(Pictured: Phoebe Bridgers.)
(Before we begin: I am humbled by the comments I have received both here and on social media regarding my latest podcast episode. I’m glad it struck a chord with so many people.)
At our house, Thanksgiving is not a mere speed bump on the way to Christmas. We do not bust out the Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving.
Not everyone does this, of course. Radio stations across the country started switching to all-Christmas in early November, and in lots of markets (Madison is one of them), there’s more than one. Stations have found that Christmas music provides a reliable ratings boost, and this year, that boost is liable to be bigger than ever. Remember last spring, when people put their Christmas trees back up, cable channels ran Christmas movies, and a few radio stations played Christmas music for a while? If people were thirsty for holiday diversion in the early days of the pandemic, that thirst is likely to be even greater after a few months of it.
In the runup to Thanksgiving we do, however, keep an eye and ear out for music we might want to listen to once the season arrives. And like almost everybody else, we end up listening mostly to music we have listened to before.
—Earlier this year, Chicago’s Mighty Blue Kings were preparing to start playing live again after several years of hibernation, and then the pandemic intervened. They did, however, remaster and reissue their Christmas album, released in 2000. It’s one of the albums we listen to most often around here every Christmas, and it’s the best thing the band ever did, featuring their fabulous version of the William Bell/Booker T. Jones composition “Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday.”
—The 1963 album A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector has been a part of my holiday music collection practically from the start: it will be 50 years this Christmas since I first heard selections from it on the old WLS Holiday Festival of Music. Legacy Recordings has done new animated videos for a couple of the songs. The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride” is charming, and I’m not gonna lie, it got a little dusty in the office while I watched Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”
—At the end of 1973, a year in which America’s future started to look wobbly and bleak, Merle Haggard recorded a song about hard times called “If We Make It Through December,” which did a month at #1 on the Billboard country chart and crossed over to pop. When Haggard died in 2016, I wrote:
Saturday night is not always a party. Sunday morning does not always bring redemption. We are not destined to win all the time, in love or in anything else. Country music—any form of art, really—is lying to us if it fails to acknowledge all that. In truth, the only thing we know for sure is that we’re gonna have to deal with some shit. Maybe times will get better, and maybe they won’t. Maybe there will be a happy ending, and maybe there won’t.
And now here we are, facing another December not unlike the one in 1973. This time, we are not looking at recession and inflation and energy shortages. This time, every American is being stalked by a potentially deadly disease in a country whose leaders have been mostly unable to rise to the moment. The worst of them are stupidly encouraging behaviors that will cause people to get sick and/or die, or to lose their livelihoods, unnecessarily. Until January 20, our president is a petulant child, enabled by a political party that has stopped believing in democracy. There’s new, more competent leadership on the horizon, and a coronavirus vaccine too, but right now, they’re just promises. Maybe times will get better, and maybe they won’t. Maybe there will be a happy ending, and maybe there won’t.
Not since 1973 has there been a more appropriate time for a revival of “If We Make It Through December.” Singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy just last week, has put her own spin on the song. It’s part of a four-song Christmas EP that also includes her update of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Seven O’Clock News/Silent Night” with Fiona Apple and Matt Berninger of the National, which was first released last year. You won’t know how much you needed it until you listen to it.
If we make it through December
Got plans to be in a warmer town come summertime . . . .
If we make it through December, we’ll be fine