Why early Blues and Jazz Christmas music needs to be on your festive playlist
It might sound a bit preachy to tell people that they need to have the earliest Blues, Jazz and Gospel Christmas music on their playlist but I have no doubt that I am already preaching to some of the converted!
If you haven’t already considered early Blues and Jazz music for your Christmas playlist, here are 12 good reasons why it is worth discovering. Don’t be fooled into thinking that early Blues and Jazz is depressing or irrelevant to life today. It is often just the opposite but I will let you be the judge this for yourself.
1-Early Christmas Blues and Jazz Music remains left field and edgy.
If you thought that “Fairytale of New York” was the epitome of an alternative Christmas song, you need to think again! From dead drunk to death row, the earliest Christmas Blues Music blew the lid off the traditional music syrup can. The lyrics were edgy and the performers were pros. Even if “White Christmas” is more your thing, you can still learn to love these gritty festive gems.
2-Because most early Christmas Music was for the privileged few?
Well, yes and no. Christmas music goes back to the 4th Century when St. Hilary of Poitiers composed the Latin carol “Jesus refulsit omnium“( Jesus illuminates all). The Earliest Christmas music celebrated the birth of Jesus, rather than reflecting upon the human condition.
Wynken de Worde, who took over William Caxton’s London presses in 1495, published a book of ‘Christmasse Carrolles’ in 1521. One single sheet survives containing the Boar’s Head Carol – a wassailing, festive drinking song still sung today. Well, that is more like it. Who doesn’t enjoy a festive drink when wassailing?
Seriously though, in Europe, Christmas music – formal instrumental and choral music – had been the preserve of courts palaces, stately homes and churches, played by orchestras and choirs of retained household musicians for invited guests.
As the commercialisation of Christmas gathered pace in the mid 1850s, Christmas music became less about Jesus and more about materialism. Popular sheet music such as Benjamin Russell Hanby’s “Up on the Housetop “and “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas”, referenced Santa Claus for the first time.
3-Early Christmas Blues and Jazz Music is about Christmas, whereas Jingle Bells isn’t!
Well , fair enough, this is not a reason but it is an interesting fact!
Jingle Bells was a turning point in popular American Music and it remains as one of the best-known and commonly sung Christmas songs. The strange thing is that it has no original connection to Christmas. Furthermore, the Jingle Bells’ legacy is, to this day, mired in minstrelsy and racism. You can learn more about its vexed history here in “The story I must tell”: “Jingle Bells” in the Minstrel Repertoire by Kyna Hamill.
The First Christmas Record
Arriving at the Edison studio on the 3oth October 1889 the banjoist, Will Lyle, unwittingly made history with his recording of “Jingle Bells”.
The original cylinder no longer exists but it is generally agreed that it represented the first Christmas Record.
Records became rather popular and by the early 1900s there was a mixture of traditional (European) Carols, speech, bells and traditional classics.
All these records were worthy, traditional and Christmassy but somebody needed to inject some life and sales into the record industry at Christmas! Into the breach stepped some of the hottest black acts in town. With their pacey, candid, rocking lyrics and sounds they shook up a sedate industry and record buying public.
4-Because the first Christmas Blues Record was deemed to be ” too different ” to be released
Now the question sometimes arises as to which is the first Christmas Blues Record. Some people say it was “At The Christmas Ball” recorded in November 1925 by Bessie Smith, known as the “Empress of the Blues”.
She was one of the most popular female blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s and her musical legacy lives on today.
As Maureen Mahon has said of her
“When Smith rendered a song she tapped into her experiences of the hardships of poverty, racism, sexism and, above all, the ups and downs of love. This gave her a down-to-earth quality that made it easy for her black, working-class audience to connect with her”
Columbia Records rejected “At The Christmas Ball” on the grounds “of being too different” from Bessie Smith’s other material! Maybe Columbia thought Bessie sounded too cheerful or maybe they didn’t want Bessie to deviate from the normal religious or folksy Christmas repertoire .
Columbia were to regret that decision. It might have been the first Christmas Blues record but nobody actually heard it until November1940 when Columbia finally released it on their Hot Jazz Classic Series.
Actually, Bessie had waxed a Christmas record of sorts in June of 1925. “He’s Gone Blues” appeared on the B side of “Careless Love” – and just when did he go and leave her? On Christmas Day, that’s when!
5-Because some of the greatest names in Jazz played on early Christmas Blues Records.
The Red Onion Jazz Babies had a stellar line up for the waxing of “Santa Claus Blues” in 1924. Louis Armstrong, cornet; Aaron Thompson, trombone; Buster Bailey, clarinet; Lil Hardin-Armstrong, piano and Buddy Christian on banjo.
Of course it was wasn’t unusual for the early Blues recordings to attract the best musicians in the business. Back then, all of this crowd were vibrant young things at the height of their powers. The atmosphere in some these recording studios must have been electric. Preserved on these recordings is some of that buzz.
Surely, this a contender for the title of First Christmas Blues record, though some continue to ask if it is Jazz or is it Christmas Blues Music? Well, yes to both, if you must know!
Maybe we can discount it because it is an instrumental but what about the remake?
Well, there were two remakes, actually. This first one was recorded on the 8th of October 1925 by Clarence Williams’ Blue Five with Eva Taylor, vocalist; Clarence Williams, (leader); Louis Armstrong, cornet; Buster Bailey, saxophone; Buddy Christian, banjo; Charlie Irvis, trombone; Don Redman clarinet. This rocks along in a breathless manner. Talk about the roaring 20s…
There was another more sentimental and slower version cut by the Clarence Williams Trio on the 16th of October and this is really a bluesy, jazzy, Christmas song.
“The merry bells are ringing today, But they don’t mean nothing to me.
I hear the children singing today, But I’m as blue as I can be. Ol’ Santa Claus forgot my address,
That’s one thing I can plainly see. It may be Christmas to some folks; It’s just December 25th to me!”
were penned by Charley Straight and Gus Kahn two white songwriters.
Clarence Williams (October 6, 1898 or October 8, 1893 – November 6, 1965) the legendary American jazz pianist, composer, promoter, vocalist, theatrical producer, however, remained the publisher for this hit.
6-Because The Santa Claus Crave is a great title for a Christmas Blues Record.
Next, came the jaw dropping “The Santa Claus Crave”, written and performed by Elzadie Robinson (possibly April 24, 1897 – January 17, 1975), a classic female blues singer and songwriter who recorded 34 songs between 1926 and 1929 with Bob Call on piano in 1927.
There is nothing sentimental or cheesy about this track. This is early Christmas Blues Music at its finest.
Elzadie Robinson gives such a gutsy blues performance that it would blow your Christmas stockings off.
Paramount Records chose to heavily advertise this track and sensationalised it further by the wording of the advert, as though the protagonist was just desperate for a good-looking man to fill her stocking.
7- Because early Christmas Blues and Jazz Music From the Classic Blues Queens is jaw dropping.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of that, it is clear that they had a hit on their hands and other Blues Queens quickly followed suit with festive offerings and with all due respect to Vaughn DeLeath, whom I respect and admire, it was perhaps a good job they did. This is Vaughn DeLeath’s festive offering from 1927; “Santa Claus Land”. So, let’s quickly put something bluesy back onto the turntable!
Bertha Chippie Hill’s (March 15, 1905 – May 7, 1950: blues and vaudeville singer and dancer) “Christmas Man” lyrics DO simply request that Santa simply bring her a man.
The song was probably written quickly, in the studio, by the participants but her classy performance, along with that of Tampa Red on guitar and Tom Dorsey on piano, elevate this beyond the trite.
8-Because lyrics like these have never been topped in a Christmas Song.
Lonnie Johnson and Victoria Spivey produced a sublime, early Christmas Blues in 1928 and I am not really sure if anybody has actually topped this lyrically in the last 100 years. It sparkles like newly frozen snow, even today.
Lonnie Johnson is credited as the composer but it is hard to believe that such a wordsmith as Victoria Spivey did not have a hand in this. Let’s just think these lyrics through.
“My man’s so deep in trouble, the white folks couldn’t get him free. He stole a hog, the charge was murder in the first degree. I never had a Christmas with trouble like this before.
Sleigh bells is my death bells, and hard luck’s knocking at my door“.
Even if it is just a story, the fact remains that the death penalty and lynching were among the standard “punishments” metered out to Black people in 1928, often on the flimsiest of charges and accusations, or sometimes on the whims of State Law.
It is a great song but if you don’t have the shivers down your back at this rendition, you have had too much eggnog!
The early Christmas Blues and Jazz bandwagon was now in full swing, producing another classic in 1928.
Santa Claus, Bring My Man Back came from the talented pen of famed black composer Porter Grainger. It featured
Classic Blues singer Ozie Ware on vocals, with accompaniment by Duke Ellington’s Hot Five; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Sonny Greer, drums; Duke Ellington, piano; Wellman Braud, tuba; Freddy Jenkins, trumpet, on for this scorching rendition.
9- Because Early Christmas Bluesmen got in the Christmas Groove with urban rap.
The mid and later 1920s also saw astonishing Christmas recordings from Black gospel singers and popular Black preachers. I will consider those in another article but it took until 1928 before the Bluesmen got into the Festive groove.
Unsurprisingly, the first of these was the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson who waxed a festive, double A, side; “Christmas Eve Blues”
and what is thought to be the first New Years Blues record . The gem for me is the New Year track, with the haunting lyric
“Thinkin’ ’bout the year of 19 and 29. New Year caught me with my money and man, I was doin’ very fine.”
but in reality it was not to be
Perhaps he would be have been astonished to learn that scholars, researchers and fans of his music remain divided about the circumstances of his untimely death in 1929 to this day.
10- Because a fingerpicking guitar genius appears on some early Christmas Blues and Jazz Music!
Next came a festive early Blues masterpiece, released in November 1929 by Arthur Blake (1896 – December 1, 1934). Promoted by the record label as Blind Blake, he recorded around 80 tracks for Paramount Records from 1926 to 1932.
He is remembered as one of the most accomplished finger-picking style guitarists of the 20th centaury. If that were not enough, his song writing skills were amazing too. It has been said of this track, “Lonesome Christmas Blues” “This is really great and proves the blues was the first urban rap set to melody”.
11- Because Early Christmas Blues and Jazz Music Advertising is Iconic.
It is thought that the record companies actively encouraged their Blues stars to come up with festive music and we should be glad that they did. Paramount Records and others, invested in advertising their new Blues releases in papers like the Chicago Defender. Over the years the graphics and style of these advertisement have become iconic. Despite extensive research, no one has ever been able to identify the graphic artists who created these images.
These early advertisements, created and placed by the recording companies, give a flavour of the time, though, sadly, no one really gave much thought about giving any biographical details of the artists.
12- Because Early Christmas Blues and Jazz Music speaks of and to the human condition.
Like all great musicians and wordsmiths, the early Blues and Jazz music stars would be influenced by the culture around them. They were, often, highly paid entertainers, who had their finger on the pulse of modern trends in music, even though they themselves were usually setting them. They weren’t adverse to reworking popular white material either, as we can see this in our final selection from 1929.
Leroy Carr was popular and prolific and his style was to influence the likes of T-Bone Walker and Ray Charles. Like so many of the great stars, he struggled with addiction and succumbed to an early death.
Here, he is with long time guitar partner, Scrapper Blackwell, with a song from the pens of Floyd Thompson & J.E. Guernsey, who were better known for their country and children’s songs.
I hope that this has given you some food for thought. If you would like to discover more early Christmas Blues and Jazz music, early Christmas Gospel and Christmas Sermons, then simply head over to our catalogues and type in Blues, Blues Christmas, or click on the image below to buy
Written by Gillian Atkinson.
Images and Graphic Design by Gabriela Vâlcean.
Copyright 2021 Document Records Ltd.