Do your ears ring when you hear “Jingle Bells”? Do you swoon for “Sleigh Ride”? Do you suddenly find the urge to sing “I Have a Little Dreidel” at the top of your lungs?
It’s easy to feel merry the whole month of December. The music industry makes sure we’re inundated with a nonstop barrage of holiday (well, Christmas really) CDs from artists taking on the festive classics. I myself have caught on – having a priest for a father-in-law and all – by owning nine Christmas CDs. I’ve got James Taylor, Charlie Brown (Vince Guaraldi), even Neil Diamond volumes one and two on heavy rotation. If contemporary artists made Hanukkah CDs, I’d be all over that. However, jolly old Saint Nick continues to saturate the market.
For me, the best holiday song is “O Holy Night.” It starts out soft and then builds to a powerful chorus. It doesn’t matter if I’m listening to Josh Groban or the Oak Ridge Boys sing the song; I love all its interpretations and permutations.
Perhaps the most unique version was recorded back in 1973 by none other than the late, great Harry Chapin. Only, he wasn’t recording “O Holy Night.” He recorded one of his trademark story songs, “Mr. Tanner,” about a cleaner from the Midwest who dreamed of becoming a stage singer.
“Mr. Tanner” is based on the true story of then unknown bass-baritone Martin Tubridy, who in February 1972 – a month before Chapin’s debut album on Elektra, Heads & Tales, hit record stores – traveled to New York to perform at Town Hall. His performance was met with the following appraisal by the New York Times: “He was well-prepared and sang conscientiously, but the results were not up to generally accepted levels of professional accomplishments.”
In Chapin’s song, Martin Tanner gathers the courage to spend his savings, travel east and perform at Town Hall – all to little fanfare. He never sings live after this, instead taking comfort in singing among the clothes he cares for daily. As Chapin sings, “Music was his life, it was not his livelihood…”
The song “Mr. Tanner” chooses to sing as his defining piece is “O Holy Night,” sung on the track by Harry’s bassist Big John Wallace. “Mr. Tanner” is not an intentional holiday tune by any stretch of the imagination. However, I know why Harry would choose to incorporate this holiday snippet into his composition – Mr. Tanner’s story of hope of optimism seems directly on par with the tale of new beginning and life conveyed in “O Holy Night.”
Ironically, according to the Marsden family of Massachusetts– Mame, Zeke and Peachy, close Beantown friends of Harry’s– the holiday piece almost didn’t make the cut, deemed “too Christmasy.” Chapin sought advice from Zeke Marsden, the family patriarch who pronounced the Noel insertion the best part of the song. The rest is musical history.
I believe that’s why I can honestly say “O Holy Night” is the one holiday song I never tire of. There’s not a trace of frivolity in it. With “Mr. Tanner,” we listeners are always taking the character seriously, even when the odds are stacked against him. How can you fault somebody who’s pursuing his version of the American Dream?
As we head towards Hanukkah, Christmas and the New Year ahead, we should take time to reflect that it’s been 35 years since Harry’s untimely death. He would have turned 74 on December 7th.
Overall, 2016 has been a crazy and unpredictable year. In many ways, our country is representative of Mr. Tanner’s journey – we had high hopes (be they from a political or societal perspective), and many of us still feel they weren’t met. However, the goal for 2017 is to somehow find the courage to press on. We need to keep singing because, as Harry reflects at the end of his song, we must feel “whole.”
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