My enormous Italian family liked to sing Christmas carols in our apartment house in the Bronx, but I’m pretty sure we sounded more like an unholy street-gang choir singing “Maria” from West Side Story. Still, it was tradition and therefore special, something you did only one night out of the year, back in the days when Christmas music actually started at Christmastime.
“I'm not religious, but church music is. ...” a friend whispered, as his voice trailed off over his beer lest his preference be publicly exposed. “The chord changes are intricately complex and it's timeless. That's why there's been Christmas carols since Henry VIII, who even wrote some of them, or his court musicians did. That's where Greensleeves came from. The biggest problem I have is that it starts too early. ... but still, when you hear the falalalala, it's good cheer. I love it.” Me, too, sort of.
It’s also the season for irksome, repetitive, mind-deadening holiday music blared across the loudspeakers at malls, ski resorts and pouring out of restaurants and shops, insinuating itself onto the streets and oozing up to pollute the powdery whiteness of an otherwise perfect day. As hard as some of us try to ignore it, Christmas music seems to start earlier and persist until New Year’s Day.
Call it holiday music or carols, but by the time Christmas Eve rolls around, you, too, may loathe hearing another verse of what has become intrusive Muzak. It is why I pay homage to Saint Steve for bringing us the iPod and truly silent nights and days free of granny getting run over by reindeer, Frosty the Snowman “with a brewski in his hand,” sleigh bells relentlessly ringing, and lest I forget, those manic little drummer boys.
Then there are the non-traditional versions of Christmas music, and a few of them actually rock. My favorites do not include Billy Idol snarling out an album of Christmas carols or The Boss having his way with Santa Claus coming to town. The holiday scores that warm the cockles can be tough to find, but the ones I like a lot I find myself inexplicably whistling in July on a long wilderness hike, songs from The Grinch and Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Most of all, though, I love John Denver and the Muppets.
With just one song, John Denver has done more to revive the Yule spirit of pagans and Christians alike than a bowl full of wassail. He opened his nationally broadcast show in 1988, “Christmas in Aspen,” with his favorite, and very non-traditional, Christmas song, Rocky Mountain High, a tune that still evokes euphoric mountain pride even as it is guilty of encouraging generations of happiness-seekers to relocate to the Rockies. It was made an official Colorado state song in 2007.
John's voice had the perfect cadence for traditional carols, and his broad smile epitomized a happy kid on Christmas morning. His collaboration with Jim Henson's Muppets in 1979, on an album called A Christmas Together, playfully transcends the holiday season. The cast of Muppets harmonizes well with John Denver, who merges easily into the gang, and the group is all there, from Rowlf to Fozzy, Kermit the Frog and the diva Miss Piggy. The vinyl had been out of print for a long time when John Denver's estate decided to release a Kermit-Green edition in vinyl a couple of years ago. The original LP inspired the TV production in 1979, which has not been officially re-released, but some segments are definitely worth watching on youtube.com. But probably nothing beats Animal (the Muppet drummer) screaming, “Run, run reindeer!” in Little Saint Nick, an album written and originally recorded by the Beach Boys in 1963, (Wilson/Love) and played by the Muppets' band, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.
John Denver’s penchant for inviting people to his adopted paradise extended to the Muppets, and in 1983, he brought the Jim Henson clan west to Aspen for a campout. Call it corny, but watching the Muppets sing in their classic plaid-flannel shirts and puffy down vests is nothing short of magical. Now, it’s a big part of my holiday tradition.
Want more music? Head to JohnDenver.com, and have yourself a merry little Christmas, Yule and Solstice!
Dawne Belloise is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is a writer, photographer, traveler and vocalist. After hearing “Rocky Mountain High,” she moved to a converted garage in Crested Butte, Colorado, bringing her original Muppets Christmas cassette.