From the cover of Herbie Hancock Herbie Hancock / Michael Brecker / Roy Hargrove album, River: The Joni Letters (2007)

An Alternative Christmas Playlist for the Coming Ice Age

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Earth: Steve Earle, “Christmas in Washington”

This is simple folk for simple folk, more or less. Singer/songwriter Steve Earle evokes the best of Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Woody Guthrie in this track from his 1997 album El Corazon. No matter the time or leader in charge, the lyrics resonate with a universal meaning. It’s about trying to reach the mortals in another area code: Woody, Utah Phillips, Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King, and Joe Hill. The time setting is Christmas, but there’s an urgency in the chorus, as he calls back for help from heroes long gone, that makes this an earthy and serious holiday song (if only in name) for any day in our fallible calendar year:

“So come back Woody Guthrie / Come back to us now / Tear your eyes from paradise / And rise again somehow / If you run into Jesus / Maybe he can help you out / Come back Woody Guthrie to us now.”

Water: Paul Simon, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day”

We’ll say this song is water-like because it flows. It moves with a steady stream beat down a mountainside path secluded in a thick forest. It’s built around a 1941 sample sermon by American Christian preacher and gospel singer Reverend J.M. Gates. The Reverend is heard here imploring his congregation to prepare themselves for the power and the glory in those days before Pearl harbor, before “The Good War”, WWII. Simon sings in the voice of a man worried about his soldier nephew in Iraq. The eras are drastically different, but nothing has changed:

“I got a nephew in Iraq it’s his third time back / But it’s ending up the way it began / With the luck of a beginner he’ll be eating turkey dinner / On some mountaintop in Pakistan.”

Fire: Blind Boys of Alabama, “Go Tell It on the Mountain”

There’s no readily available recorded video document of this gospel quintet’s fiery performance of this gospel standard with Tom Waits, who sings it with them on their 2008 album, but that’s understandable. Too much fire together on the stage at the same time would have resulted in automatic combustion. This is one of those barn-burners that might have made a believer out of the late legendary agnostic Christopher Hitchens. The only way to have ever sung this song seems to be this way, as a slow-burning and joyous declaration that the King has been born, that deliverance is imminent, that salvation is just around the corner after we start and stop our own fire.

AIR: Tom Waits, “Silent Night/Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis”

Tom Waits surfaces with this lighter than air medley of the standard “Silent Night” and his “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”. It’s the late ’70s, Waits is in his beatnik phase, and there’s sporadic laughter from some audience members throughout this performance. Is it understandable? Perhaps. The Tom Waits of that era was a short-lived, chain-smoking and hard-drinking hopeless romantic whose classic growl of a vocal delivery was sweetened by string arrangements from Bones Howe and informed by the fact that this persona might have actually just been a hat Waits was trying on for a while. He was a throwback romantic, and the Christmas card recitation from a hooker is a perfect accompaniment to “Silent Night”. Everything and everybody seems to be floating on/ through/ above the piano chords here, and the story he tells is probably still happening somewhere after all these years, with Little Anthony and the Imperials providing the perfect background song.

Space: Herbie Hancock featuring Joni Mitchell, “River”

This remarkable 2008 performance features the usually front and center Joni Mitchell perfectly at home as a featured vocalist in Herbie Hancock’s jazz arrangement of her classic 1971 song. Hancock’s piano is quiet, unobtrusive. Vinnie Colaiuta’s brush work on drums is steady and Bob Sheppard’s saxophone lines wander in and out, creating enough space so as to sound as if it’s wandering when actually it’s leading the way. Like any great jazz quintet, there are solos, more dramatic moments, and always the quiet hush. This is 37 years after Mitchell originally recorded this lament. She’s still “…so hard to handle…selfish and sad.” but now she’s informed by the assurance in this jazz arrangement. It remains a Christmas song of sadness and lament, but age has bathed it in wisdom and strength, what all of us need during any season of regret.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures (“O Come All Ye Faithful”, “Silent Night”), the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s music for 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink’s “Father Christmas”, Greg Lake’s “I Believe In Father Christmas”, and The Pretenders’ “2000 Miles”.) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”.

What do we want to hear each Christmas? Do we want to join our local chorale for a full-throated rendition of Handel’s “Hallejulah”chorus? Do we want to attend any variation of The Nutcracker and try to find a different entrance into the story of magical toys come to life? The season starts sinking into our consumer consciousness earlier each year, usually solidifying itself halfway through November. We wander through trains, planes, and automobiles entertained by our own audio programming, soothing sounds from soft earbuds plugged into our phones. If Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” infects us during a trip through overstuffed aisles in WalMart, we have only ourselves to blame. In late 2017, to quote the dearly departed David Bowie, we are our own DJs and we are what we play.

Now that the overture has finished, we are ready for the main course. Start thinking too much about Christmas songs, and the mind reels with endlessly mundane renditions of “The Little Drummer Boy”, “Blue Christmas”, or “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. Don’t think enough about alternatives, and the pablum that passes for entertaining or inspiring Christmas music is relegated to a quick and painfully obvious set list.

In the last decades of the 20th century we made mixed tapes for loved ones or ourselves, thematically connected various artists or deep cuts from a singular favorite musical force. That evolved into burning CDs, which seems to have evolved to sharing YouTube links. Consider the following my equivalent of the Tibetan Five elements theory. If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these songs might be seem as their equivalents to surviving all the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

There will be other songs to slip through our nets during this holiday season, endless variations on the themes of longing and regret, of shattered dreams and clinging to loose remnants of family togetherness. We will try to squeeze them into convenient categories of elements, of artists, of tone and mood and the attempts will usually fail. Christmas songs are difficult monsters to understand. They’re easy to remember, hard to forget, and conveniently disregarded once the season is over. Extend the season, disregard the limits of the calendar, and the sonic possibilities are endless.