Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Greatest Christmas Song in Christendom

When we were a boy in the previous century, in that time before teenagers were downloading Internet porn on their cell phones, the annual and much-anticipated commencement of the Christmas season (as it was then known) was signified by the first playing of Charles Brown’s Please Come Home for Christmas on the radio. This usually did not occur until the first week of December, at the earliest. From then until New Year’s, the song was played incessantly on the town’s Top 40 station. It was such a beloved local standard that it occasionally could be heard on the easy-listening and country-western stations, too.

We just assumed this was a phenomenon solely endemic to southwest Louisiana, and that Brown was a local product, a purveyor of the deeply soulful la-la that would much later be categorized as “Swamp Pop” by rock-n-roll academicians, or whoever. We were wrong on the second count, we would learn, but our first assumption may have been close to correct. In any case, the deejays of KVOL (“1330 on your dial”) were most certainly on to something: There is nothing more sublime in the annals of American popular music than the opening of Please Come Home for Christmas: the solemn three chimes--- dingdingding --- and then Brown’s warm and expressive voice bringing you the news as the music rolls forward: Bells will be ringing ...

As a child, the song was like wallpaper to us: It meant nothing more than a familiar signpost to an upcoming holiday from school, another trip back to the ancestral home in East Texas, presents under the tree, etc. Then, as a young man, we acquired a perhaps superficial first-hand appreciation of the tragedy of which Brown sang---I’m not be getting any this Christmas---which, as far as tragedies go, pales next to the Holocaust or the Great Terror or a tsunami that kills tens of thousands, yet all tragedies are at some level personal ones, as somebody said.

More recently, as we stumbled into the autumn of our years, we arrived at a much deeper appreciation of Please Come Home for Christmas, of the overwhelming sense of loss and longing that informs Brown’s song. We’ve probably heard it a thousand times, yet Please Come Home for Christmas can still move us and stir all variety of emotions, if not quite drive us to our knees or bring us to tears. Neither time nor the Eagles’ pallid remake of some years ago has diminished the power of Brown’s words and voice.

Charles Brown was not from Louisiana but from Texas City, born there in 1922. Most biographies say he became a teacher of math and chemistry, but like many talented and ambitious African-Americans of the time he got the hell out of segregated 1940s Texas and made his way to California, where he launched a successful R&B career that carried him through the mid-’50s, with songs such as “Trouble Blues” and “Black Night.” While Brown himself reportedly was a cheery and decorous individual, in his music “the leitmotif was unremitting pain and misery,” wrote Jerry Wexler in the notes to Brown’s 1990 album All My Life. By the late '50s he had, as they say, fallen off the charts, and at some later point he was reduced to stoop labor to make ends meet. Before his death in 1999, though, he had achieved a nice and deserved comeback with the help of Bonnie Raitt and others, and All My Life was testament to the durability of his awesome talent.

Please Come Home for Christmas, as far as we know, has never been included on those “100 Greatest Songs of All-Time” lists complied by Rolling Stone or the American Academy of List Compilers. It wasn’t even mentioned in Brown’s obituaries (Merry Christmas, Baby, a pleasant but nothing-spectacular Brown offering, was). That’s wrong, but the sentiment of the song, particularly its last verse, with its professed hope for delivery and the triumphant little flourish of resolution tacked on the end, speaks to the true spirit of Christmas better than any song we can think of, and it’s a sentiment that can be embraced not only by the Christian but by the Muslim, the Jew and the Hindoo, too, as well the agnostic and atheist. Even the Scientologist.


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