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Change your tune

If you're tired of those same old Christmas songs, there are lots of quirky melodies to make your holidays merry and bright

December 16, 2006|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN REPORTER

Blues legend Bessie Smith and others recorded numerous Christmas laments in the 1920s, and the next decade saw a flurry of seasonal blues songs that also teetered on novelty, according to the Bad Dog Blues Web site (baddogblues.com). Among them were Butterbeans & Susie's "Papa Ain't No Santa Claus" in 1930 and Bumble Bee Slim's "Santa Claus Bring Me a New Woman" in 1936. Within "the fringe formats, this has always been going on," Turner says of off-kilter holiday melodies. But as radio has consolidated, 60 years' worth of Christmas music has been winnowed down to an AM/FM playlist of the same 300 songs, he says.

In White Christmas, Rosen notes that many Christmas standards were written by Jews, who in the process secularized the holiday for non-Christians. But the relatively minor festival of Hanukkah has spawned its own oeuvre of silly songs, enough to warrant Radio Hanukkah on XM, where the traditional song "I Have a Little Dreidel" is apt to spin into "Swingin' Dreidel" and Orthodox rapper Doc Mo She lets loose with "Hanukkah Homeboy."

Compilations of quirky Christmas music such as Rhino Records' Dr. Demento Presents: Greatest Christmas Novelty CD are widely available. A John Waters Christmas, featuring the selections of Baltimore's own arbiter of bad taste, including the explicit "Here Comes Fatty Claus" by Rudolph & Gang, was released by New Line Records in 2004.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Sports section reported incorrectly that Maryland's Marissa Coleman had recorded the 10th triple double by an Atlantic Coast Conference women's basketball player. It was the 11th.
The Sun regrets the error.

Then there are the self-described geeks such as Lou Brutus, who circulate homemade samplers of holiday novelties among friends and music-industry contacts. Brutus, an XM program director and creator of Special X-Mas, culls songs from his massive music collection for an annual Christmas CD. Among his favorites are a version of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" by the Whirling Dervishes and "The Ann Arbor Chain Saw Massacre Christmas Song" by an Ohio State University-based punk band that called itself the Dead Schembechlers, until its namesake, the famed college football coach Bo Schembechler, died last month.

Brutus is also fond of the Beatles' Christmas messages, which "make absolutely no sense," and holiday song parodies by Bob Rivers, who turned "Winter Wonderland" into "Walking 'Round in Women's Underwear." Spinal Tap's "Christmas With the Devil" is "my absolute favorite," he says. And, "If you want great, weirdo stuff," look for Esquivel's "Merry Christmas From the Space Age Bachelor Pad."

No matter how crude or screwy, most Christmas music contributes to the season's merry din, Brutus says. "Some artists really do want to capture the spirit of the season, and some people want to make a quick buck and put out a holiday CD. As for why people like [weird Christmas music] so much, I can only answer for myself: I still believe in Santa Claus and have never grown out of the holiday spirit."


Creating a cranky mix

O come, all ye nonconformists, and listen to the flip side of Christmas and the holiday season.

Share the spirit by burning your own CD mix and giving it to friends who may also be suffering from a glut of eggnog, chipmunks and chestnuts.

Record collectors know that there is no single way to track down a particular plum. They do their sleuthing on the Web, at used-record stores, yard sales and other spots for obscure treasures.

Just a little investigation into Christmas' underbelly yields a wealth of material. With its index of idiosyncratic rock 'n' roll and novelty Christmas tunes dating to the 1940s, Mistletunes.com is a great place to get started. The blog called ernienot bert@blogspot.com offers daily primers on Christmas albums past, both cheesy and charming.

Baddogblues.com devotes a page to the history of Christmas blues music. It's safe to assume there are plenty of similar Internet sites dedicated to other holiday musical genres.

Rhino Records has released numerous Christmas anthologies, including Dr. Demento Presents: Greatest Christmas Novelty CD and Hipsters' Holiday and Soulful Sounds of Christmas.

A John Waters Christmas released by New Line Records stretches the holiday spirit far beyond polite company.

In your effort to customize your soundtrack to holiday lunacy, tune into XM 107, scan iTunes for downloadable novelties and search Amazon.com for album track lists. Various music sites offer song samples or free downloads as well. This listener got hooked on the scathing "Blue Christmas (To Whom It May Concern)" by Miles Davis and Gil Evans, after listening to a sample on Amazon.com from the duo's Complete Columbia Studio Recordings.

But even that angry song by two jazz masters can't compete with the bleak perspective heard in "Christmas Eve Can Kill You," a 1972 song about a loner by the Everly Brothers.

On that note, have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Stephanie Shapiro

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