Car Carols


Driving through Lowertown in St. Paul, bored by political talk radio, I allowed the dial to drift aimlessly to the land of eternal Christmas music and settled in comfortably with my Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate and Super America hot dog.

The mood in the car shifted immediately. For better and worse, the music began working the room.

There ought to be a psychological study done on the effect of holiday hymns. Many people react differently, but most react palpably. There are few who aren't nudged one way or the other by these annual winter hits.

This time I decided not to allow the music to have its way with me but instead to dissect it. Analysis was the plan. What is this song? Who wrote those lyrics? What's the back-story?

It seems like a lot of work, I know. Why not just enjoy the offerings? Well, these tunes have reached the pedestrian ubiquity of drive-through burgers, and I don't want to grow numb to them. The older you get the more you have to wake yourself up, lest pop culture lull you into that lazy-eyed morphine stupor found on the faces of most mall shoppers.

So, the task began with "Silver Bells," a top 10 Christmas tune on virtually every list ever compiled. It's always been my favorite, and the reason is simple: I grew up in the city. The vast majority of Christmas songs celebrate a more bucolic world. "Silver Bells" was the first to say, "Wait a minute, anyone ever been downtown?"

I pulled over, grabbed the laptop, fed off a coffee shop's WiFi, and found out the tune was originally "Tinkle Bells." "Tinkle" instead of "silver" could have torpedoed this number, and the hero who caught it, before the song could be recorded, was the composer's wife.

"Do you have any idea what 'tinkle' means, sweetheart?" she's reported to have said. "That's the word children use when they have to pee."

Thus "silver" was substituted, and the metallic quality in that word perfectly matched the solid, shiny feel of a cityscape, giving urban dwellers their very first Christmas carol.

The second song aired was "Sleigh Ride," a frenzied piece that, overplayed, could trump water boarding, but delivered sparingly is a bright-eyed toe-tapper for the hopelessly upbeat.

Something seemed amiss. I couldn't put my finger on it, but the song felt disjointed, and not merely because it featured a birthday party at "Farmer Gray's" (why is a birthday party in a Christmas song?). The confusion cleared when I pulled over yet again, sucked off the WiFi of a chain restaurant, and found out the song was never meant to contain lyrics. It was written solely as an orchestra piece and only years later were words haphazardly thrown its way. Nevertheless, it's been performed and recorded by a wider array of musical artists than any other song in the history of Western music.

The third tune to waft through my vehicle was the classic Bing Crosby version of "White Christmas," the best-selling recorded single of all time. Forget Bing for a moment. Put yourself in the room when Irving Berlin wrote it. Imagine the expression on his face after he reportedly pulled off an all-nighter and said to his secretary, "Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I've ever written. Hell, I just wrote the best song anybody's ever written." Hyperbole? Sure, but the man knew what he had when he had it, and there aren't many feelings in this world that match that thrill.

The next three songs in a row were "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," and "A Holly Jolly Christmas." All had the exact same banal, lightweight, secular feel and an identical tempo. I pictured the same composer working on one after another along a conveyor belt. It turned out I wasn't far off. Johnny Marks penned all three and is known as the most prolific big-hit holiday writer of all time. They say he had his own song formula and worked it like a line cook at Chipotle.

Well, that brought me down a little, delivering a hit of seasonal cynicism. I found myself losing that holiday spunk and reluctantly drifting back to talk radio, where I once again encountered chitchat about North Korea and what was being referred to as our impending Third World War.

Where was that John Lennon carol when I needed it?