Thursday, December 24, 2020

Religious Santa songs

"Perhaps the thing about Christmas that bothers Christians more than anything else," says the Christian Research Institute, "is Santa Claus. Is Santa a hopelessly pagan idea, or can Santa Claus be saved?"

Even though Santa Claus is partly based on the fourth-century Christian bishop Saint Nicholas, the modern Santa is a secular figure who appears in many thoroughly secular contexts, including numerous horror films and even some adult films. 

Some songwriters have tried to "save" the secular Santa by writing songs that place him in an explicitly Christian context. These songwriters, whether or not they viewed Santa as a secular rival of Jesus, usually tried to mend the perceived rift between the two by grafting religion onto Santa or grafting Santa onto religion. 

But some of these attempts to mix Santa and religion seem to confuse rather than clarify. For example, is the vintage greeting card pictured above suggesting that Santa hears our prayers? 

Today on Music Weird, we'll listen to some of the efforts to combine Santa and religion. A few are earnest and a few are jokes, but all are unusual. In these songs, you'll hear a number of offbeat revisions to the Santa and God stories: God is Santa, Santa is God, Santa is immortal, Santa is guided by prayers, etc. 

Pat Boone – "I Saw Santa Prayin'"

I've never seen Santa prayin', but I did see Pat Boone perform this song in concert years ago, and he introduced it by saying that he wrote it as an attempt to reconcile, for kids, the two main figureheads of the Christmas season. How did he do that? By depicting Santa as a prayerful Christian man and servant of the Lord. The chorus is "I saw Santa prayin'/I saw Santa kneel before the Lord." Many years after I first heard it, Boone recorded the song for his 2007 album The True Spirit of Christmas

Hank Snow – "God Is My Santa Claus"

In this 1966 song by Canadian country star Hank Snow, a young schoolboy teaches us that God is Santa and Santa is God. The lyrics not only state that "God is my Santa Claus" but also that the "real Santa" is God.

Restless Heart – "Santa's Prayer"

In the 2013 Restless Heart song "Santa's Prayer," Santa himself decries the commercialization of Christmas and hopes that people will remember its true meaning. A reviewer on Amazon calls this "One of the Best Christmas Songs ever written." 

Jimmy Boyd – "I Said a Prayer for Santa Claus"

Jimmy Boyd, who recorded the original version of the perennial hit "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," recorded this religious Santa song in 1953. In it, Boyd prays to keep Santa safe, healthy, and warm as Santa goes about his business at the North Pole and delivers presents to the kids. I particularly like the part where he expresses concern that Santa might run into a television antenna.

Carson Robison – "Will There Be a Santa Claus in Heaven?" 

This tearjerker is about a dying child who asks if Heaven has a Santa Claus. A video of a recording of it by Jerry House used to be on YouTube and claimed that House wrote the words and music, but the song was actually written by Carson Robison and appeared in his 1936 songbook Tip Top Album of Carson J. Robison Songs. No audio is available online at this time, but quite a few people remember and search for this song. David "Stringbean" Akeman wrote and published a different song with this title in 1968 but doesn't appear to have recorded it. A contemporary song that asks the same question is Marshall Fike's "Is There a Santa in Heaven."

Red Sovine – "Faith in Santa"

This is another Christmas song like "Will There Be a Santa Claus in Heaven?" about a dying child. In this dreary recitation from 1978, a homeless boy tells Santa that his father is in prison for shooting his mother's boyfriend, that he prays for Santa, and that he'd like to go to Heaven for Christmas. The boy gets his wish and passes away at the end of the song. It's unclear whether the song is asserting that Santa can send souls to Heaven if that's their Christmas wish.


James Brown – "Santa Claus Is Definitely Here to Stay"

This weird, rambling song declares that Santa Claus is here to stay and also urges people to keep the season strong with faith. You could interpret that as faith in Santa, but I don't think that's the intended meaning. Even though the relationship between Santa and faith is murky in the lyrics, the song is included here because most Santa songs don't mention religious themes such as faith at all.

The Penguins – "A Christmas Prayer"

The Penguins' "A Christmas Prayer" from 1955 features an odd mixture of prayer and a desire for material gifts as the Penguins pray that their girl comes home for Christmas and puts her presents under their Christmas tree. (Is that a euphemism?) The song doesn't mention Santa by name, but Christmas gifts fall within Santa's dominion, so I think it counts. 


Jimmy Martin – "Daddy Will Santa Claus Ever Have to Die?"

In addition to having one of the cheesiest music videos ever committed to VHS tape, this 1980 song by the King of Bluegrass, Jimmy Martin, informs us that Santa is an immortal being like God. 


Pearl Jam "Santa God"

This song by Pearl Jam, from a limited-edition Christmas single released in 2007, is the mirror image of Hank Snow's "God Is My Santa Claus." Hank said that God is Santa, but Pearl Jam says that Santa is God. For kids who are greedy for presents, that might be true.

The Santa and Jesus duet from South Park

This duet between a cartoon Santa and a cartoon Jesus pits a number of religious Christmas carols, including "Joy to the World" and "Away in the Manger," against "Up on the House Top." Santa becomes angry that Jesus has more songs than he does, but Jesus smooths things over in the end and the spirit of Christmas prevails. 


Saturday, December 5, 2020

Helen Beasley: Early Indiana blues artist or not? (1929)


Indiana is not known as a hotbed of the blues, but I was surprised while browsing the book
Blues: A Regional Experience to see that only one blues singer was listed for the entire state: Helen Beasley, who waxed a single record in 1929. However, after looking into her biography a bit, I'm not sure that Indiana can claim her.

Beasley made three recordings in her brief recording career, all of which were cut in a Chicago studio for Brunswick Records. The recordings were unadorned, consisting only of Beasley's vocals and a piano that was probably played by fellow Brunswick recording artist Frances Wallace, according to Blues & Gospel Records, 1890-1943, Fourth Edition.

Her first session was a test recording of a song called "California Bound Blues" on April 18, 1929. A week later, on April 25, she recorded "Tia Juana Blues" and "Rambling Mind Blues," two original compositions that Brunswick released on a 78 as Brunswick 7077. 

Because of the similarities between the lyrics of "Tia Juana Blues" and the title of "California Bound Blues," some have surmised that they're actually the same song.

As Wim Verbei points out in his book Boom's Blues: Music, Journalism, and Friendship in Wartime, "Tia Juana Blues" has a odd stylistic quirk that recurs throughout. Beasley, instead of breaking up her couplets where a pause would normally be expected, pauses in the second couplet. So, instead of singing this:

I'm going to California, sweet man / just to wear you off my mind


She sings this:

I'm going to California, sweet man, just to / wear you off my mind

This unconventional phrasing is clearly an artistic choice on Beasley's part, because she repeats the formula throughout the song.

The other side of the single, "Rambling Mind Blues," is a bit quirky, too, because of Beasley's nearly constant use of the vocal technique known as scooping

After that, she either moved on to other things or didn't garner enough sales to merit an additional release, because that appears to have been her only single.

Beasley's listing in Blues: A Regional Experience provides very little biographical information, but it's nevertheless more information than I found anywhere else. Unfortunately, it also appears to be incorrect. It says she was born Helen Slaughter in Indiana on April 25, 1895, and died in Los Angeles on February 3, 1972, but adds that this information is tentative. On the basis of my research, I don't think any of this information relates to Helen Beasley the blues singer, which calls into question whether Beasley was from Indiana at all.

Slaughter's obituary in the February 5, 1972, issue of the Bakersfield Californian doesn't mention anything about singing, but more significantly, it gives her husband's name as Paul Slaughter, which means that Slaughter was her married name, not her birth name. Also, Paul was white, and although interracial marriages weren't unheard of in mid 20th century America, they were uncommon.

SLAUGHTER, HELEN MARIE — Rosary will be recited at 8 p.m. Sunday at The Hopson Mortuary Chapel and Requiem Mass will be said at 11 a.m. for Helen M. Slaughter, 77, who died Thursday in a Los Angeles convalescent hospital. Msgr. Patrick Hannon will officiate, and interment will follow in Union Cemetery. Mrs. Slaughter, a native of Indiana, had resided in California 50 years. She had been a resident of Bakersfield many years prior to making her home in the Los Angeles area three years ago. Mrs. Slaughter had been self-employed in the antique business for many years. Her husband, Paul, died in 1963. Survivors include one daughter, Ann Jensen of Los Angeles; four grandchildren; a sister-in-law, Mrs. Blyth Slaughter of Modesto, and several cousins. Mrs. Slaughter was a member of the Altar Society of St. Joseph and the Third Order of St. Francis. 

I also found some ads for the antique store, Old House Antiques, that Helen Slaughter ran with her husband. Here's one from 1949: 

Interesting, but most likely irrelevant to the blues. Although it seems questionable to me now whether Helen Beasley came from Indiana at all, the state can claim Scrapper Blackwell as a native son. Wikipedia lists his birthplace as Syracuse, South Carolina, but other sources say he was born in Indianapolis where he grew up, recorded his first record in 1928, and died in 1962 after being shot during a mugging.

Beasley's two commercial recordings are included on the Document Records CD Blue Girls, Volume 1: 1924-1930 and can be heard in the YouTube videos below. Her test recording of "California Bound Blues" remains unreleased.


Wednesday, December 2, 2020

"Booby": Curious 1950s novelty ads in Billboard

In 1950, Billboard magazine ran a number of curious advertisements for a "soft, fleshlike" rubber doll called "Booby: The Bouncing Bombshell Queen of Burlesque."

Although Billboard came to be exclusively associated with music in later years, it also used to be a trade magazine for carnival operators and vendors of novelties and gaming devices such as pinball machines. During this time in the late 1940s and early '50s, it carried advertisements for some surprisingly adult-oriented novelties.

Seeing these risque ads in the music trade magazines is surprising not only because the ads are explicit for their time but also because the music trades would periodically rail against smutty records (typically in reference to double-entendre R&B singles), so it seems hypocritical that they published ads that could also be accused of being smutty.

The text of the Booby ad at the top of this post says: 

The Hottest Selling Novelty Item of the Season!


The Bouncing Bombshell Queen of the Burlesque

Delightfully realistic, made of soft, fleshlike plastic rubber. Looks lifelike and feels lifelike . . . with DELICATE MOULDED CURVES and LOTS OF OOMPH!! 6" in height. She WIGGLES, she SHIMMIES, she SHAKES, she BUMPS and GRINDS! A real burlesque THRILLER! You make her do all these fascinating movements with a cleverly concealed mechanical device. This item is copyrighted and any infringement will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. $7.20 sample dozen. $72.00 per gross. Send $1.00 for sample. 

ORDER NOW . . . be the first in your territory. 

The Harris Mfg. Co. that marketed this compelling novelty item was previously known as the Harris Novelty Company. The company might have changed its name to avoid being confused with another Harris Novelty Company that operated out of Philadelphia.

Billboard reported in July 1950 that the company's Johnny Harris said that Booby was "becoming one of the hottest items on the market." The article also said that the company was adding carnival merchandise to its product line. 

Another product that the company allegedly would soon market was Pete the Poodle, "a fur covered dog that runs in circles and sits up and begs." I haven't seen any ads for this product and don't know if it was ever manufactured.

The following month, Billboard reported that Harris Manufacturing Company had hired additional staff to accommodate the flood of orders for Booby. As a naturally cynical person, I assume that Billboard's ongoing coverage of Booby during this brief time in 1950 was related to Harris Mfg.'s constant ad buys in the publication. 

Also in August 1950, Billboard ran another item that reported on Harris Mfg. Co.'s introduction of "Salome, a two-inch-high soft rubber plastic item." This new novelty promised to be so enticing that Harris expected it to "run close to the Booby, Queen of Burlesque item that hit top sales." 

The Salome figure was a similarly risque "harem dancer" who, ads proclaimed, "WIGGLES and SQUIRMS." 

The address for Harris Mfg. Co.—5864 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood, California—was the same address as that of Heinz Distributors, a company that advertised other risque products in Billboard. Heinz sold a 40-page pictorial magazine of "Hollywood's best figure models" that included so-called "Art Nudes." Billboard ran an item about this product too, describing it as a "magazine that is complete with photographic data," which presumably means "photos of naked ladies." Billboard added that the magazine provided instructions "for taking Hollywood glamour photos." Hm. Interesting.

In October 1950, Harris introduced Fifi the Fan Dancer, a "flesh-like soft, plastic rubber . . . realistically molded" figure with a "feather fan." The illustration in the ad was fully nude. Clearly, Harris was marketing its products to the audience that would later make the
RealDoll a viable business endeavor.

Longtime readers of Billboard—at least those who are familiar with the magazine's moralizing stance regarding "smutty" content—might be astonished to see that in 1950 the magazine ran ads that featured illustrations of fully nude women. Just a few years earlier, in 1944, the magazine ran an article about the inability of radio to tap nightclub performers for on-air performances because "the night club guys ... have been entertaining with smut so long their thinking along lines of showmanship is not clean."

Yet Billboard itself didn't hesitate to run illustrations of nudes in its magazine in 1950. It just seems kind of weird. 

Also in 1950, the 5864 Hollywood Blvd. address of Harris Mfg. Co. appeared in ads in Modern Screen magazine for lists of personal home addresses of Hollywood actors and in The Elks Magazine in ads for Hollywood Film Exchange, a seller that suggestively offered "home movies (all types)." 

In 1951, the address appeared in ads by Zusser Mfg. Co. in Popular Photography and Home Movies magazines for 8 and 16 mm film. That same year, Hollywood Film Exchange also ran an ad for its enigmatic "home movies" in The American Legion Magazine

There seemed to be a common thread between these risque businesses that all operated out of the same Hollywood street address. And although the Elks and the American Legion are perceived as conservative social clubs, it's not hard to imagine them as potential audiences for illicit stag films, if that's what these "home movies" actually were. The website of the Museum of Sex in New York says that "screenings of stag films ... were clandestine events that ... would gather together in American legion halls."

Bringing things back to music, the 5864 Hollywood Blvd. address was also used for Crystalette Records in 1953-54, presumably after Harris moved out, but who knows? The address still exists to this day and has been the home to a number of businesses over the years, but it will always be remembered, at least by me, as the home of Booby, the Bouncing Bombshell Queen of Burlesque.