You have heard the old adage, “You are what you eat.” I also happen to believe you are what you listen to. I like strange music. I will let you connect the dots. I pulled out four strange vintage Christmas records from my collection along with a strange Christmas CD to celebrate in this post. It is time to get your Christmas strange on.
- The Singing Saw at Christmastime (Merge Records MRG330 LP): Julian Koster, 2008
Saws designed as musical instruments are not new, though just about any non-electric, wood saw will do (musical saws are wider, use thinner metal, and do not have sharpened teeth). The musical saw became popular in the early 1900’s in the US. Vaudeville and musical hall stages in the 20s and 30s were the primary venues for the musical saw.
Saw Playing 101
How does one play a saw? Very carefully. Seriously, sawlady.com provides this detailed guide: “Most saw players play sitting down, but some play standing up, and some play kneeling down. The common denominator is that the saw is held with the handle between the player’s knees. Most right-handed musical saw players hold the tip of the blade with their left hand, and bow with their right hand. Usually the teeth of the singing saw face the player, and the bowing is done on the blunt end, which faces the audience. Bowing a musical blade differs from bowing a violin in that with a violin every note must be bowed, whereas with the saw one can play many notes with just one bowing: you can bow, then separate the bow from the saw and continue to bend the blade into many more notes. So long as the vibrations last one can play different notes without re-bowing.” I see. Saw.
Saws Can Sing
After providing the broad view from 30,000 feet, let me now zoom in close on this rare record from 2008. Some of the saws used on The Singing Saw at Christmastime were old, some were new, some were small, some were large. It would have been more accurate to make the record’s title plural as in The Singing Saws. Sawist Julian Koster wrote in the album’s liner notes, “Each saw has its own unique voice and manner of singing. Some of their voices are quite high, others low; some have a great range, while others can only sing a few notes but with extraordinary sweetness.” Assuming you have never heard one, a musical saw sounds quite a lot like a theremin.
Music is in the ear of the beholder. Checking out reviews of The Singing Saw at Christmas on Amazon, they ranged from “…better suited for a one-star horror movie. It’s not even amusing; play it [at] a party and the merriment will dissipate”, to “…creates a wonderful mellow and magical Christmas mood. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a chilly night, sitting beside the Christmas tree and watching the snow fall outside the window.” Whomever the woman was who wrote that (“Heather Rose”), will you marry me?
Serious About Saws
Lest you think Koster is a novice, he is a multi-instrumentalist and played bass guitar, accordion, organ, and musical saw with the indie rock group Neutral Milk Hotel. He clearly has a hard on for musical saws and it makes me wonder if he is playing the saws or if the saws are playing him. It just goes to reaffirm my assertion about what I said at the start, that you are what you listen to. Yes, Virginia, there is a Saw-nta Claus.
Trivia: Singer and movie star, Marlene Dietrich, was a sawist. She entertained US troops in 1944 with her saw, sawed live on the radio, and even sawed at parties. See? Saw.
2. I Know What He Wants for Christmas…But I Don’t Know How to Wrap It (FAXLP 1005): Kay Martin and Her Body Guards, 1962
When most people think of Christmas they think of gifts, holiday decorations, and peace on earth. Kay Martin thought of sex. Martin was a blonde bombshell model (38-24-36) turned Las Vegas and Reno nightclub entertainer who also released six “party” records. I Know What He Wants for Christmas from 1962 was one of her more popular titles and is quite collectible these days, especially the original green-colored vinyl pressing. The album is a mix of studio recorded songs performed by Martin and her “Body Guards” (Jess Hotchkiss/writer, Bill Elliott/piano, and Don Miller/drums) on Side 1 and a portion of her live nightclub act captured on Side 2 (ex. “Girls Should Be Obscene and Not Heard”). The sound quality will not win any awards, but presumably Martin was not aiming to win a Grammy.
I donned my detective’s fedora to dig into Kay Martin’s life. She was born in Bakersfield, California in 1927 and was part Cherokee Indian. In addition to modeling, Martin did a one-time Playboy spread. She was an accomplished equestrienne. She married her photographer, Jess Hotchkiss, who later became her manager and writer. They later divorced but the show went on. In 1956 Martin turned business woman after opening The Kay Martin Lodge in Reno. I wrote the Lodge about a year ago asking Martin some questions about this record and included a SASE but received no reply. The Lodge does not even have a website. Twice I phoned the number I found for the Lodge but got a generic message and no call back. I later read a guest review of the Lodge from 2018 that said Martin had passed away, yet I cannot find her obituary. I guess because it is the holiday season I am reminded of the classic line from A Christmas Carol when Scrooge is asked, “You wish to be anonymous?” Scrooge angrily replies, “I wish to be left alone!”
Jingle My Bells
Between the album cover and song titles like Hang Your Balls on the Xmas Tree, I Want a Casting Couch for Christmas, and Santa’s Doing the Horizontal Twist, you know I Know What He Wants for Christmas is not music by The Tabernacle Choir. Let us cut to the chase- The music is basically a lap dance for your ears. The lyrics to the title track are a good example: “I need one hand to wrap with / Another hand to clutch it / It wiggles and it squirms / It even tickles when I touch it.” Somehow, I do not think Martin was singing about Jell-O.
Santa’s Doing the Horizontal Twist also does not mince words – ”He was kind of mellow / This chubby little fellow / So I offered him a drink / After 3 or 4 / We wound up on the floor / Man, he was quick as a wink.” Remember- Santa only comes once a year.
In Come on Santa, Let’s Have a Ball, Martin leaves little to the imagination – “It’s finally Christmas Eve / And you have come to call / I bought a brand-new nightie / But I’m waiting in my altogether/ ‘cause my nightie /Is hanging on the wall / So come on Santa / Let’s have a ball.” I wonder if Mrs. Claus knows what a hornball her husband is.
An American Original
Not that I am an expert on erotic Christmas records, but the only other naughty Christmas album I know of is comedian Rudy Ray Moore’s Merry Christmas, Baby from 1970 (not to be confused with a 2006 repackage called This Ain’t No White Christmas). That is an itch I have yet to scratch. The back of Moore’s album cover states in all capital letters: “SPECIAL NOTICE: SIDE 2 RATED X FOR MATURE AUDIENCE”, and that is no hyperbole. Moore’s foul-mouthed holiday stories make Martin’s LP look like a Sesame Street Production.
Martin’s record may be tame by today’s standards but when it was released in 1962 it was risqué. It is still great fun almost sixty years later and nobody puts out politically incorrect Christmas records like this anymore. I will be adding some vintage kink to my Christmas and putting a little “X” in my Xmas with Kay Martin this holiday.
If Martin is indeed still alive, she would be 94 years old. If you happen to read this Kay, Merry Christmas, and thanks for the mammaries.
Trivia: The British Journal of Social Psychology recently published a scientific study that concluded scantily clad women do not feel colder in winter than women dressed for the elements. The researchers studied women who stood outside of nightclubs showing a lot of skin when temps dropped down into the 40’s. The take away: Women wearing little clothing who remain focused on looking hot have a “diminished capacity to feel cold.”
3. Adventure in Carols (Westminster WP-6021): Ferrante & Teicher, 1955
Arthur Ferrante & Louis Teicher were a piano duo who graduated from the Julliard School of Music in New York where they first met. Their career spanned between 1947 to 1989. During that span of time, they released about eighty albums (!) under the easy listening and space age pop music genres, including several Christmas albums. They scored four top 10 US hits, namely Theme from Exodus, Tonight, Midnight Cowboy, andTheme from The Apartment. They also toured all over the country.
Flip Their (Piano) Lids
That lengthy time frame was certainly not devoid of easy listening piano players. What set this pair apart was their playing style and their use of “prepared” pianos…things on strings…adding objects to the piano strings such as chains, glass, paper, etc. Ferrante and Teicher would then proceed to strum, beat, and pluck the poor piano strings as if playing a guitar, at times making the piano sound like a synthesizer. As the liner notes to Adventure in Carols revealed, Ferrante and Teicher also used their “elbows, forearms or knuckles to elicit a desired chordal effect—not to mention an assortment of wooden and metal gadgets designed to give the pianos a new personality altogether. These unorthodox and sometimes gymnastic doings are not calculated to amuse. They are an integral part of the team’s very special arrangements. Their goal always is to achieve the maximum tonal contrasts and to simulate orchestral color as vividly as possible within the limitations of pianistic dynamics.” Quick- somebody pinch me.
A Hip Sound
Given all of this sound and fury, one might assume the duo butchered the twelve Christmas classics on Adventure in Carols, making the record all but unlistenable. Nothing could be further from the truth. This has become a holiday album I look forward to playing this time of year. Allmusic.com called the record “hip and fascinatingly otherworldly” and “one of the definitive Christmas records of the space age pop era.” I also really love the album cover’s period artwork. It is as much a creative departure from the traditional Christmas album cover as the music it houses.
The Sound of Tomorrow
Although this 1955 album is mono, it was recorded using Westminster’s exclusive “Panorthophonic” technique. I have been unable to uncover what that technique actually involved, but apparently, back in the day, Westminster was held in very high regard by audiophiles for their sound quality, particularly their classical music recordings. The label’s motto was “The Sound of Tomorrow- Today”. Whatever the technique, Westminster’s studio engineers must have wet themselves upon seeing the myriad of microphones positioned all over the two pianos, not to mention Ferrante and Teicher’s assorted piano string paraphernalia and acrobatic moves during their performance.
Both Teicher and Ferrante lived long lives. In 2008, Teicher died of a heart attack at age 83. Ferrante died in 2009 of natural causes less than two weeks after his 88th Birthday, leaving behind a wife, daughter, and two granddaughters. He had said he wanted to live until age 88 since that was the number of keys on a piano.
This is not the kind of instrumental Christmas record one would sing or dance to, but this quasi-space age pop music will get me in the mood for the fat guy in the red suit flying through Earth’s lower atmosphere. If Santa has a built-in record player in his sleigh, and you know he does, you can bet Adventure in Carols is what he will be listening to on his vintage headphones when he lands on your rooftop.
Trivia: Ferrante and Teicher retired near each other in Longboat Key and Siesta Key, on the west coast of Florida, in 1989. They occasionally reunited at a local piano store where they played together.
4. Joy to The World/Jingle Bell Boogie/Silent Night: The Cambridge Harmonica Orchestra (Bent Reeds Records),1983
Question: What do you get when you cram 33 harmonica players into a small recording studio? Answer: A strange Christmas record.
The Cambridge Harmonica Orchestra was founded in 1981 by Otis Read after receiving a $200 grant from the City of Cambridge, MA. As Read recalled to me in a recent email, “I wrote a grant to the Cambridge River Festival for the formation of the C.H.O. (in the 80’s) suggesting that we would march to the performance sight and then play! They accepted the grant. (Oh shit!). I had to recruit the players, so I got on the phone and sent out a flurry of emails. Pierre Beauregard was a well-known [Magic] harp player in Boston and he set about contacting various players. We got between 20-30 for the original performance. A few years later we recruited nearly 80 for The Today Show! We had a string of gigs in the 80’s & 90’s. Always a fun time!” Beauregard (who has played with Muddy Waters, NRBQ, and Room Full of Blues) became the C.H.O.’s conductor.
The Journey Is More Fun
As if 80 members were not enough, two years later, the Orchestra’s membership swelled to 350! That same year, the C.H.O. was featured in the Hohner Company’s calendar. Hohner, based in Tennessee, was the world’s biggest harmonica manufacturer. As the saying goes, sometimes the journey ends up being more fun than the destination.
Speaking of Hohner, every harmonica in their catalog was put to use in the C.H.O., not to mention bass, chord, diatonic, and chromatic harmonica sections. In addition, there were melodicas, drums, an accordion section, and even a washboard and washtub bass player!
In December of 1982, 33 members of the C.H.O. packed inside a studio and recorded Jingle Bell Boogie. Nine months later, 80 members assembled in a Cambridge, MA garage and recorded two more holiday tunes, Joy to The World and Silent Night. I suppose that officially made them a garage band. The C.H.O. released their three songs on a very limited-run EP which I am not ashamed to say I own a copy of.
The C.H.O.’s harmonicas fell silent in 1986, but their unique music lives on in this rare record, bringing some much-needed whimsy to a holiday that has been hard hit on many levels by the pandemic.
Trivia: The Cambridge Harmonica Orchestra’s 3-track holiday EP was played on a Voice of America broadcast directed at Russia, Poland, and Palestine.
5. Songs For Christmas: Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty Records), 2006
You are forgiven if independent musician Sufjan Stevens’ name does not ring a (jingle) bell. It did not with me either, but that did not stop me from buying his very unique Christmas collection anyway. Stevens is a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, banjo, English horn, oboe, piano, drums, woodwinds, etc.) born in Detroit but transplanted in New York. At his current age of 46, he has nine albums under his belt, plus his very own record label, Asthmatic Kitty (named after an asthmatic cat), which he co-founded with his stepfather. His music is categorized as indie folk/rock/pop, alt rock, avant-garde folk, and baroque pop. Got all that? One of the songs off of his Call Me by Your Name soundtrack received a Grammy nomination and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. His music often deals with religion and spirituality.
Between 2001 to 2006, Stevens recorded five Christmas EP’s, but not to sell. He gave a different one out each year to his friends and family as holiday gifts. What a nice idea to privately record music and give it as a gift, though some of the recipients might not have felt that way after listening to the recordings.
Festive Frills & Flourishes
In November of 2006, Stevens released these personal gifts as a nicely packaged box set of 5 CDs (there was also a much more expensive vinyl option) to the general public. The set also included a sing-a-long booklet with chord charts and some short stories, a sticker sheet, and a fold-out comic book with a weird color poster on the back. Regarding these printed accessories, Stevens wrote in his booklet, “I also wanted to augment the music with a lavish display of ornamentation- it just wouldn’t be Christmas without all the festive frills and flourishes…all the cornucopia of junk that has come to represent Christmas…”
The 42 (!) songs in the set are a mix of traditional holiday classics and Stevens originals (emphasis on the word “original”). His own record label described the set this way: “Sufjan has, over the course of five years, constructed an odd, impressive, and compelling collection of Christmas hits (and some misses) that will either warm your heart or make you throw up eggnog all over the bath mat.” Now there is a nice holiday visual.
As you could probably ascertain from that description, Stevens’ Christmas music is not for everyone. The traditional songs are interpreted with unusual instrument choices and his voice sounds like that of a young college student. I half expected to hear his mother yell at him in the background to keep it down. In fairness, sprinkled about are brief instrumental vignettes of holiday songs that actually sound quite lovely. Unfortunately, they only last between 36 to 52 seconds each. That is enough for a segue between stories on national public radio, but that is about it.
I Grabbed Your Wrist
His original compositions add to the strange experience. More than a few have lyrics sounding like they were written by an 8year old finishing up a song writing assignment at the last minute. Take It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!: “Sing a carol to your mom / ‘Cause she knows what’s goin’ on”, and “There are presents to be had / A promotion for your dad”, plus a few choruses of nothing but “la, la, la, la”. Put The Lights on The Tree features lyrics like “Call your grandma on the phone / If she’s living all alone / Tell her Jesus Christ Is here / Tell her she has none to fear”, plus more la, la, la, la’s. Things take a turn for the creepy in Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? “I stay awake at night / After we have a fight / I’m writing poems about you / And they aren’t very nice / I didn’t mean to yell / I said I couldn’t tell / I only grabbed your wrist / Or would you rather we kissed?”
Whomever Was In The Room
In “A Note of Explanation” in the booklet, Stevens confesses he had a few partners in crime helping craft this music. These included a college friend, his little brother, a string quartet, and a Presbyterian pastor and his wife…pretty much anyone who was around at the time that he could force in front of a microphone.
This is indeed a collection of strange Christmas songs, like a snow globe with tiny white razor blades swirling around Santa instead of fake snow. Well, maybe not that strange, but instead of including a sing-a-long booklet, perhaps Stevens would have done better to include a barf bag, just in case you do toss your eggnog.
Trivia (from Wikipedia):“Sufjan” is a Persian name that means ‘comes with a sword’. It predates Islam and most famously belonged to Abu Sufjan, a figure from early Islamic history. The name was given to Stevens by the founder of Subud, an interfaith spiritual community to which his parents belonged when he was born.”
Most of these records are out of print but can sometimes be found on used record sites like eBay, though not for cheap. The Singing Saw at Christmastime is still available on CD as is Songs for Christmas.
That puts a large, Lexus-like red bow on my strange Christmas post for 2021, which appropriately caps off a very strange year. Let us hope 2022 is not nearly as strange. I could really go for some normal right about now.
If traditional holiday music is more to your liking, circle back here in a week or two for my Recommended Holiday CDs.
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