Most of us are familiar with the classic holiday song catalog, with its partridges in pear trees and little drummer boys, but Stephen Grieco, DMA, Assistant Professor of Music, shares six of the more overlooked yuletide tunes with the Cabrini community.
1. “Christmas in Hollis” by RUN DMC (1987)
Let’s start with rap/hip-hop music, as it is the No. 1-selling genre today. Although “Christmas Rappin’” by Kurtis Blow is considered the first official Christmas Rap song, released in 1979, “Christmas in Hollis” by RUN DMC in 1987 has a classic hip-hop beat and as a member of the MTV generation, I remember laughing and smiling with the music video. The music is a lot of fun and is underplayed today but is a classic. If students want to write their own hip-hop music and would like to learn more about not only classic artists like RUN DMC but also today’s biggest artists, they should register for MUS 170 Hip-Hop Songwriting.
2. “Christmas for Cowboys” by John Denver (1975)
“Christmas for Cowboys” is another hidden treasure, only this time from the country music canon. Written and performed by John Denver, who was a prolific songwriter with over 200 songs composed and over 300 recorded, it’s a simple tune in strophic form for solo singer and guitar. It is beautiful in its simplicity and the lyrics paint vivid images of Christmas under the stars in the West. Having spent five years living in a remote part of Arizona, this song reminds me of the Arizona skies at night during the holiday, which were beautiful, but odd for me having grown up in Buffalo, New York. Students can learn to play this song and many others written for folk, classical, jazz, and rock guitar by taking private lessons or enrolling in one of Cabrini’s Guitar Ensembles.
3. “Long Long Ago” by Herbert Howells (1950)
“Long Long Ago” by Herbert Howells is one of my favorite a cappella choral works from the 20th century. Howells was an English composer and his music is filled with carefully crafted rich harmonies and melodies. This piece uses extended harmonies and polyphonic counterpoint where each voice part has a unique melody, not often seen today in choral music. The composer uses the music to accentuate the text. If students want to learn more about how a work like this is composed and to better understand the theory and counterpoint behind the music, they can take one of our many music theory and composition classes.
4. “Mi Burrito Sabanero” by La Rondallita (1976)
Given Cabrini’s goal to become a Hispanic-serving institution, I thought it would be good to share a song that is well known in Spanish-speaking countries but most people here in North America are not aware of, which is “Mi Burrito Sabanero.” It is about a young shepherd on his journey to Bethlehem to see Jesus. Many Spanish-speaking people grow up with this song and it is a treat to hear this time of year. Instead of just listening to Feliz Navidad by José Feliciano, give “Mi Burrito Sabanero” a try—or any of the hundreds of other holiday songs in Spanish and other languages. Music in other languages and from other parts of the world has so much to offer.
5. “Toyland” by Perry Como (1972)
Not really a Christmas song, but instead a song about the innocence of experiencing the holidays as a child, “Toyland” is one of those songs that no longer receives much airtime on the radio, but it is one of those hidden treasures that shouldn’t be forgotten. Composed in 1903 as part of the operetta Babes in Toyland, it was later recorded by multiple artists, but one of my favorite versions is by Perry Como because the holidays without Perry Como is like celebrating the season without decorations, lights, or music.
“The Star Carol” by Peggy Lee (1960)
Although this list is not intended to be comprehensive by any means, I could not leave out possibly one of my favorite underrated and forgotten songs called “The Star Carol.” First introduced by “Tennessee” Ernie Ford in 1958, “The Star Carol” was re-recorded by famous actress and singer-songwriter Peggy Lee in 1960. For me, this song is one of the lost treasures of the holiday season. Not only does it capture the story of Christmas, but musically the combination of the composition and the performance of Peggy Lee makes it hard not to get nostalgic for Christmases past: scratchy records and the warmth of a fireplace surrounded by family and friends—whether here or in spirit.
There is so much more holiday music to explore across a wide variety of genres and global traditions. The best thing to remember is that with YouTube, Spotify, Bandcamp, and so much access to music across the world, there is no better time to explore and try to listen to something new—not just what’s on the radio or in your regular playlist.
For those interested in studying and exploring music further, Cabrini University offers a wide variety of musical coursework, clubs, and activities, from the new Music Industry major program to the Music minor.