The Secular Christmas Song Mystery


I grew up (in the '50s) hearing such non-religious holiday fare as "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Raindeer," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "All I Want For Christmas is My Two Front Teeth," et cetera, ad nauseum. The "popular" Christmas song was a huge industry by then. But since the subject came up, and thinking as a historian, I couldn't recall any such songs by professional songwriters from before the early '30s, with one exception:

"Santa Claus Blues" (1924), by Charlie Straight and Gus Kahn. This number was recorded brilliantly by Clarence Williams' Blue Five, with Louis Armstrong, (twice!) on OKeh; and by the Blue Rhythm Orchestra, with June Clark and Jimmy Harrison, on Pathé and Columbia. But no white dance or jazz orchestras covered it - this was strictly a "race" item, even though the composers were white.

So I went to Ty Settlemeyer's "Online 78 Discography" for a cursory survey, seeking pre-1932 funny, novel, irreverent holiday songs, concentrating on the search terms "Christmas" and "Santa Claus."

Now there are lots of early records of sketches, recitations and musical "descriptive scenes" concerning Christmas, such as these Columbias from 1901-1915:

3512 COLUMBIA QUARTETTE Christmas Morning at Flanigan's
3288 MR. AND MRS. CAL STEWART Christmas Time at Pumpkin Center
A-761 BYRON HARLAN (tenor) Come Spend Christmas With Me
A-890 LEN SPENCER with chimes Night Before Christmas
A-1078 PRINCE'S ORCHESTRA On a Christmas Morning
A-1844 PRINCE'S BAND Christmas Morning With the Kiddies

And there are many more such items on the other labels. But these are not what I was after - secular or humorous popular songs only, please. Taking a cue from "Santa Claus Blues," I scoured the "race" lists of Columbia, Victor, Paramount and Vocalion, and turned up this bonanza:

Col. 14575-D Lil McCLINTOCK Don't Think I'm Santa Claus
Columbia 35842 BESSIE SMITH At the Christmas Ball (rec. 1925, issued 1940)
OKeh 8950 BUTTERBEANS & SUSIE Papa Ain't No Santa Claus
Victor 23304 CHARLIE JORDAN Santa Claus Blues [not the 1924 song]
Victor 21777 OZIE WARE Santa Claus, Bring My Man Back to Me
Paramount 12573 ELZADIE ROBINSON Santa Claus Crave
Paramount 12692 BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON Christmas Eve Blues
OKeh 8517 VICTORIA SPIVEY Christmas Morning Blues
Vocalion 1224 BERTHA CHIPPIE HILL Christmas Man Blues
Vocalion 1432 LEROY CARR Christmas in Jail

Even the preachers and evangelists, especially Rev. J.M. Gates, and his clone, Rev. A. W. Nix, had a less reverent, more "hands on" approach to the Man From the North Pole and Christmas in general:

OKeh 8413 REV.J.M.GATES Death Might Be Your Santa Claus
OKeh 8508 REV.J.M.GATES Where Will You Be on Christmas Morning?
OKeh 8508 REV.J.M.GATES Will the Coffin Be Your Santa Claus? (1927; reissued in 1928 on OKeh 8632)
OKeh 8753 REV.J.M.GATES Did You Spend Christmas Day in Jail?
Vocalion 1143 REV.A.W.NIX Death Might be Your Christmas Gift
Vocalion 1217 REV.A.W.NIX Begin a New Life on Christmas Day
Vocalion 1553 REV.A.W.NIX How Will You Spend Christmas?
Vocalion 1221 REV.CLAYBORN-GUITAR EVANGELIST Wrong Way to Celebrate Christmas

All fantastic stuff, but still not what I had in mind.

Scouring the regular popular lists of these labels, I could not find a single Xmas item by a singer or a band before the mid-'30s that wasn't one of the standard, reverent carols or sacred songs, or something in that vein. Except for "Santa Claus Blues," there wasn't one such number by a Tin Pan Alley popular composer - not even Irving Berlin, who had no trouble writing a hit about Hell ("Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil" in 1921).

So, I am mystified: How is it that in the '20s, and very likely before, the Black folks were so free and easy with Christmas in song, while the white ones - even the apostate Jews - didn't loosen up until the mid-'30s? And when they did, the first holiday hit, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" (1934), turned Jolly Old St. Nick into a snooping, threatening J. Edgar Hoover? Maybe Nick Tosches or Elijah Wald could explain it.

-Brad Kay

N.b. "Jingle Bells" (1857) is NOT a Christmas song. It's actually about Thanksgiving, and winter in general.

Posted on Nov 25, 2011, 1:29 AM

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