Albums A to Z: A Charlie Brown Christmas

So far in this alphabetic tour of my music collection, I’ve discussed a blues-rock album with a great folk-rock track released in 1965 and a folk-rock concert with clear blues influences recorded in 1966. We’re stuck in the mid-Sixties for one more week, but at least we take a break from the roots-music family…

Charlie Brown Christmas albumThe Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas

While we were out grocery-shopping this weekend, my two-year old son started singing “Jingle Bells.” A Target team member looked up from stocking paper towels and smiled at him, “Getting ready for Christmas?” If only he knew…

See, our kids love Christmas carols: they have a Wee Sing Christmas album that gets played several times a week, and they need at least one round of “Silent Night” or “Angels We Have Heard on High” as part of their bedtime singing. Theologically, I’m right on board: Incarnation deserves more celebration. But as the calendar turned to June and temps surpassed 90 sticky degrees, it got to be a bit much to be crooning both tunes for “Away in the Manger.”

As I was on the verge of turning into a complete grinch, it was providential that this series reached the letter ‘C’ and led me back to Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is only my favorite Christmas album of all time. It’s not much of a contest: the only other one that I own and love is Emmylou Harris’ Light of the Stable. This is my problem as much as anything, but Christmas recordings strike me as being near-impossible to do well: if they’re too faithful to the genre, I pass them off as uncreative; if they break the mold, I complain that they don’t “sound like Christmas.” And, in almost all cases, I suspect that they’re done for the most mercenary purposes: they’re cheap to produce (much of the song catalog is in the public domain) and have a guaranteed market at a certain time of year.

Which, of course, is why it’s so amazing that the best Christmas album of all time is the soundtrack to an animated TV special decrying the commercialization of the holiday (no: holy day).

So, how is it that A Charlie Brown Christmas manages to navigate my impossible demands for fidelity and novelty? I don’t know nearly enough about jazz to be able to comment well on the playing of he and his partners, but it seems like Guaraldi was a kind of genius at arrangements. From the opening track (“O Tannenbaum”) to the closer (“Greensleeves” — and check out its alternate take included with the 2006 remastered version of the album), he manages to push the song right to the edge of familiarity without going over, freshening tunes that can seem stale without making them unrecognizable. And the original compositions fit right in.

But really, it’s silly to even begin to offer anything like a critique of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Because it succeeds on a more basic level: it inspires joy. Not happiness (as C.S. Lewis would put it) — there’s a lot of sadness in Charles Schultz’s Charlie Brown (especially in his first decade or so) and notes of wistfulness and even melancholy show up in the soundtrack, such as the now-standard “Christmastime is Here” and earlier in “My Little Drum.” But both tracks dissolve immediately into buoyant melodies: the former into “Skating” and the latter into the instantly recognizable “Linus & Lucy.”

(I wrote most of this post with the album playing in iTunes and my son sitting on my lap: he’s never seen A Charlie Brown Christmas or heard its soundtrack, but he listened with rapt attention, smiling broadly and clapping along as “Linus & Lucy” came on. Then just before I hit Publish, his twin sister walked up to the laptop, listened to a few bars of the instrumental cut of “Christmastime Is Here,” and squeaked happily, “I hear Christmas!”)

Of course (if you’re not a toddler), you’ve likely heard “Linus & Lucy” a few thousand times, and taken out of its original context, it loses some of its power to make you smile. At best, it leaves you humming mindlessly or tapping your foot; at worst, it might even inspire the unkind thought that Schultz’s creations became their own highly commercialized industry later on. But part of the genius of the album itself is that (unless you’re as young as my son and daughter) it is so closely tied with the TV special. As impossible as it is to watch the cartoon without hearing Guaraldi’s music, it’s also inevitable that listening to the album will evoke memories of watching that crudely animated but deeply moving cartoon.

So I wonder again: Why has A Charlie Brown Christmas had that kind of power, in 1965 and every year thereafter?

Let me take what will seem to be a left turn, to the Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor. She died a year before the special aired, but one of her posthumously published essays suggested that:

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock-to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.

Not with the “shouting” or “startling figures” of O’Connor’s often grotesque characters and plots, but with the deceptive simplicity of Schultz’s cartoon unexpectedly matched by the familiarly unfamiliar arrangements of Guaraldi’s soundtrack, A Charlie Brown Christmas retold Nativity to a culture that had heard the story too often to recognize it. (Most of the songs on the album are secular, but “What Child Is This?” seems to recapture the mystery of Incarnation even without an assist from its lyric.) And while it might seem like an odd way to end a reflection in this particular series, I believe that the most significant piece of the soundtrack is what’s not on the album: the silence backing the minute of network TV time during which Linus recites Luke 2:8-14.

Release Date: 1965

Three Favorite Tracks: “What Child Is This?”; “Christmas Is Coming”; “O Tannenbaum”

Bottom Three “Weakest” Tracks: forget it – a bad idea that will be dropped for the remainder of the series

Other Nominees: Augustana, Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt; Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road; Swag, Catch-All; Hole, Celebrity Skin (the easy winner in the “Least Like A Charlie Brown’s Christmas” contest that I was having with myself); Joe Henry, Civilians; Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, Cold Roses; Norah Jones, Come Away With Me.

<<B is for Bob Dylan Live 1966                    D is for Dog Days>>

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