive Paramount artist. Similarly, so successful was Jefferson, that a special yellow and white label was produced for Paramount 12650, "Piney Woods Money Mama" b/w ‘Low Down Mojo Blues" which bore his picture and the wording "Blind Lemon Jefferson's Birthday Record." In a similar vein Christmas records can be seen as just another promotional tool with ads for these records appearing annually in
black newspapers every holiday season. Befitting his stardom, Lemon's lone holiday record "Christmas Eve Blues" b/w "Happy New Year Blues", was given a full-page advertisement in the December 12th, 1928 edition of the Chicago Defender. In Paramount's 1928 late fall Dealers' Supplement the label advertised scores of "CHRISTMAS, SPIRITUAL AND SERMON RECORDS THAT ARE DEPENDABLE SALES PRODUCERS" and warned that they "SHOULD BE IN YOUR STOCKS NOW." Blind Blake received the large sized treatment in the 1929 edition of the paper for his "Lonesome Christmas Blues," (also sharing the page was Leroy Carr's "Christmas In Jail – Ain't That A Pain?") his only Christmas record. The flip was "Third Degree Blues" – apparently Blake only had enough holiday spirit for one side!
The trend continued with more frequency in the 30's. Here are a few notable songs: Butterbeans & Susie "Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus" (1930), Charlie Jordan "Santa Claus Blues" ["Christmas Christmas, how glad I am you are here/ Well I ain’t had a chicken dinner for this whole round year/Shiny bones and naked bones gleaming from around my plate/ …So pass me that chicken, the turkey, duck and the goose/Well all you birds gonna be one legged when I turn you-a-loose"] (1931) and "Christmas "Christmas Blues" (1935), Kansas City Kitty & Georgia Tom "Christmas Morning Blues" (1934) [Lyrics], Verdi Lee "Christmas "Tree Blues" (1935), Tampa Red "Christmas And New Years Blues" (1934), Peetie Wheatstraw "Santa Claus Blues" (1935), Bumble Bee Slim's "Christmas And No Santa Claus and "Santa Claus Bring Me A New Woman" (1936), Black Ace "Christmas Time Blues (Beggin' Santa Claus)" (1937), Casey Bill Weldon "Christmas Time Blues" (1937), Bo Carter "Santa Claus" (1938), Walter Davis "Santa Claus" (1935), Sonny Boy Williamson I "Christmas Morning Blues" (1938).
Mary Harris, who cut two sides for Decca at an October 31, 1935 session is most certainly Verdi Lee who cut sides on the exact same date, also in the company of fellow St. Louis musicians Peetie Wheatstraw and Charlie Jordan. It was a holiday themed session with the group cutting "Christmas Tree Blues", "No Christmas Blues", "Happy New Year Blues", "Christmas Christmas Blues" and "Santa Claus Blues" (the latter two with vocals by Jordan and Wheatstraw respectively). Paul Oliver noted that "it would be pleasant to think that each singer was inspired by the others to create a blues on the same subject but at this date, with Christmas two months away, it is more likely that it was a deliberate promotional device by [producer] Mayo Williams."
Merry Christmas Baby: The 40's & 50's
In the 40's there of course was more blues Christmas songs but there was a new music brewing called R&B. Evolving out of jump blues in the late '40s, R&B laid the groundwork for rock & roll. The era's biggest Christmas song was undoubtedly the immortal "Merry Christmas, Baby" cut by Charles Brown & The Blazers in 1947. This perennial classic has been covered numerous times including versions by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Lena Horne , Lou Rawls, Booker T. & the MG's, Otis Redding, James Brown and countless others. Charles Brown's smooth ballad style has become synonymous with Christmas ever since remaking "Merry Christmas, Baby" many times, cutting many other Christmas songs and full length albums including 1961's Charles Brown Sings Christmas Songs and Cool Christmas Blues in 1994.
Notable blues and R&B songs from this period include: Gatemouth Moore "Christmas Blues" (1946) [recut in 1977 as "Gate's Christmas Blues"], Little Willie Littlefield "Merry Xmas" (1949), Mabel Scott "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" (1947), Harman Ray Xmas Blues ["Hold it, hold it man/Don’t play me no jingle bells the way I feel this Christmas/Only kind of bells I want to have anything to do with is some of them mission bells/Man, play me the blues long, loud and lowdown"] (1947), Boll Weavil "Christmas Time Blues" (1947), Big Joe Turner "Christmas Date Boogie "(1948), Thelma Cooper "I Need A Man (For Xmas)" (1948), Smokey Hogg "I Want My Baby For Christmas" (1949), Amos Milburn "Let's Make Christmas Merry Baby" (1949), Harry Crafton "
Bring That Cadillac Back" ["I let you eat my turkey on Christmas morn/When I looked around you and my Cadillac was gone"] (1949), Felix Gross "Love For Christmas" ["You can have your turkey and your dressing/Sweet cakes and apple pie/Blue Champagne and Rock & Rye/Everything that money can buy"] (1949), J.B. Summers "I Want a Present For Christmas" ["Santa Claus, Santa Claus/Hear my plea/Open up your
bag and give a fine brown baby to me/ …You can stop by my chimney/Drop her in the chute/ Leave your reindeer outside/Come in and get my loot"] (1949).
One other song from this era is the downright odd "Junior's a Jap Girl's Christmas for His Santa Claus" (1942)
a Library of Congress recording by Willie Blackwell that defies categorization. Oher non-R&B Christmas songs from the 40's include a few by Leadbelly such as "Christmas Is A-Coming" [Lyrics], "The Christmas Song", "On A Christmas Day", Sylvestor Cotton "Christmas Blues" (1948), Washboard Pete [aka Ralph Willis] "Christmas Blues" (1948), Alex Seward & Louis Hayes "Christmas Time Blues" (1948), Walter Davis "Santa Claus" (1949).
There was a time you could hit the charts with an instrumental as pianist Lloyd Glenn well knew, scoring big with "Old Time Shuffle Blues" which hit #3 on the R&B charts in 1950 and "Chica Boo" which hit #1 in 1951. He seemed to have a knack for being on hit records, accompanying T-Bone Walker on his 1947 hit "Call It Stormy Monday", and in 1949 he joined Swing Time Records as A&R man, recording a number of hits with Lowell Fulson, including "Everyday I Have The Blues" and the #1 R&B hit "Blue Shadows". In sunny Los Angeles on April 1951 he waxed the shuffling "(Christmas) Sleigh Ride." Glenn's distinctive piano work can also be found on a five-song session Jesse Thomas waxed for Swingtime also in April 1951 which included "Xmas Celebration." Glenn was also present when Lowell Fulson cut his classic two-parter, "Lonesome Christmas Pt. 1 & 2 "in 1951.
The 50's produced many more Christmas gems including: Lowell Fulson's oft covered ""Lonesome Christmas" (1950), Cecil Gant It's Christmas Time Again (1950), Roy Milton "Christmas Time Blues" (1950), Johnny Otis & Little Esther Phillips "Far Away Blues" [also known as "Faraway Christmas Blues"] (1950), Jimmy Liggins "I Want My Baby For Christmas" (1950), The Nic Nacs with Mickey Champion "Gonna Have A Merry Xmas" (1950), Larry Darnell "Christmas Blues" (1950), Sonny Parker with Lionel Hampton "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" (1950), Lloyd Glenn "Sleigh Ride" (1951), Sugar Chile Robinson "Christmas Boogie" b/w "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1950), Titus Turner "Christmas Morning" (1952), Lightning Hopkins "Merry Christmas" (1953), Chuck Berry "Run, Rudolph, Run" (1958) and "Merry Christmas Baby" (1958), John Lee Hooker "Blues for Christmas" (1959).
Please Come Home For Christmas Baby: The 60's To The Present
The 60's, less so in the 70's, produced a number of strong Christmas blues songs including at least one blues classic, Little Johnny Taylor's "Please Come Home For Christmas" (1969) which has become an oft covered holiday classic. Other notable 60's songs include: Sonny Boy Williamson II "Santa Claus" (1960), Lightnin' Hopkins "Santa" (1960) and "Heavy Snow" (1962), Black Ace "Santa Claus Blues" (1960), B.B. King "Christmas Celebration" (1960), Hop Wilson "Merry Christmas, Darling" (1961), Robert Nighthawk "Merry Christmas Baby" (1964), Lowell Fulson "I Wanna Spend Christmas With You" (1967), Louis Jordan "Santa Claus, Santa Claus" (1968), Charles Brown "New Merry Christmas Baby" (1969) featuring Earl Hooker, Bukka White "Christmas Eve Blues" (1969). In the 70's: Jimmy Reed "Christmas Present Blues" (1970), Lee Jackson "The Christmas Song" (1971), Clyde Lasley "Santa Came Home Drunk (1971), Albert King "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'" (1974) and "Christmas Comes But Once A Year" (1974), Eddie C. Campbell "Santa's Messin' with the Kid" (1977).
There seems to be a dearth of quality Christmas songs in the 70's and 80's. By the late 80's the rise of the CD caused the demise of the 45 record which was one of the main vehicles for putting out holiday songs. However in lieu of the 45 labels began releasing Christmas themed compilations and there have been a number of very good collections. Some of the best include: Austin Rhythm and Blues Christmas (1989) from the Antone's label [reissued on Epic in 1986 and Sony in 2001], Alligator Records Christmas Collection (1992), Ichiban Blues At Christmas Vol. 1-4 (1991-97) [Best of Ichiban Blues at Christmas was issued 2002], Bullseye Blues Christmas (1995), Stony Plain's Christmas Blues (2000), Blue Christmas (2000) from the Dialtone label, Blue Xmas (2001) on Evidence. A number of artists issued Christmas themed records including Charles Brown, Huey "Piano' Smith, Johnny Adams, B.B. King and Etta James. Also with the dominance of the CD age labels went back into their vaults to put together compilations of classic Christmas blues. Many of the songs listed earlier in this article can be found on these collections and the best of these will be listed below.
Let Me Hang My Stocking On Your Christmas Tree
Christmas blues as sexual metaphor? Of course! The blues has always been loaded with double entendres and Christmas blues offers plenty of examples: Roosevelt Sykes "Let Me Hang My Stocking In Your Christmas Tree" (1937), Jimmy Butler Trim Your Tree ["I’m gonna bring along my hatchet/My beautiful Christmas balls/I’ll sprinkle my snow up on your tree and hang my mistletoe on your wall"] (1955), Clarence Carter "Back Door Santa" (1968), "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'" by Albert King (1974) and Sir Mack Rice (1982), Rufus Thomas "I’ll Be Your Santa, Baby" (1982) and Sonny Rhodes the same year, Chick Willis "(All I Want for Christmas Is To) Lay Around and Love On You" (1991).
Papa Ain't No Santa Claus
Those who listen to the blues know it's not all doom and gloom. The blues are laced with humor and that comes across in many blues Christmas songs: Butterbeans & Susie "Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus" (1930) [Lyrics], Big Jack Johnson "Rudolph Got Drunk Last Night" (1990), Clyde Lasley "Santa Claus Home Drunk", Billy Ray Charles "I Been Double Crossed By Santa Claus", Louis Armstrong "Zat You Santa Claus."
Empty Stocking Blues
Not everyone enjoys the holidays and many people suffer from the Christmas blues. If you want to wallow in your depression here's an appropriate blues soundtrack: Leroy Carr "Christmas In Jail – Ain't That A Pain?" (1929), Jimmy Witherspoon "Christmas Blues" [alternately titled "How I Hate To See Christmas Come Around"] (1947), Jimmy Grissom "Christmas Brings Me Down" (1948), Floyd Dixon "Empty Stocking Blues" (1950), "Sonny Boy's Christmas Blues" ["Unless you come home to me/I'll be drunk all day Christmas Day"]" (1951), Lowell Fulson's two-part "Lonesome Christmas" (1951), Freddie King's classic two sided 45 "Christmas Tears" b/w "I Hear Jingle Bells" (1961), Jerry McCain & B.B. Coleman "Sad, Sad Christmas" (1992).
Will The Coffin Be Your Santa Claus?
Recorded sermons were among the most popular and best selling of the "race records"in the 1920’s and 1930’s. These records provided a fascinating look into the views and concerns of black America at a time when very few outlets existed for black expression. Rev. J.M. Gates was the most popular and prolific of them all, waxing some two hundred titles between 1926 and 1941, which accounted for a staggering quarter of all sermons recorded during this period. It’s not surprising that Gates cut more Christmas sermons than anyone including: “You May Be Alive Or You May Be Dead, Christmas Day” (1927), "Will The Coffin Be Your Santa Claus?" (1927), “Where Will you Be Christmas Day” (1927), “Did You Spend Christmas Day In Jail?” (1929), “Will Hell Be Your Santa Claus” (1939) and “Gettin’ Ready For Christmas Day” (1941) which was his last recorded sermon. Rev. A.W. Nix also had a special affinity for the holidays as evidenced in recordings like "Death Might Be Your Christmas Gift" (1927), "Begin A New Life On Christmas Day – Part 1 & 2" (1928), "That Little Thing May Kill You Yet (Christmas Sermon)" (1929) and "How Will You Spend Christmas?" (1930). Also notable is Rev. Edward Clayborn's "The Wrong Way To Celebrate Christmas" (1928) and Rev. Emmett Dickinson's "Christmas – What Does It Mean To You" (1930).
Happy New Year Darling
While there's far more Christmas songs, New Year has inspired a number of noteworthy songs: Blind Lemon Jefferson "Happy New Year Blues" (1928), Mary Harris with Peetie Wheatstraw "Happy New Year Blues" (1935), Smokey Hogg "New Years Eve Blues" (1947), Lonnie Johnson "Happy New Year, Darling" ["It seems a long time since I been fightin' the Japs 'cross the deep blue sea/Yes, that's why I'm so glad darlin', to have a li'l wife still waitin' for me/It's so great to have you darlin', to have a li'l wife like you/My three brothers couldn't make it but they say happy new year to you"] (1947), Johnny Otis "Happy New Year, Baby" (1947), Lil’ Son Jackson "New Year’s Resolution" (1950), Roy Milton New Year’s Resolution Blues ["I’m gonna deal them from the bottom/Ain’t going to play it fair at all/Please believe me pretty baby/I’m going to have myself a ball/Going to give up my apartment, and you know they’re hard to find/ I don’t want no last year’s memories running through my weary mind"] (1950), Lightnin' Hopkins "Happy New Year" (1953), Charles Brown "Bringing In A Brand New Year" (1993), Lil Ed and Dave Weld "New Year’s Resolution" (1996).
Notable Christmas Blues Compilations
Blues, Blues Christmas (Document): Comprehensive 2-CD collection of jazz, blues, boogie-woogie and gospel recordings dedicated to the season. Collects 52 numbers spanning from 1925 to 1955 including tracks by Bessie Smith, Leroy Carr, Rev. J.M. Gates, Butterbeans & Susie, Lonnie Johnson, Roy Milton, Larry Darnell, Cecil Gant, Lightnin' Hopkins and many, many others.
Where Will You Be Christmas Day? (Dust To Digital): Fine collection rare early Christmas gems by Leroy Carr, Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, Butterbeans and Susie, Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers, Lightnin' Hopkins, Kansas City Kitty, Bessie Smith and many others.
Soul Christmas (Atlantic): This 1991 reissue includes eight of the original 11 tracks included on the Atco 1968 release with 11 more tracks added from the Atlantic vaults. An essential set that includes Otis Redding's "White Christmas" and "Merry Christmas, Baby", Clarence Carter's "Back Door Santa", Joe Tex's "I'll Make Every Day Christmas (For My Woman)" and others.
Blue Yule: Christmas Blues and R&B Classics (Rhino): A killer 18-song compilation. Includes hard to find tracks by John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins, Hop Wilson, Big Jack Johnson and other gems.
It's Christmas Time Again (Stax): A great collection of funky blues and soul from the Stax catalog. Standout tracks include "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'" with versions by Mack Rice and Albert King plus Rufus Thomas' "I'll Be Your Santa Baby'" and Little Johnny Taylor's "Please Come Home for Christmas"
Merry Christmas, Baby (Paula): Some real gems on here although some can be found on other compilations. Includes fine songs like Johnny And Jon's "Christmas in Vietnam", Charles Brown's "Please Come Home for Christmas", Lowell Fulson's "Lonesome Christmas" parts 1 & 2 plus songs by Big Joe Williams, Sugar Boy Crawford, Louis Jordan, Jimmy Reed and others.
Jingle Blues (Platinum): Entertaining collection from the House of Blues. Includes a wide variety of styles by artists such as Bessie Smith, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Witherspoon, B.B. King, Amos Milburn and others.
James Brown's Funky Christmas (Polygram): What would Christmas be without this funky collection? This 17-track compilation includes selections cut between 1966-1970. Highlights include "Go Power at Christmas Time", "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" and "Hey America" (It's Christmas Time).
Christmas Blues (Savoy): Fine Christmas blues from the vaults of Savoy like Gatemouth Moore's "Christmas Blues", Jimmy Butler's rocking "Trim Your Tree", the country blues of Ralph Willis' "Christmas Blues" and several other vintage tunes.
Rhythm & Blues Christmas (Hollywood): Budget priced collection that includes Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby," Freddie King's "Christmas Tears/I Hear Jingle Bells", Mabel Scott's "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" and others.