Covered In Kidfolk: Christmas Specials
(Seasonal TV Tunes For Folk Fans and Families)

To suggest that all true Christmas music is kidsong is only a slight oversimplification. Put aside the tales of holiday romance and heartbreak, allow for the minor exception of a few overly religious holiday hymns, and a surprisingly large percentage of the melodies in the frosty air this time of year is kidmusic.

And why not? We are, after all, products of a culture which weans its adults on a steady diet of commodification fetish through childhood tv. Religious or secular, Christian or otherwise, the way we come to Christmas springs — at least in part — from our childhood experiences with holiday specials and familiar figures of the season. It says what it should that I, who grew up Jewish in the midst of suburban Christmas culture, know more verses of the standard Christmas songbook than my wife, who grew up in a churchfaring but televisionless household.

And if things have changed at all since our own younger days, it is in scale, not substance. Our American childhoods were framed as much or more by a months worth of christmas specials as they were that one night of caroling; even the most conscious moms and dads cannot truly escape the common motifs of the season, from Frosty to Rudolph, from Emmett Otter to Charlie Brown. The wry voice of Burl Ives and the distinctively lush tinkle of Vince Guaraldi’s piano find their way onto the radio playlists regardless of station format these days, if only for the kitsch factor.

Familiary breeds contentment, of course, and some comfort in culture is never a bad thing. But I’m not advocating for letting the culture have its way with us. Today’s commodification culture is more insidious than ours was, and a hell of a lot more desperate; working against that, and laying groundwork instead for the remixing, copyfighting culture we hope to engender, is our duty as thoughtful moms and dads. Reclaiming those songs isn’t just the folk way, it’s the best way to help raise healthy children, who — even if they cannot appreciate our attempt to find authentic and ever-new — can at least benefit from growing up in a household where music is not always seen as soundtrack, but celebrated for itself, both as something to listen to, and something to play with.

I’ve posted a few kid-friendly, popculture coverfolk tunes in the past few weeks, most notably Jack Johnson’s lovely beachfolk cover of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and Rosie Thomas’ wonderfully delicate reworking of classic Alvin and the Chipmunks tune Christmas Don’t Be Late, which, along with a very different updated version of the kick-off tune below, appears on her wonderful new holiday album A Very Rosie Christmas. But we’re overdue for a full set for the little ones. Today, in a very special edition of our Covered in Kidfolk series, we offer a covered songbook from Christmas Specials past — to share with your inner child, and to gift to your children of the present. May we find and plant the true spirit of the season in our own.

    Guaraldi’s seminal work with the Charlie Brown holiday specials made the joy of the season come alive for a generation; highly memetic Peanuts instrumental Linus and Lucy debuted in this one, too, but it’s Christmas Time Is Here which has become the holiday classic. Perennial cover girl Shawn Colvin’s entire Holiday Songs and Lullabies album comes highly recommended; her pure girlish voice on this take rings out like churchbells on a snowy morning. Meanwhile, Rosie Thomas’s quieter version is lovely and still, like the snow itself.
    My youngest daughter has a snowman fetish; she pulls the old Rankin-Bass animated classic off the library shelf whenever she sees it, regardless of the season, and I’ve caught her dancing to the credits more than once. Fiona Apple isn’t usually this folk, but her solo acoustic guitar version of the tune which started it all, via 2005 alt-rock compilation Christmas Calling, comes off as perfect lusty singer-songwriter fare; thanks to Kurtis for first bringing it to our attention. A nice compliment to the Roches’ working-class Brooklynite version, too.
    If this Paul Williams-penned tune wasn’t familiar from two of Jim Henson’s most magical Christmas specials ever, it would fit perfectly in the gospelfolk canon.  Here, on a live radio cover posted on her own blog a while back, singer-songwriter Rose Polenzani comes on sweet and rough, delivering a gorgeously balanced in-studio cover which manages to let the faintest hint of the season creep in through a sparse, bell-like hand on the piano. Pick up 2008 release Where The River Meets The Sea to hear a produced version of the title track.
    Solo indie darling and occasional Grizzly Bear cohort Robin Allender takes on the theme to the poignantly silent British holiday classic The Snowman with aplomb. Worth seeing and worth hearing, lest we forget that not all children grow up American.
    A short Celticfolk banjo set. Canadian Celtic jamband The Clumsy Lovers offer a riotous folkgrass romp through a beloved Whoville tune on their newest Christmas EP. And Compass Records label cofounder and master of the banjo jazzgrass jam Alison Brown turns in an Evergreen two-fer: a stellar acoustic instrumental Celtic harp tune and a wonderfully lighthearted cover of the Who’s Christmas celebration song complete with children’s chorus.
    There’s a few versions of this one out there. My favorite: novelist Pete Nelson’s exquisitely greasy, faux-latinesque take, a hairy-chested grinch missing the machismo mark from Wonderland, a well-worn Signature Sounds holiday sampler released a few years back. Folkpoppers Aimee Mann and Grant Lee Phillips come in a close second with high-production beatpoet gusto and a hint of esquivel. And the Asylum Street Spankers are tight, hilarious, and unpredictable as hell — not bad for a bunch of drunk ragtime alt-folkies.


Kids still full of the Christmas Spirit? As always, if you like what you hear, click on artist and album names above to pick up the best family-friendly holidayfolk around. Each one of these tunes comes from a stellar artist whose work will grow with you and your own. And it’s not too late to order one last disk or three for the tiny folkfan on your holiday shopping list.

Category: Holiday Coverfolk, Kidfolk | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

9 Responses to “Covered In Kidfolk: Christmas Specials
(Seasonal TV Tunes For Folk Fans and Families)

  1. Hanan

    I love Christmas.

  2. Carol

    Sheer Christmas genius, my friend! Loved your selections as always.
    I love Christmas too.

  3. boyhowdy

    Thanks, folks…and Happy Birthday, Carol!

  4. Carol

    Ha! Thanks for remembering kind sir :)

  5. A Free Man

    Woo hoo! Christmas kid folk. If this doesn’t get me into the Christmas spirit nothing will!

  6. Alison Randall

    Actually, the songs from Emmett Otter were written by Paul Williams, not John Williams.

  7. boyhowdy

    D’oh! I knew that, Alison — thanks for calling me on the error.

  8. michiganDAN

    my two kids - now ages 20 and 17 - will not let a Christmas pass by without watching Emmet Otter. Thanks for the updated version. They’ll love it!!

    Another not-to-be-missed holiday musical is A Muppets Christmas Carol muppets

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