Geoff Geis

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Christmas Sing-Along with Mitch

I am an unabashed lover of Christmas. It is my favorite time of year, and the main reason is the music. I used to work at a Quizno’s sub in Huntsville, Alabama, and one time I made my boss very very angry because I played the company’s Christmas mix in the store during the month of July. He got so mad that he actually broke the CD with his bare hands (dude had a temper problem – and was also a racist, but that’s a different point). I wasn’t trying to be funny or anything, though. I just wanted to hear Mariah.

Ahhh but I digress. The whole reason for giving that story was to segue into this: the first feature in an ongoing feature called “Wonderful Christmas Music.” I realize that it’s very topical right now because it’s December and all, but I intend it to be ongoing. There’s a lot of material to cover.

There’s no better place to start than with Mitch Miller and the Gang. Their album, Christmas Sing Along with Mitch, is certainly my favorite Christmas album of all time. You can listen to it for free on Lala.com.

For those not “in the know,” Mitch Miller was a giant of popular music during the forties, fifties, and sixties. I was listening to KPCC the other day, and someone said that Miller was a better conductor of George Gershwin’s music than anyone else. He was also a king-maker at Columbia Records, and was instrumental in signing Bob Dylan to the label.

He was nationally famous, however, for an NBC television series called “Sing Along with Mitch” – a show that would probably never be made in today’s market, alas. Here’s a little taste of the show, although it’s unfortunately not from a Christmas-themed episode. Watching it really makes me nostalgic for my childhood as a member of the “moral majority” in 1960s  suburbia:

Anyway, Mitch and the Gang broadcast stuff like that every week between 1961-66, and they produced many LPs of “Sing Along” hits to accompany the show. Christmas Sing Along with Mitch is one of those records, and it appropriately comes with a long list of lyrics so that you can sit around the hi-fi system and join in the fun.

Christmas Sing Along is a lot more minimal than the song in the video I just posted, and the minimalism blesses the album with  a somber and poignant tone. Every carol is stripped-down to its most basic element – “Joy to the World” starts with handbells, for example, but those quickly go away as the song becomes acapella. Most of the record proceeds sans-instrumentation, with only the gorgeous tone of the gang’s vocal harmonies and an occasional harp strum.

Adding to the somberness of the album is the fact that is completely religious in nature – it includes none of those horrible cheery secular Bing Crosby-style Christmas pop songs that were popular at the time and unfortunately remain so (“Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “White Christmas,” yuckkkk!). These are all traditional hymns and carols, and they are all enunciated with the type of reverence that would expect at church – very sober, very down-tempo. Its beauty is hypnotic.

The highlight of the collection is “Silent Night”, their rendition of which is my favorite of all time (and since “Silent Night” is one of my top two Christmas songs  – tied with “Go Tell it on the Mountain” – that’s saying a lot).

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