Photo: Jitterbugging in Negro juke joint. Memphis, Tennessee, November 1939. Marion Post Wolcott, photographer. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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We try to stay away from just doing playlists without commentary at Dreamtime, as we're trying to do our best to stay in the spirit - if not always the letter - of the Law of Fair Use.
But, as a one-time special gift to our listeners, here's a Dreamtime Christmas playlist from us to you - sans narrative for once from Your Host, Fred Bals.
For all of you who enjoy commentary and history on each selection, that can still be found at the Dreamtime blog (that's right here!).
From all of us to all of you, a safe and Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!
1. At the Christmas Ball - Bessie Smith.
Reportedly the very first Christmas Blues song ever recorded, way back on November 18, 19 and 25 in New York City. Bessie shares vocals with Joe Smith who's also on cornet, Charlie Green is on trombone, and Fletcher Henderson is sitting at the piano.
At the Christmas Ball would become the center of a lawsuit between Jack Gee Jr., Smith's adopted son and heir, and Columbia Records. The song was originally rejected by Columbia, and wasn't released until 1951 when a researcher found it buried in the Columbia vaults - still with a ledger sheet attached noting Rejected and the column recording payment to Smith left blank. Gee's lawyers maintained that since Smith had never been paid for the song her estate still owned full rights to it, and Columbia was liable for damages.
Unfortunately for Gee, by the time the suit was brought in the mid `70s, "Columbia's arguably wrongful possession of exclusive rights to 'At the Christmas Ball' [had] ripened into complete and perfect ownership, good against Bessie Smith's estate...." according to the court, and he lost the case.
2. Christmas Island - Bob Atcher and the Dinning Sisters.
Here's the version I mentioned in my video post featuring the Andrews Sisters. Recorded in 19 and 50, I like this one better than the Andrews' more standard orchestral version because it's a good representative example of how Hawaiian music crept into both country swing and pop music.
As I mentioned in that earlier post, the Dinning Sisters were another "sisters" singing act that, while not remembered as well as The Andrews Sisters, had no small measure of success during their career. The Dinning Sisters' biggest hit was the million seller Buttons and Bows, originally featured in the Bob Hope movie, "Paleface. " One of the sisters, Jean, would later turn her hand to songwriting and pen a hit for her younger brother Mark with Teen Angel.
Known as the "Dean of Cowboy Singers," most of Bob Atcher's collaborations were with singer "Bonnie Blue Eyes," (Loretta Applegate) or his younger brother Randy. He probably hooked up with the Dinning Sisters when he joined their "National Barn Dance" radio show on Chicago station WLS in 19 and 48. As far as I can tell, Christmas Island was the only song Atcher and the Dinnings ever recorded together.
3. Jingle Jangle Jump - The Dexter Gordon Quartet (featuring Gladys Bentley).
A rara avis (that's a hard-to-find rental car) indeed with a Theme Time Radio Hour connection. Gladys "Fatso" Bentley as the vocalist on 19 and 52's Jingle Jangle Jump, backed by Dexter Gordon and his group.
Bentley showed up in TTRH Season 1's Summer episode, singing Juneteenth Jamboree. Dylan refers to Bentley as "Fatso," and to her as "him" in his commentary during that show. But while Bentley did perform under the "Fatso" nickname for a time, "he" was actually a "she," an openly gay performer who was well-known during the Harlem Renaissance of the `20s, and who once announced an "engagement" to her white, lesbian lover in the New York City society columns.
By the late `30s, Bentley had moved to California, where she maintained her career in a small way at lesbian and gay bars, although with nowhere near the flamboyant success of her Harlem days. Jingle Jangle Jump was recorded towards the end of her performing career. The same year she'd renounce lesbianism, claimed to have married two different men, and eventually devote herself to her church, The Temple of Love in Christ, Inc. Bentley was about to become a minister in that church when she died at age 52 in 19 and 60.
4. Christmas Mornin' Blues - Kansas City Kitty.
New Year he won't be here, 'cause death will be his Santa Claus.
At one time, the term "Santa Claus" was used in the black community to mean a Christmas gift as well as the Jolly Old Elf. Thus, "death will be his Santa Claus," and the title of one of the stranger Christmas songs ever recorded, Junior's a Jap Girl's Christmas for his Santa Claus, where the singer, a soldier in WWII, promises to bring back an enemy skull for his son's Christmas present.
Kansas City Kitty was the title of a tune released in 1929 by Harry Reser's Syncopators, and the pseudonym of a blues singer working between 1930 and `34, possibly Jane Lucas, Mozelle Anderson or Victoria Spivey, with most historians split between Lucas and Anderson as the real identity of "Kitty." Whoever she was, Kitty usually worked with "Georgia Tom" on piano, full name Thomas Dorsey, but not that Tommy Dorsey.
5. Did You Spend Christmas Day in Jail? - The Reverend J.M. Gates.
He's talking to you, you Midnight Rambler! Recorded sermons were among the most popular of the so-called "race records" of the `20s and `30s, and Gates was was one of the most popular sermonizers, cutting over two hundred recordings between 1926 up to his death in 1941.
The Good Reverend liked Christmas especially to belabor and rescue his sinning congregation. Did You Spend Christmas Day in Jail? was his follow-up to an earlier recording, Will You Have Christmas Dinner in Jail?, and variations on the theme included Will Hell Be Your Santa Claus? Death Might Be Your Santa Claus, and You May Be Alive or You May Be Dead, Christmas Day.
6. White Christmas - Patti Smith.
We edge dangerously close to Dr. Demento territory with this cut, but I think Patti's sincerity, if uneven reading of the Christmas classic, makes it a worthwhile addition. Sometimes mistakenly identified as a bootleg, this was the 1978 A-side of a (somewhat) officially released 45 recorded in support of musician/producer Lenny Kaye's launch of an independent label.
Unfortunately, Smith was already under contract to another label, so the single was credited to a "R.E.F.M." Fans have speculated that the acronym stands for anything from "Records Exist For Music" to "Radio Ethiopia Field Marshal," but the exact meaning remains unknown, as does the producer of the single, who may have been Todd Rundgren or Lenny Kaye himself.
7. Papa Ain't No Santa Claus (Mama Ain't No Christmas Tree) - Butterbeans & Susie.
Jodie and Susie Edwards stage act of Butterbeans & Susie was considered a bit too raunchy for polite company, but they were one of the top comedy music teams on the minstrel show and vaudeville circuits during the `20s and `30s. Their typical act featured a duet, a blues song by Susie, a cakewalk dance and a comedy sketch, interspersed with rounds of marital bickering, usually centered on Butterbean's ah, "shortcomings."
Papa Ain't No Santa Claus is a classic example of one of their comic songs, filled with double entendres and almost the equal to Susie's signature number, I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll.
8. Shake Hands with Santa Claus - Louis Prima.
Perennial TTRH favorite Louis Prima recorded several Christmas-themed songs including Senor Santa Claus; Santa Claus, How Come Your Eyes Are Green When Last Year They Were Blue?; and his first, best-known, and arguably best Santa song, What Will Santa Claus Say When He Finds Everybody Swinging? from 19 and 36. Prima even did a turn as the voice of Santa Claus on wife Keely Smith's recording of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Since TTRH had What Will Santa Claus Say... on its Christmas playlist last (and this) year, Dreamtime weighs in with Prima's Shake Hands with Santa Claus from 19 and 51. Maybe next year we'll be back with that musical question, Santa Claus, How Come Your Eyes Are Green When Last Year They Were Blue?
9. Christmas around the World - Christmas in Jamaica - Brent Dowe and Christmas in Vegas - Dale Watson.
We pair these two up, as Dreamtime is dreaming of anyplace warm and without the white stuff - and we don't mean cocaine - on this snowy New Hampshire day. Brent Dowe is probably best-known for his work with The Melodians, and for Rivers of Babylon. The Melodians sold over 75,000 copies of their version, but the song was a mega-hit for Boney M. Their version of the song charted at #1 for 5 weeks in the U.K. Dowe also had a successful career as a single act, before passing away much too early in 2006 at age 59.
Someone once said of Dale Watson that he plays country like country was when country was country, a sentiment Our Host would probably approve of. Watson rejects the "country" label these days, but whatever he's playing, I like his Elvis-flavored Christmas in Vegas, which has a nod to the King's Viva Las Vegas. If you like what you hear, you can find more info about Dale at his Web site.
10. The Only Thing I Want for Christmas - Eddie Cantor.
We're closing out tonight's Christmas show with a song that was a new discovery for me, and my current Christmas favorite - Eddie Cantor and the Mitchell Choir's 1939 single, The Only Thing I Want for Christmas. If you've been cruising these here interwebs for the past month or so, you may have already come across The Only Thing... as it's been featured on several popular sites, including BoingBoing.
I love the recording, Cantor's vocals, and especially the sentiment, which I think a good way too close...
What do I want for Christmas? Well it’s simple and its plain.
It isn’t tied with ribbons or wrapped in cellophane
If Santa passes by my stocking, I promise not to mind a lot
The only thing I want for Christmas is
just to keep the things that I’ve got
A pair of loving arms around me, a garden of forget-me-not
The only thing I want for Christmas
is just to keep the things that I’ve got.
and may you keep the things you have.