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Christmas Commiseration: Holiday Blues for Nighthawks at the Bar

Sections: Love Hz

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I’m not quite sure what possessed the folks at Legacy  Recordings (Sony) to issue this album on Black Friday as a special limited edition (numbered!) release for Record Store Day. Was it the sad state of the economy? Was it dissatisfaction with the outcome of the election? Or perhaps has this simply been a pet project of someone that finally got its chance in the limelight?

Reality is, for some people, the Christmas holidays can be a very down time, when they find themselves alone with no family or friends to share the holiday sparkle. I have been there myself at least a couple times, finding myself alone in a bar in New York City on Christmas Eve (I’m Jewish, but hey, I like the whole holiday season so it was still a bit of a bummer), feeling like a character in winter version of Edward Hopper’s famous painting “Nighthawks.”

So a collection of music like Death Might Be Your Santa Claus, featuring blues and gospel recordings from the 1920s through the 1940s, is both inspirational and incredibly depressing.  It can be of help to ease the pain and remind you that:

‘hey, yer not alone, so hang loose, try to grab the spirit anyway you can and enjoy the season for what it is.’

Sandwiched between tracks like “Xmas Blues” by Harmon Ray (1947) and The Heavenly Gospel Singers’ a capella proto doo-wop from 1941 “When Was Jesus Born?” is the Reverend J.M. Gates’  “Did You Spend Christmas Day in Jail?” — an evangelical styled call-and-response type recording seemingly made from the pulpit. Without getting into religion and such, it is fascinating to explore this obsession with eminent death.

Ok, so I’ll admit this album it is a bit a bit depressing taken as a continuous listen…

But… But… But really, some of these songs are undeniably pretty cool, and set the stage for a new era of irreverent and sometimes ironic holiday music made by several generations of jazz, rock, and blues artists right up to present times. I mean, it’s pretty well accepted that the blues gave birth to rock and roll, so without  tunes by the likes of Robert Johnson we might not have landmarks such as The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and The Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.”

I first heard a song with the title “Death May Be Your Santa Claus” on Mott The Hoople’s 1971 album Brain Capers. It’s a upbeat piece of proto glam that falls somewhere between The Faces and Steppenwolf and — frankly — pre-echos The Sex Pistols a whole bunch.  But clearly, they got their title from the blues somewhere, and quite possibly one of these old blues releases.

So, should you get this album? I think so.  It is fascinating to hear Reverend J.M. Gates’ — a very influential preacher — preaching on the title track.  According to the Wiki:

“Gates was the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Rock Dale Park, Atlanta, Georgia. He had a very prolific recording career, recording over 200 sides between 1926 and 1941, including frequent re-recordings. Experts estimate that at least a quarter of all sermons commercially released on record before 1943 were recorded by Gates. His first best-seller, 1926’s “Death’s Black Train Is Coming”, sold 35,000 copies by the end of its release year. Many of his recordings were strong warnings of the hellish punishments that awaited sinners.”

The album isn’t all doom and gloom and there are tracks here that will be great for mixing things up on your holiday playlists. It is indeed really cool to hear Bo Carter’s “Santa Claus,” and artists I’d only previously heard on the great, albeit charmingly risque, compilation from Yazoo/Blue Goose Records called Banana In Your Fruit Basket. I like Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Christmas Morning Blues” and the collection is essential for Ellington fans just to hear Ozie Ware with Hot Five do “Santa Claus Bring My Man Back,” which features none other than The Duke himself on piano.

Bessie Smith’s “At The Christmas Ball” goes down like a warm hot toddy while sitting in the bar on a snowy Christmas Eve.  Butterbeans and Susie’s “Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus (Mama Ain’t No Christmas Tree)” is a jaunty, humorous piano blues romp.  The final bonus track on the CD is a neat slow blues (“Santa”) by none other than Lightnin’ Hopkins.

For about $10, this is pretty much a holiday no-brainer.  Just make sure you have friends around when you play it to commiserate with.

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