A Double Helping with Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Christmas Special
By Kristin Battestella
I love the confusion of Christmas records, I really do. ‘Pon my soul, it turns out A Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special is a reissue of not one, but two previous Ernie Yule albums: Sing We Now of Christmas and O Come All Ye Faithful. This double delight provides a family friendly Christmas listen, and puts an Amen to it.
First released in 1965, Sing We Now of Christmas stands as Record 1 for A Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special, and the titular Sing We Now of Christmas opens with a satisfying Old World sound to set the album’s tone. It’s traditional, but not so out of touch and with a special Middle Eastern rhythm. I like it- somber, but not so old-fashioned baritone deep that it can’t be enjoy today. This church casual preparation and fun continues with O Christmas Tree. This one’s very easy to sing along to indeed. So often any more we get just a rushed refrain, but Ernie gives us time to enjoy all the verses here. His bass tone is simply perfect for The Little Drummer Boy, too. It’s a sweet, but somber male ode for young and old and just excellent in simplicity and style. There isn’t a lot of orchestration, nor is it needed for this quiet reverence and humility.
Angels We Have Heard on High isn’t over the top, either, like so many booming renditions today. Tennessee keeps the big “Gloria” (you know you want to sing it all out right now) so easy. Who knew this chorale carol could be for the family to sing along during a night of crafts, baking, or wrapping presents? We’re not in a grand and lofty church; Ernie brings the Christmas message home effortlessly and with a universal tenderness. Likewise, Caroling, Caroling isn’t too fast but just right in seasonal sway, mood, and melody. You want to join in! Despite his hymnal associations, A Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special begins this Record 1 Side A with a somewhat neutral but festive sound. The classic carols and subtle spiritual are excellent for the traditional and faithful family or the secular office. Sing We Now of Christmas breaks down the holiday flak and presents Christmas at its most basic hearth and home symbols. Unfortunately, that innocence and simplicity makes for a dang short record!
Sing We Now of Christmas’ Side B, i.e. Record 1 Side 2 of A Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special remember, begins with a wonderfully paced Good King Wenceslas. Rather than quick beats and lots of fast bells or vocals, the accenting choir and arrangement here is so pleasant. I feel like I’ve been using the word “pleasant” to describe a lot of these old-fashioned Christmas records, but the timeless tunes are indeed easy on the ear in comparison to the generic holiday noise of today. Thanks to Ernie’s soft storytelling style, I feel as though I might have actually heard and understood these lyrics! So often, this one becomes one of those “songs you kind of know the words to” but not here. The Virgin’s Slumber Song’s lyrics, however, may really be unfamiliar as this charming little lullaby never quite caught on. I don’t know why; the tone is quite peaceable and touching, and this is actually a very beautiful little tune. Ernie takes the time to appreciate every note and so should we.
Although light hearted and filled with family friendly holiday faire, Twelve Days of Christmas is actually one of the few secular seasonals on Sing We Now of Christmas. Fortunately, the pleasant arrangements and easy rendition style carry over to this increasingly wacky, commercial carol. Ernie’s low sound alternates with the casual choir, and nobody gets out of breath as the cumulative chorus mounts in unexpected ways. No Japanese Transistor Radios here! What Child is This returns to the somber with just a bit more formality, but there is still a zesty medieval choir and courtly sway at work. Instead of being old and stuffy, there’s a youthful pace and kingly style that shouldn’t be so surprising considering this is the Birth of Christ, after all. Ernie also shakes up the arrangement of Away in the Manger to close Sing We Now of Christmas. It’s a good place to conclude. We had the festive and fun, and now the family can tuck in with the spoken, prayer-like lyrics here. Amen indeed.
Now that A Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special is finished with the 1965 Sing We Now of Christmas sharing, Record 2 serves up the 1968 O Come All Ye Faithful album from Ernie’s holiday repertoire. Once again, the eponymous starter O Come All Ye Faithful sets the country church mood with big choir notes and full verses. Where Sing We Now of Christmas had some Meaning of the Season and a traditional holiday friendly working together for an overall enjoyable listen across the spectrum, this session is almost all down and reverent carols. Little Boy King may be less well known, but it’s a wonderfully innocent little story. This seems like what would be the Children’s Church segment of the hour, but there is a mature simplicity at hand, too. Love, brotherhood, peace on earth, goodwill, joy, freedom-these shouldn’t be estranged subjects to us, especially at Christmas.
More somber and seriousness follows with Slumber Song of the Infant Jesus. This rendition doesn’t feel sing a long-able, it’s more of a sit back, listen, and be awed by Ernie’s down home church singing and power. I think sometimes with all our contemporary pop wintertime tunes, we forget that it is okay to be moved by the stillness of the season. Also becoming more and more rare, Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella is upbeat and lighthearted and not operatic as usually heard. Big T carries the choir as if this were a festive nursery rhyme. Hush, hush, up up- good little girls and boys won’t want to wake the baby even if they don’t understand the rest of the lyrics. Likewise, Good Christian Men Rejoice is hardly heard anymore, but it is darn catchy nonetheless with a joyous message, fun rhythms, and high notes to finish O Come All Ye Faithful’s Side 1.
The Wassail Song rings in this final leg of A Tennesse Ernie Ford Christmas Special with the more familiar seasonal singable. It’s rousing in a different way. Where the obscure carols are all Christ’s meaning, this is happy. We do have reason to be happy come December, oh yes. The Friendly Beasts gives us more of the crèche story in a lovely little anthropomorphic tale- another amazing lesser-heard ode that says so much in its small way. He is Born, The Holy Child also forgoes the flair as Ernie sans music recounts the whole dang reason we are celebrating. The savior is born, say it merrily- what else is there?
Tennessee and his choir have a different pace with While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks but this quick refrain still works. Some today might perceive O Come All Ye Faithful as a bit dry, granted. How many birth carols can one have in row anyway before things get redundant? Fortunately or unfortunately, the tracks here are once again too quick. After so many less common great church going tunes, it is a bit unusual to end such a deeply spiritual album with so secular a staple as White Christmas, but it sounds perfect, with Ernie’s booming notes and Christmas blessing matching the old-fashioned cold we associate with mid century snows. Thanks to all these recordings from Sing We Now of Christmas and O Come All Ye Faithful, baritone listeners can choose which Ernie they want- seasonably safe and festive or soulful and obscure meaning. Not many today can do both- either vocally or commercially- but Tennessee Ernie Ford pulled it off- that’s why they combined both albums for A Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special!
Previously, I’ve also written upon the 1958 best seller The Star Carol: Tennessee Ernie Ford Sings His Christmas Favorites. If you’re seeking the big name carols and reverence, then that’s the album to find the likes of Joy to the World and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Despite this combination reissue, it doesn’t appear that any songs overlap here or on Ernie’s two other seasonal albums, 1963’s Story of Christmas and C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S from 1971. Though Story of Christmas seems part and parcel available on CD, most of Ernie Ford’s holiday sessions appear unavailable digitally. The current Christmas Favorites CD looks to be the same as The Star Carol, but it seems like chasing vinyl is the best way to get your Ernie Ford December fix. All these confusing releases, reissues, and similarly titled compilations make it tough to enjoy the music and the meaning, but pursuing A Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special is worth the vinyl vintage, old-fashioned charm, and spiritual family faire.