In the end, the year itself finally dictated the songs that would be inducted into my Holiday Music Hall of Fame.
When I sent out the invitation a couple of weeks ago for readers to nominate songs for inclusion into the Hall of Fame — a fictional creation of my own to honor definitive performances of holiday songs — I said that I was leaning toward songs that are fun and even silly: Diana Krall’s superb version of “Jingle Bells,” perhaps, or Louis Prima’s “What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’),” a goofy slice of yuletide cheese.
But this is, after all, 2020 — and, whatever else you can say about the year, it has not been fun or silly. And so it was no surprise that many of your nominations reflected the year and were, if not downright downbeat, a little more reflective.
As always, your nominations were all over the board — ranging from rap to pop to classical to jazz. Two very different versions of “Ave Maria” were nominated, and three different versions of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” You nominated songs I hadn’t heard before, like The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” and The Staple Singers’ “Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?” I got nominations (again) for Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
(I have created a Spotify list of all the nominated tracks, plus a few songs I threw in just for the heck of it – such as the new (live!) version of “Oh Santa!” – in which Mariah, Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande compete to hit the highest note possible; if you play this too loud, dogs will show up outside your door. Click on this link to get to the Spotify playlist: http://spoti.fi/3hbASU3)
But only two tracks can be inducted into the Hall of Fame each year. The 2020 honorees are Joni Mitchell’s “River,” from 1971, and Billie Holiday’s original recording of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.”
Some of you are now snorting in anger. You are saying something like “’River?’” That’s not a Christmas song.”
You are wrong. If “River” isn’t a Christmas song, then why does it start with the piano playing “Jingle Bells” in a minor key? Why the references to Christmas trees and reindeer? Why is it so downbeat, like the very best holiday songs?
Mitchell herself called it a Christmas song in an interview with NPR: “We needed a sad Christmas song, didn’t we? In the ‘bah humbug’ of it all.”
There’s a reason why “River” has struck a particular chord this year — and there’s a reason why the song has been covered more than 500 times by other artists. (Among Mitchell songs, only “Both Sides, Now” has been covered more often.) “River” is a song that understands the melancholy that can strike hard during the holiday season — and particularly in this holiday season.
Holiday’s cover of Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” is a little more upbeat — but it, too, has relevance this year. This is, after all, a song about how a dreadful natural occurrence (“I can’t remember a worse December”) is keeping the narrator housebound. It would be easy to translate that experience to this particular holiday season, with just a minor change in lyrics.
— — —
I can’t remember a worse year-ender
Just watching that virus form
What do I care about COVID-19
I’ll just wait at home for that vaccine
— — —
Ella Fitzgerald does a great job with this song, too, and it would have been easy to include her version. But there’s something straightforward and a touch mournful about Holiday’s original cover. (The first version on the playlist is taken from Holiday’s “Legacy” collection; the playlist also includes a 1957 session that’s a little more playful.)
The playlist also features a number of other treats: In addition to the aforementioned Mariah Carey doubleheader, I found a live version of The Roches’ “Star of Wonder,” a jazzy version of “River” by Herbie Hancock and Corrine Bailey Rae, an acoustic version of the Hanukkah rap song “Miracle” by the Jewish rapper Matisyahu, a Paul Simon song that may be about Christmas, and three tracks from a reader’s favorite Christmas album, Stan Kenton’s “A Merry Christmas.”
That Kenton album ends with a spoken-word piece, “What Is Santa Claus,” which explains, among other things, where all my neckties have come from. It’s another glorious slice of holiday cheese — and I mean that as a compliment — so it obviously had to be the last song on the playlist.
If you want to hear all of the songs that have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame, including this year’s honorees, here’s a link to that Spotify playlist: http://spoti.fi/2VTXvTk.
In the meantime, if you wish you had a river you could skate away on, you’re not alone. But you still can have a happy holiday season.
(Mike McInally is a contributor to the Philomath News and writes an occasional column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).