I’m not the Grinch. I’m not a Christmas-hater. I think Christmas is a great time of year. Stockings, turkey, elaborate storefront decorations, it’s all good stuff.
But admit it: from a music fan’s point of view, December gets pretty tedious after a while. You can’t go into any store or turn on the radio without hearing one of the many sappy, jingly, smiley songs that characterize the season. Whether it’s a crooner from the 1950s, a rosy-cheeked children’s choir, or a money-grabbing pop star’s latest piece of opportunistic audio-vomit, that music is everywhere.
When you hear it in late November, it’s kind of nice. “Oh yeah,” you think, “Christmas is coming soon!” The music, sappy as it is, brings back warm childhood memories. You get excited, and you start doing things you’d never do at any other time of year. You start wearing green and red clothes. You cut down a tree and put it in your house. You drink eggnog. But Christmas music is a bit like eggnog in a way; it’s enjoyable for a while in December, but you wouldn’t want to have it year-round. The music, like the drink, is just too thick and sweet to deal with for more than one month of the year.
So for anyone out there who enjoys Christmas, but is just a bit tired of the radio being so damn happy all the time, I give you a bittersweet, beautiful, and just slightly Christmas-related song by Nina Simone.
What makes this a beautiful song:
1. The lyrics. Rodgers and Hart knew how to write songs. Of the 500 (!) songs they wrote together, this has to be one of the most lyrically heart-breaking. “Sit there and count the raindrops / Falling on you / It’s time you knew / All you can ever count on are the raindrops / That fall on little girl blue.”
2. The voice. Nina Simone knew how to sing. Her voice sounds powerful and fragile all at once.
3. The piano. For some reason, when she recorded this song for her debut album, Simone decided that the piano in this song would play a modified version of “Good King Wenceslas”. It’s inexplicable, but it’s brilliant to have the sadness of the lyrics accompanied by a happy Christmas-y melody. Does it make the song sadder? Or more hopeful? I don’t know, but of all the recordings of this song (by Janis Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, The Carpenters, Diana Ross, Chet Baker, Oscar Peterson and just about everybody else) this is the only one that really punches me in the heart.
Recommended listening activity:
Turning off all the lights in your house except the lights on the Christmas tree, and then lying down next to it so that it looks really tall.