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‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ remains the defining holiday classic

Holiday music has always been pop’s most bizarre rabbit hole. Strange and expansive as it is, though, there’s something in it for everyone.

There are those who swear by the undeniable classics, like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s classic recording of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town,” Mariah Carey’s unimpeachable “All I Want For Christmas Is You” or Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” which remains—more than 75 years after its release—the best-selling single of all time.

There are those who, with their love of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” insist on continuing the inexplicably long life of the single worst song ever written by one of the world’s greatest songwriters. Or for those who prefer their holiday classics to be voiced in the raspy sneer of a man who sounds more like he’s telling them to get off their lawn than crooning a soothing, nostalgic classic to them, there’s Bob Dylan’s fascinatingly insane 2009 album, “Christmas in the Heart.”

For those who like to enjoy the holidays with intoxicating doses of irony, there’s David Bowie’s still-unbelievable, completely serious 1977 duet with the aforementioned Bing Crosby on “Little Drummer Boy.” Or finally, if you’d really prefer not to enjoy the holidays, you can delve into “Mark Kozelek Sings Christmas Carols,” the somber, self-explanatory holiday-themed outing by Sun Kil Moon frontman and noted crank Mark Kozelek, or “Christmas,” the soul-shattering 1999 EP by slowcore greats Low.

Regardless of what you may like, at the end of the day, you’ll probably associate holiday music with a familiar scene. Trying desperately to figure out what on earth that one sibling could possibly want, in a mall that is inconceivably crowded with humans, your auditory senses will likely be assailed by a PA system that’s struggling under the weight of even Michael Bublé’s chrome-like voice.

It doesn’t have to be this way though. One album that seems to, despite its enormous past success, always get pushed slightly to the background this time of year is that unlikely holiday classic, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The beautiful Vince Guaraldi Trio score to the equally fantastic 1965 animated television special of the same name, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is an album that can soothe even the most frayed of holiday-season nerves.

For the score of the special, the first television adaptation of the wildly popular comic strip, “Peanuts,” producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez decided to make an unconventional choice. Rather than more typical orchestration, they chose to hire noted West Coast jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. Rather than conforming to the norms of the time, Guaraldi simply scored the special in his trademark, cool jazz style. Little did he know at the time that his score would come to be as iconic as the special itself.

Recorded with Fred Marshall on double bass and Jerry Granelli on drums in just two days, the sweeping score was as forward-looking as the special itself, which famously tackles holiday-season depression, materialism and religious issues through the eyes of the comic strip’s innocent but brilliant characters.

“Skating,” perhaps the album’s most enduring piece, perfectly captures the earliest stages of winter. Guaraldi’s fingers dance effortlessly across the keys, the melody he creates embodying the beauty of snow when it is still a refreshing, life-affirming sight—before it begins to pile up and become a hassle.

“Linus and Lucy,” gifted with a melody that will stick in your head forever, will forever remain associated with the dance scene in the special that accompanies it. The joy and exuberance that pours forth from both the piece and the scene it accompanies are a microcosm of the special, the warmth of which seems immune to age.

“Christmas Time Is Here,” which Guaraldi wrote with Mendelson, itself became a Christmas standard. Listening to it even today, it’s easy to see why. The entire trio is simply sublime on the song, with Granelli barely brushing the drums, Marshall providing a subtle but steady pulse and Guaraldi letting a children’s choir do the heavy lifting, while he limits his typically busy playing to perfectly simple side statements.

It’s difficult to imagine now, but CBS executives, upon viewing the special with its accompanying score, were far from thrilled. The special’s thinly veiled themes of alienation and anti-commercialism made them deeply uneasy, while the score was seen as far too dark, austere and strange for a special that was aimed squarely at families. Fortunately for generations of families though, the network chose to air the special, which was immediately a massive success, as it was.

Fifty years removed from its creation, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” remains one of the most authentic musical documents of the holiday season. Every one of its meticulously thought-out notes corresponds with Charlie Brown’s all-too relatable struggles. So, if a nasty mix of finals and holiday shopping have you down, you owe it to yourself to give a spin to this timeless piece of pure, wintery comfort.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at jlmaxwell@umass.edu, and followed on Twitter at @JMaxwell82.

 

 

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