14 December 2009

The Christmas Song

The Christmas Song a Timeless Set from Nat King Cole
By Kristin Battestella

My grandmother was very peculiar even as grandmothers go. Having said that, she still gave me many a fine record over the years-and a lot of them I still listen to today. Gifted in unopened cellophane, my The Christmas Song LP by Nat King Cole doesn’t sound as scratchy and flat as some of my other over-played records. Nevertheless, every Christmas Nat gets plenty of spin time at my house!

Well, here it is. You know those chestnuts roasting, Jack Frost nipping, Merry Christmas to one or ninety-two sentiments I mean. The original, definitive The Christmas Song by good old Nat is actually a 1961 rerecord of his earlier renditions, but who’s complaining? Regardless of the racial divides of mid-century America, Nat King Cole was at the forefront of traditional music during his day. This timeless ode to a fireside Christmas is the proof; it sounds like it was laid down yesterday. Nat’s voice rings true fifty years on. Several CD reissues of The Christmas Song also include alternative takes on this titular track and duet versions with Nat’s equally talented daughter Natalie Cole.

Nat keeps things secular with a lively rendition of Deck The Halls next. I know that nowadays it must be tough to sing this festive tune with kids-I told my nieces ‘don we now our gay apparel’ meant ‘put on your happy gear’. Despite the change in definitions, Nat gives us all the ‘falalala’ we need and then some. His joyous singing spreads holiday cheer and puts a smile on your face. Likewise, his O Come All Ye Faithful is big and happy, passing on the joy of adoring Christ rather than being a little medieval melancholy or depressing as some slower versions can be. Nat King Cole also mixes in some of the traditional Latin Adeste Fideles, which seems to be rare among more recent Christmas albums.

Nat also serves up more Old World roots with O Tannenbaum. The German lyrics shake things up a bit, but the famous melody and Cole’s easy baritone style keeps the song’s universal spirit. We do have a few secular or generic holiday songs from Nat, but even his non-Carols carry traditional reverence and style. Unlike other albums of the day with an exclusive Side B of religious tunes, The Christmas Song puts the Christmas miracle first. Strangely, I haven’t heard O Little Town of Bethlehem that much this year. Nat’s soft rendition reminds us of the solemn beauty here. His mix of secular and carols showcases a touch of Christmas across the cultures and around the globe.

I have numerous other renditions of I Saw Three Ships in my Christmas playlists. However, when I think of the jubilant, short, and sweet melody its Nat’s voice I hear. We teach the kids about Rudolph and Frosty and counting down the holidays in busy memorization songs, but here’s a darling little spiritual ditty kids can drive you nuts singing!
Here O Holy Night is not as big a showstopper as some renditions are, with booming orchestra and lofty echoes. Nevertheless, Nat gets all the notes just right, keeping the soft somberness of this carol at the forefront. The Christmas Song ends Side A with some fine, reverent baritone notes. By contrast, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing begins Side B with some fun, spiritual joy. Many pop singers seem to slow down this Charles Wesley carol, but Nat keeps it at the sing a long, smiling pace.

A Cradle In Bethlehem is another more recent, but not oft recorded tune that Nat swiftly delivers. The soft notes and Nativity tale are accentuated when needed but also expertly left to the lovely lyrics, too. This is indeed a lullaby. But of course, If anyone ever had the right style and voice for Away In A Manger, then it must be Nat King Cole. It is a little bit too much of the same having both these infant hymns together, but it’s also perfect for a soft, quiet December evening.
Joy To The World returns The Christmas Song to an upbeat tone. As much as we like it when Nat broods soft and low, you can’t help but get into the Christmas spirit with happy renditions like this. The First Noel, however, is another lofty and reverent set that again reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas.

Caroling, Caroling is another tune that always brings Nat to my mind before all others. You can hear his shiny, seemingly perpetual smile in this happy, jiffy delivery. Despite the quick pacing, there are still enough notes for Nat King Cole to strut his vocal stuff. Lastly, Silent Night serves up the same vocal charm in smooth, somber, slow notes. Though The Christmas Song begins with its share of happy and secular tunes, the spiritual reverence from Nat shines through again at the album’s end.

The Christmas SongIn recent decades, there have been several CD issues of The Christmas Song, but many of these sets appear out of print. Thankfully, all of Nat’s holiday favorites have joined the new millennium as individual downloads and the like. A new set called The Christmas Song with the tracks here and more was also released earlier this year. Fans young and old across the cultural divides should never get tired of Nat King Cole, and especially so at Christmas. Just because you don’t have the record is no excuse!

No comments: