Our Sleigh cuts a deep track through the falling snow as it’s carrying a whole heap of presents for all the good boys and girls all around the world (the list has been checked twice and we surely know who has been naughty and who has been nice).
Our first song is, ‘Old Toy Trains’ by the one and only Roger Miller. He wrote a hatful of hit songs, was a multiple Grammy winner and admitted to the Country Music Hall Of Fame. In addition he also had a theatrical Tony Award in his trophy cabinet for his score for the hit Broadway musical, ‘Big River’ which he based on the writings of Mark Twain.
Despite all the above he has always seemed to be to be under rated with many damning him with the faint praise of describing him as a writer of, ‘Novelty Songs’. Certainly there is humour in his songs but as anyone who is any kind of honest writer will tell you it is much harder to write comedy than it is to write tragedy.
The key to understanding Miller’s very real eminence as a songwriter lies in the sharpness of his observations expressed in language that is simple in nature but complex in impact. Roger Miller had a poor upbringing but as he said words became his toys and you can feel that in the playfulness and delight with which he uses the resources of the American language as spoken by the everyday working man and woman. Roger Miller liked people and liked telling stories that would resonate with their common experiences. Listening to him you do feel spoken to by a ruminative and intelligent man who has seen enough of life to be slow to judge and quick to smile – there’s often a metaphorical raised eyebrow in the tone of his language and vocals but never a raised fist.
‘Old Toy Trains’ is a simple song that catches the magic of Christmas Eve – a magic that it is easy to lose or forget as we grow in supposed sophistication. Miller taps into the time- suspended feeling as we approach a great event and the hope we all have that all will be calm and all will be well. Most of us will look back on a present we received when we were young children and reflect that no later gift has ever so perfectly matched our dreams than the toy train, drum, doll (or in my case) a cowboy outfit we received and cherished all those years ago.
Next, Billy Eckstine with the luxuriantly romantic, ‘Christmas Eve’. Mr B was a pure class act. A handsome dandy who knew how very good he was as a singer and a bandleader. Billy’s rich, burnished voice lent dignity and drama to every song he ever recorded.
Listening to Billy here you are swept into a world where the brandy is five star and the Christmas lights twinkle all night on your perfect tree as you and your loved one dreamily dance by the flickering firelight. I love the slow motion control of Eckstine’s vocal and the intoxicating musical arrangement curtesy of Lionel Newman. Time to take the top off your favourite bottle and lean back to sink deep into this one.
Today’s poem extract comes from, ‘Christmas Day’ by Christopher Smart – an 18th Century English poet who pursued his vocation steadfastly despite spells in an asylum and prison.
‘Spinks and ouzles sing sublimely,
We too have a saviour born,
Whiter blossoms burst untimely
On the blest Mosaic thorn
God all-bounteous, all-creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade,
Is incarnate and a native
Of the very world he made.’