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Tuesday, December 3, 2002

Now the jingle hop has begun

The Thanksgiving weekend agenda at our house includes breaking out the Christmas music once again. The box gets bigger every few years, what with an average of two additions per annum. For the last couple of years, we didn't even get around to playing everything in the box.

Lately the acquisitions have included some oddballs. James Brown and Boxcar Willie -- well, they ain't Bing Crosby, if you know what I mean. And when Odetta starts singin' 'bout dat lil baby in a manger, you know this is not your grandpa's Christmas music. (Not my grandpa, anyway.)

My spouse and I have been trying to explain the Christmas thing to our two-year-old for the past week or so, and as I drew the first CD out of that box and popped it into the machine, I suggested that we all dance to some Christmas music. When the green light came on and that first cut kicked off, all three of us starting bopping around happily -- merrily, I guess you'd have to say.

And then I realized I was re-enacting a scene from my childhood, when I was three or four years old. Because we were doing the same thing that my parents did with me, and with the very same song: Bobby Helms's "Jingle Bell Rock."

Now don't get me wrong, I know that there are people out there who are sick of this little number. It's corny as hell, and who can avoid being bombarded with it at least once a day for about three weeks every December? But for some reason, I never get tired of it. I just think it's a beautiful way to spend two and a half minutes.

There's the awesome hook that starts and ends it -- a little guitar spinoff of a traditional classic that makes a real statement: It's "Jingle Bells," folks, but you never heard it like this before (and in '57, when they made this record, indeed you hadn't). Years later, Joni Mitchell took the same few bars in a much, much darker direction, but with a similar, big impact.

The structure of "Jingle Bell Rock" is so simple -- a couple of verses, a couple of bridges, and of course the hokey background chorus gets a crack at a verse, and before you know it, you're putting your partner through one last spin and you're done. And no sappy, drawn-out fade here. A crisp, clean ending with more or less the same hook that started it off. Bravo!

Back in the days when Helms recorded this, it was considered country music. I never paid much attention to that sound back then, or any time since, really. You're talkin' Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold's style, which is too sticky sweet for me, especially with the saccharine background singers. I think I have an early Willie Nelson record that shows him trying to deal with all that, and it's easy to see that he and Waylon Jennings had to bust out of there or die. (Which suggests an interesting parallel to the difference between the weirdness that passes for "country" music today and the more interesting "American roots" music that is being made by people like Steve Earle, but that's for a different blog entirely.)

To get back to the point: For a nice little Christmas record to dance to with your loved one, for my money it's hard to beat "Jingle Bell Rock."

A bit of research on the song reveals some noteworthy facts. Allegedly its real authors -- Helms and the guitar player with the killer lick, a fellow named Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland -- never got credit for writing it. That credit was given to two guys who wrote a similar song called "Jingle Bell Hop," which Garland and Helms are said to have used as the base for their own composition. These copyright hassles confuse and depress me to no end, but I'm sure what emerged from the studio and wound up on my record player had a lot more to do with Garland and Helms than whatever the other guys wrote.

Helms was a very talented fellow who had a few other hits. "My Special Angel" was a biggie for him, but I can remember only a bad white-boys-in-sweaters cover of that one by the Lettermen or the Vogues in the late '60s. Garland went on to be quite a jazz guitar player after he left Nashville behind, but when last heard from he was still pretty bitter about not having the royalties from "Jingle Bell Rock" to live off in retirement. Helms died about five years ago, and from what I could read, he laughed the whole thing off.

Hank, Bobby, wherever you are: You should have seen the look in my kid's eyes tonight when that song came on the second time. There isn't enough money on earth to pay you fairly for that.

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