Saturday, December 8, 2012

Shane and Drake's "The White Snows Of Winter"

I am not among those for whom the Christmas holidays commence before the scent of the Thanksgiving turkey has left the home, and though I never really have been, I find myself in these my latter years becoming more and more adamant in my resistance to what something deep within tells me is a wrongly-timed and premature effort at celebration. The holiday lights and displays do not cheer me at all, and though two weeks from now hearing "The First Noël" will bring tears to my eyes and move me to the depths of my soul - were I to hear it this evening, it would have no more effect on me than some vaguely-remembered doo-wop hit of the 50s.
(Photo L. by Kate Snow)
There are many reasons for this - my dismay at the crass commercialism of it all today, when in early October red and green displays start sprouting in stores like rank mushrooms in a damp field, and my conviction that the penchant in our republic to extend holidays, even silly and meaningless ones like Halloween, to illogical extremes is what seems to me to be a desperate attempt to find a reason to be happy, or convince ourselves that we are so -  but I think that chief among them is that internal sense of time that we all have ingrained in us from childhood. It is not the right time yet. It is not Christmastide. It is Advent.

In my Midwestern Catholic childhood, Advent was a period of dark and somber beauty - of the Advent calendar in the kitchen with a little door to be opened on each of the 28 days leading to Christmas Eve, and of the Advent wreath in church, crowned with three violet candles and a single rose-tinted one for Gaudete Sunday, with purple hangings and purple vestments and the haunting strains of the almost-mournful Gregorian chant of the Mass and of the Advent hymns like "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." The bitterly cold and early nightfall, the slanting, low, and piercingly chill rays of the winter sun - these coincided perfectly with the quietly repentant and anticipatory nature of the season. The reflective quality of Advent simply made more wondrous and beautiful the bursts of gold and red and white and carols and hymns of Midnight Mass on earliest Christmas morn as Advent came to an end.

All of which makes "The White Snows Of Winter" the perfect song for me at this time of year. It is a not-quite-Christmas composition, tinged with the melancholy of loss but hopeful in anticipation of celebration to come - and thus, perfect for Advent, whose mythic meaning grows out of the Christian belief in a fall from grace that separated humanity from its God but with the promise of an eventual reconciliation through the birth of the Christ child after a period of mournful waiting.

Now I am absolutely certain that little of this crossed the minds of composers Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio and his good friend Tom Drake, a couple of frat-boy types not too far past college and beaches and parties, when they set out to write a romantic ballad worthy of Shane's considerable vocal skills for inclusion in the Kingston Trio's highly unusual but now-classic Christmas album, The Last Month of the Year. Both had heard a 65 second thematic bridge in Johannes' Brahms' First Symphony and had thought it might make a good song with appropriate lyrics, and as Drake explained it years later: 

 Actually, this was not a particularly original concept [using classical  music as a melody for a pop song]. "Stranger in Paradise" for example is from a classical piece and it was a big hit before. And there was a jazz vocal trio around at the time ....who put lyrics to the famous instrumentals of their genre. I had a choirboy background and a small taste for serious music and thought hey, if you can hum it, it's a song...We wrote the lyrics on a hot day at Bob's house in Tiburon -- putting it aside and coming back to it. Everybody else was in the pool. Bobby's idea was a Christmas love song. Mine was the aspect of Reunion... and the tune. We tried to put Brahms' name on the credit line but the record label and the publishers freaked. Brahms might have heirs

Shane added that "Tom Drake and I were good friends at that time...He was living in Sausalito....and we wrote several songs together. And we just happened to hear that particular Brahms song. And we thought 'gee, that would make a nice one to put some music to.' And we were doing some Christmas stuff at the time, so we just sat down and started writing lyrics."

The result was a gem of pop folk-styled music far less known than it should be and remarkably seldom covered for a song so lovely. The "reunion" theme to which Drake alludes occurs appropriately on Christmas Eve, the close of Advent, and the singer has traveled far and wide ("and many's the hill I've crowned" - there's as fine a bit of poetry written to fit a rhyme as you're ever likely to find in a pop song)  and finds himself in a bar, which as my late friend and fellow barfly Joe Richards used to remark was the best place in America to find truly lost souls the night before Christ's mass. But then magically - redemptively, if you will - our singer is drawn to the place where his "love lies a-sleeping" and all is well as the dawn approaches.

The source for the tune is certainly one of Brahms' best-known pieces. The First Symphony is a complex study in Romantic-era music, with wide emotional swings within each segment. You can hear that in this 4th movement, eminently worth the full sixteen minutes but for reference's sake, the musical theme occurs between 5:12 and 6:17:

Wolfgang Michel is conducting, from a 2009 concert. What strikes me as odd is that Brahms does not return to this lovely melody and embellish it with multiple variations, as Beethoven does with the famous "Ode to Joy" in the fourth movement of his ninth and final (and say many, his greatest) symphony. But then, the mature Ludwig von B. was the master of a genre that JB was just starting to explore.

First-class material, I'd say, and the pop lyrics that Shane and Drake provide do no injustice to the original composition. This is the 1960 recording from Last Month of the Year:

You just can't say enough for both the power and controlled modulation of Shane's vocal here, and it took a certain degree of bravado for the current Kingston Trio to add it to their own repertoire - a bravado well-justified by the result:

Bill Zorn takes the lead vocal here, and the tastefully understated lead guitar is by George Grove, a rather more sophisticated underlay than on the original recording. You can also hear both the vocal power of today's KT, as well as 50 years' worth of improved recording technology as masterfully engineered, recorded, and mixed by long time Trio friend and collaborator and all-around good guy Rob Reider.

The only cover by a recognizable major group was by REO Speedwagon in 2009 from their controversial Not So Silent Night, which was regarded as either a joke or a sell-out by many of the fans of this hardest rocking band, much as Bob Dylan's holiday album was as well. In any event, this version seems entirely palatable to me:

The keyboard work here is professional and tasteful, and the use of strings hearkens back to the melody's orchestral roots. I believe that long-term band member Kevin Cronin sings lead.

"The White Snows Of Winter" is as fine a contemporary holiday ballad as I know, far superior to plenty of better-known pop-Christmas numbers. But then again, how could it not be given the pedigree of the guy who wrote the melody? And as much as Tom Drake was making light fun of Capitol Records' suits worrying about a possibility of a lawsuit by and royalties split with Brahms' possible heirs - I've always wondered...

Upcoming in a week or so - my fifth installment of "For The Season" with an article on a real Christmas folk song.
Addendum - December, 2017 
Since this article was posted five years ago, a number of other good interpretations of the song have appeared on YouTube. Here are two of the best. First, The Derry Aires from Anchorage, Alaska - an all-female usually a capella group that has been performing together since 1994. As often happens and as I have noted in other essays on this site, sometimes the change of the presumed sex of the singer yields lovely results with a new understanding of the song - as here:

In another vein entirely, the duo of John Piljer and Matt Taddei performing as Starch To Sugar create an interesting effect by imagining the song as a kind of mid-1960s folk-rock number. It works well, I would say.

1 comment:

mark said...

That REO version is an incredible surprise!