Carrying the Message

(Slight edit since first posted.)

At our house, we don’t stress very much about Christmas. There are moments of consternation involving shopping and shipping, but in general, as long as the tree gets up and the liquor cabinet gets stocked (Christmas Eve is Jack Daniel’s night), we’re good.

However: We are having a bit of a crisis right now over whether to send Christmas cards, which I have found in recent years to be an odious chore. The acceptability of the mass-produced holiday letter helps, as does being able to print mailing labels—if I had to do it like my mother still does, writing cards by hand with a personal note in most of them, we’d probably have stopped sending cards years ago. Should we abandon the practice entirely, we won’t be alone. The number of cards sent nationwide is expected to decline from 1.8 billion last year to 1.5 billion this year, and that number’s only going to fall because a generation raised on electronic communication finds writing cards and sending them via snail mail to be even more tedious than I do.

(If you’re expecting a card from us, you might yet get one. I think The Mrs. is weakening, and every time I read one we get, I feel guilty about not sending them. Thanks, Mom.)

I’ve had my Christmas library on solid while working at my desk this morning, and here are five noteworthy songs I’ve heard today.

“Deck Five”/Saturday’s Children. On the Dunwich label from Chicago, the same one that signed the Shadows of Knight, Saturday’s Children were a Beatles-inspired garage band with musical chops enough to play in 5/4 time on this holiday song inspired by Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” which was released at Christmas of 1966. In one sentence, that’s about all I know of them. Read more and hear both sides of the “Deck Five” single at Derek’s Daily 45.

“My Boyfriend’s Coming Home for Christmas”/Toni Wine. Here’s somebody we like a lot, a bubblegum goddess who sang with the Archies and on Dawn’s “Candida,” which she co-wrote. “My Boyfriend’s Coming Home for Christmas” dates back to 1963, which surprised me at first—I was guessing it came from later in the Vietnam Era. Read more about the song and others from the Vietnam Era at Hip Christmas, which is an insanely great site you should visit right now. I mean it. You won’t be sorry. Look for some crazy-good and extremely rare tracks for download.

“12 Days of Memphis (Christmas)/Star & Micey. Despite their name, Star & Micey is a six-piece band from Memphis that released a debut album in October 2009, the second full-length album released on the Ardent label after the debut from Jump Back Jake, which we liked a lot around here. This Christmas, Star & Micey has put out two holiday singles. This one, which comes in a regular version and a drinkin’ version, name-checks a lot of famous Memphis people and destinations, and you can hear it here.

“Christmas Eve” and “Christmas Bells”/Robert Gayler. A while back I came across a collection of Christmas cylinder recordings from the pre-1920 Pioneer Era of Recording. Most of them were unlistenable, either because of their primitive sound quality or because their style is so antiquated. These two recordings, from 1916 and 1919 respectively, are keepers, and feature Gayler on the celesta. Of “Christmas Bells,” a 1919 newspaper ad says it is “musically reminiscent of the morning of gladness and of crisp, clear, sun-kissed air carrying the message of the joyful bells to a happy world.” And it is. About Gayler himself, I have been able to find nothing. No matter who he was, I doubt he could have imagined the ripple in time he was creating in 1919, and how it would still be rippling 91 years later.

“Christmas Bells”/Robert Gayler (from Edison cylinder; out of print)

13 responses

  1. As far as the Vietnam angle on the song about the boyfriend coming home for Christmas, it’s worth mentioning that there weas a draft going on between 1940 and the early 1970s, even when there weren’t wars being fought. And, there were many who ended up like Bruce Springsteen sang in “Born in the U.S. A.”: “Got in a little hometown jam, so they put a rifle in my hand.” And those guys were often the ones we call the “bad boys” and hoodlums today; it was a convenient way of getting them off the streets.

    It’s worth mentioning that songs like “Soldier Boy” (1962) was also from before the Vietman era, that the subject of “My Boyfrind’s Back” (1963) very well could have recently finished boot camp and that no less an icon than Elvis was sent to the service in 1958.

    At that time, military service was something that was one of the things people knew they would probably have to do…especially those who weren’t smart or rich enough to go to college.

  2. @Chris: You are correct, sir. My reason for thinking the Toni Wine song was from later was mostly because I associate her with a later period in time. She made “My Boyfriend’s Coming Home for Christmas” in 1963, when she was 16.

  3. My favorite draft story:
    A few months after pitching a complete-game win in Game 7 of the 1955 World Series, Johnny Podres was reclassified from 4F to 1A and drafted into the Navy.
    He missed the entire 1956 season.
    Just imagine that happening today to, say, Tim Lincecum.

  4. @Kinky: The fact that it doesn’t happen today is part of the reason why the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq barely register in the average American’s experience. Most people have not had their lives disrupted by another person’s deployment–not a family member or even a prominent athlete on a team they’re a fan of. I suspect neither war would be dragging on as long as they have if large numbers of middle-class and rich kids were being pulled out of college against their will to serve.

  5. @Kinky: there’s a big difference between Johnny Podres in ’55 and Lincecum today. Podres wasn’t pulling down millions a year.

    On the flip side of that ’55 Series, Billy Martin had been drafted into the Army and missed the entire ’55 season. As the hero of the ’53 Yanks/Dodgers, he felt that his service time may have given the Dodgers the slight edge they needed to win.

    Baseball was affected by World War 1 and 2, and saw several of its players get drafted during the Korean War. By the time of Vietnam, the businessmen who owned the teams had been able to set up a system where certain players would enlist in National Guard and Reserve units, which allowed them to keep their bigger stars from having to be lost for a year or two. There were a few exceptions, but they were mainly young players who hadn’t shown they were ready to play in the bigs yet.

    Back to the music angle…there were stories about singers in the military, and several songs came out of that service. For instance, John Fogerty wrote “Fortunate Son” after getting his discharge. Al Green and Jimi Hendrix were drafted before they hit the big time, while Archie Bell was serving in Vietnam as his song “Tighten Up” made its way up the charts.

    That would make for an interesting topic.

    And yes, I can talk about military stuff for hours. In the sense of full disclosure, I am a veteran of the Army (Signal Corps) who served while the Gulf War was going on.

  6. WestBerkeleyFlats | Reply

    Nolan Ryan seems to me to be one of the most famous Vietnam War reserve unit types.

  7. Aside from Nolan Ryan, there was also Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer and Bill Lee, as well as lesser-known players like Frank Duffy and Tony Muser. Among the guys who ended up being sent to Vietnam included Bill Campbell, Garry Maddox (who grew a beard to cover up a skin condition he picked up from chemical exposure) and Bob Jones, who may have been the last active ‘Nam vet in the majors. Again, these guys were just beginning their baseball careers when Uncle Sam delayed those plans for a while.

  8. I recall that Rod Carew was in the National Guard during his first years with the Twins, ca. 1967-68.

    @ jb: I concur completely about the impact a draft would have had on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’d have long ago brought everyone home.

  9. Bud Harrelson, starting shortstop on Ryan’s ’69 Mets, also missed short stretches of that season to fulfill military obligations.
    That’s one reason the Mets had Al Weis, who turned into an unlikely hitting hero that October, on their roster.

    The Seattle Pilots’ Gary Timberlake was called to active military duty after only two games, and never pitched in the big leagues again.

    Another great military story:
    In June 1969, Astros pitcher Larry Dierker obtained a 24-hour pass from military training in Louisiana, drove to Houston, and pitched all 11 innings to beat Steve Carlton, including singling in the winning run in the 11th.
    Then he got a few hours’ sleep and drove back to Louisiana and the military.

    None of which, of course, has anything to do with pop singles.

  10. Not Viet Nam, but what about recently passed Bob Feller who missed four seasons due to the Big One?

  11. WestBerkeleyFlats | Reply

    Kinky, that reminds me of Elgin Baylor who played the 1961-62 NBA season that way, appearing in 48 regular season games. Of course, he put up a 38-19-5 average in those games.

  12. In the efforts of putting this back on the topic of music…

    Which hit songs address the issue of military service without actually mentioning it?

    Look at the song “Last Train to Clarksville.” Clarksville, Tennessee is near Ft. Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne division. The lines “and I don’t know if I’m ever coming home” suggest he’s about to be shipped out to the war.

    In my weekly blog reviewing 70s music, I will be featuring Johnnie Taylor’s “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone,” which incorporates this line from a cadence I used to sing as we ran our PT: “Ain’t no sense in going home, Jody’s got your girl and gone…” It specifically avoids mentioning the military (which in 1971 was essentially the kiss of death in pop music due to the unpopularity of the War), but the tune definitely was recognized by those who were listening…especially in the black audience that listened to Taylor’s music, since they were more likely to be drafted and sent into the fight than other segments of the population.

    I’m sure there are others out there…sadly, the overtly pro-military stuff of the era (“Ballad of the Green Berets,” “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley,” etc.) is often hard to listen to.

  13. “Which hit songs address the issue of military service without actually mentioning it?”

    Well, two that came to mind aren’t nearly that oblique, but one is fairly subtle. “Galveston” by Glen Campbell refers to cannons and the singer’s gun (which really should have been “rifle,” according to military terminology, but that wouldn’t have rhymed with “Galveston”) and his fear of dying.

    More overt is “Yellow River” by Christie:

    “Put my gun down, the war is won / Fill my glass high, the time has come /I’m goin’ back to the place that I love: Yellow River”

    and

    “Cannon fire lingers in my mind / I’m so glad that I’m still alive / And I’ve been gone for such a long time from Yellow River”

    And a couple of overtly anti-war hits are dated but not nearly as hard to listen to as “Ballad of the Green Berets” and its ilk:
    Edwin Starr’s “War” and “Bring the Boys Home” by Freda Payne. Both, interestingly, are out of Detroit, with Starr on Gordy and Payne on Invictus.

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