Christmas with a Twist of Soul Duke University Professor Mark Anthony Neal discusses his favorite African-American Christmas songs. Though similar to conventional Christmas songs in spirit, his picks come with a twist of soul music.


Music Reviews

Christmas with a Twist of Soul

Christmas with a Twist of Soul

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Duke University Professor Mark Anthony Neal discusses his favorite African-American Christmas songs. Though similar to conventional Christmas songs in spirit, his picks come with a twist of soul music.


I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "White Christmas")

Mr. BING CROSBY (Singer): (Singing) I'm dreaming of a white Christmas. Just like the ones I used to know.

MARTIN: Are you dreaming of a white Christmas? If you trace your family heritage to Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Caribbean, or let's just say somewhere other than Northern Europe, maybe not so much. So how do you make the holiday your own?

Music is one way folks have added soul to that Christmas potpourri. Here to talk about that is Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African-American studies at Duke University.

Welcome, Professor.

Professor MARK ANTHONY NEAL (Duke University): How are you doing, Michel?

MARTIN: Great. Now, I have to be honest. Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and maybe Johnny Mathis, were on my holiday soundtrack growing up, or maybe my parents, I should say, and I didn't become aware of any other versions until the Jackson Five, if you can believe that.

So how long have jazz, soul and other African-American musicians been, you know, offering their own interpretations of traditional Christmas music?

Prof. NEAL: I think as long as African-Americans have been involved in the popular music industry, they felt that at various historical moments to put their stamp on the celebration of the holiday.

MARTIN: Well, can you think of the first reinterpretation that kind of made it into the public sphere?

Prof. NEAL: Well, I think the major one would be The Ravens. The Ravens in 1947 dud a version of "White Christmas" that kind of signifies on Bing Crosby. And a lot of folks haven't heard The Raven's version.

MARTIN: Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "White Christmas")

Mr. JIMMY RICKS (Vocalist, The Ravens): (Singing) Yes, I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, with every Christmas card I write. May your days be merry and bright. And may all your Christmases be white.

Prof. NEAL: A few years later, the Drifters did a more popular version of the Ravens' version, but, you know, the lead vocalist began sounding like Bing Crosby as if it was the same old Christmas song. And then they swing into a little kind of '50 style doowop and changes the song up. It is this kind of moment where Christmas music is African-Americanized, if you will.

(Soundbite of song, "White Christmas")

Mr. CLYDE McPHATTER (Singer, The Drifters): (Singing) I'm dreaming of white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know. Where those treetops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow, snow. Then I…

MARTIN: Well, that was spicy. How was this received, Professor Neal, by the public and by the critics and the other cultural gatekeepers?

Prof. NEAL: I think for African-Americans, it was just a wonderful moment. I mean, there were so few opportunities back in the middle of the 20th century for African-Americans to really assert themselves culturally. And here was an opportunity musically for them to do so that kind of puts their stamp on their presence here in the United States.

And the fact that 50 years later, it's recognized as such a classic Christmas recording, you know, it shows up in all the, quote, unquote, white bread Christmas movies and the like. So I think that's shows a great deal about how African-Americans felt about the value of their reinterpretations of these Christmas classics.

MARTIN: You also talked about the fact that while it's - African-Americans have put their stamp on the classics and on popular culture pieces written by others and for other audience is they've also written their own material, their own Christmas songs. Why do you think that's been important?

Prof. NEAL: To talk specifically about the experiences of black folks in this country and to talk about the specificity of what it means, Christmas in the hood, if you will. I can remember when I was a kid and thinking about just the idea of Christmas as circulated in public culture, I'm living in the Tenement building in the Bronx. And none of it made sense to me. I don't have a fireplace. You know, there's a chimney. We have 53 locks on the door. How does Santa Claus get into the house? You go 40 years, 30 years forward and Donny Hathaway's great song "This Christmas."

And, you know, the irony of Donny Hathaway is that Donny Hathaway was one of the great geniuses, musical geniuses in the last 40 years. And the irony is that for most folks who aren't familiar with Donny Hathaway's music, if there's one song that they do know, right, it's his version of "This Christmas."

(Soundbite of song, "This Christmas")

Mr. DONNY HATHAWAY (Singer): (Singing) These Christmas fireside blazing bright. We're caroling through the night. And this Christmas will be a very special Christmas from me.

MARTIN: Do you have a favorite African-American Christmas song that you just have to play every Christmas?

Prof. NEAL: Well, you know, Christmas doesn't start for me until I hear Jermaine Jackson, you know, singing those opening lines of "Have Yourself a Merry Christmas" on the Jackson 5 Christmas album.

(Soundbite of song, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas")

Mr. JERMAINE JACKSON (Vocalist, Jackson 5): (Singing) Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light.

Prof. NEAL: It was an album that came out, you know, when I was 5 years old and my mother gave it to me as a gift for my birthday. I'm a December baby, you know, so my birthday was a few weeks before Christmas. And she gave me this Jackson 5 album that came out at the height of their popularity. I mean, this is just two years out of the box for the J5, and they made this incredible Christmas album. The Jackson 5 spoke to where I was generationally. So for me, the very soundtrack of Christmas, you know, comes from listening to Michael and Jermaine sing songs like, you know, "I Saw Mommy Kissing," you know, all those great songs in that album.

MARTIN: Well, let's start Christmas right now. Let's hear some of the Jackson 5 Christmas album.

(Soundbite of song, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus")

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Vocalist, Jackson 5): (Singing) I saw mommy kissing…

JACKSON 5 (Pop Group): (Singing) Kissing, kissing.

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Santa Clause.

JACKSON 5: (Singing) Santa Clause.

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Underneath the mistletoe last night.

(Soundbite of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Little tin horns and little toy drums. Rooty-toot-toot and rump-a-tum-tum. Curly-haired dolls that tootle and coo. Elephants, boats and kiddie cars too.

JACKSON 5: (Singing) Oh, Santa Clause is coming to town. Oh, yes. Santa Clause is coming to town. Santa Clause is coming to town.

MARTIN: Do you have visions of sugar plums dancing in your head now?

Prof. NEAL: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: You're feeling all Christmassy now?

Prof. NEAL: I'm feeling all Christmassy, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, that song in that album has a very personal feeling for you. It brings back a lot of important memories for you. But do you think these songs or an album like that, is that going to be the kind of thing your kids are going to listen to?

Prof. NEAL: Well, my daughters - and my daughters are four 8-years old now, and they are listening to the Jackson 5 Christmas. You know, simply because they like the songs and the vocals and they listen to it.

MARTIN: And, of course, the hip-hop generation has to put its own stamp on the Christmas music scene. Do you have any favorites there?

Prof. NEAL: Well, not so much in term - I mean, you know, when you think about the kind of moment of hip-hop and the way hip-hop explicitly talked about some of the inner qualities in society. And, you know, in that regard, I find that it's not surprising that we haven't seen any great hip-hop Christmas songs.

When Run DMC did that great song, "Christmas in Hollis," you know, in 1983 was, of course, samples of Clarence Carter song from the 1960s called "Backdoor Santa." Again, it was about making very explicit at how Christmas is for many folks, you know, who aren't living, quote, unquote, high off the hog.

MARTIN: Well, let's play "Christmas in Hollis" because I'm not sure that everyone has been exposed to this particular jam.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Let's hear "Christmas in Hollis."

(Soundbite of song, "Christmas in Hollis")

RUN DMC: (Singing) Rhymes so loud and proud you hear it. It's Christmas time and we got the spirit. Jack Frost chillin', the orchid's out. And that's what Christmas is all about. The time is now, the place is here. And the whole wide world is filled with cheer. My name is D.M.C. with the mic in my hand, and I'm chilling and coolin' just like the snowman. So open your eyes, lend us an ear, we want to say merry Christmas and a happy new year.

MARTIN: Ill reindeer. What would be the season be without ill reindeer? I ask you. I ask you.

Prof. NEAL: Well it's that - there's a great line in the song with DMC, you know, mom's making chicken and collard greens. I mean, that just brings it home in a way. You know, they have a lot of Christmas music doesn't quite home to us.

MARTIN: Is there any song that you can think of that brings the issues you were talking about, the fact that they're sometimes a disconnect between the image of unalloyed joy and happiness that we expect to have at Christmas time and the reality of life that many people are actually living. Is there something you can think of that speaks to that?

Prof. NEAL: Well, you know, there's thousands of songs about being lonely during Christmas time. And even if someone was to make a song that really spoke explicitly to that, you know, it probably wouldn't get a hearing because of that kind of disconnect. You know, we're not trying to put a downer as a society. We're not really trying to put a down on anybody's celebration of the holiday.

MARTIN: Where should we go next? Should we hear Stevie Wonder? I've been thinking about "Someday at Christmas" where…

Prof. NEAL: Christmas, all right.

MARTIN: …he talks about some of the issues that were going on at the time that he was writing that song.

(Soundbite of song, "Someday at Christmas")

Mr. STEVIE WONDER (Singer): (Singing) Someday at Christmas men won't be boys playing with bombs like kids play with toys. One warm December our hearts will see a world where men are free. Someday at Christmas there'll be no wars. When we have learned what Christmas is for. When we have learned what life's really worth, there'll be peace on earth.

MARTIN: How is that song received, Professor Neal, "Someday at Christmas"? There's a wistfulness.

Prof. NEAL: There's a wistfulness to it. It's at the height of Motown's popularity. Stevie has yet to become Stevie, the genius that we know. It's still, in some ways, seen as this teenager, this young boy singing about hoping that Christmas, you know, that someday, you know, everything that Christmas embodies will be realized in the larger society.

I think with the society, he can get away singing that because he was a young person. So even if it has a political air to get to music somewhere because it's just this little boy, this blind little boy, to be even more specific, you know, thinking about how great life would be, you know? Somewhere, it seems that we can embody all the greatness that Christmas suggested it's supposed to be.

(Soundbite of song, "Someday at Christmas")

Mr. WONDER: (Singing) Someday all our dreams, will come to be. Someday in a world where men are free. Maybe not in time for you and me, but someday at Christmas time.

MARTIN: Why do you think there are so many Christmas albums out there now? I mean, is it just what? Is it a rite of passage every artist at some point wants to do one? Is it a license to print money? They know we're going to buy them. I mean, why do you think there are so many?

Prof. NEAL: You know, I'd like to say that for some others, I mean, just the idea of being able to sing Christmas songs the way that you want to. But, you know, I think far too often is, it's the bottom line of the music industry. Knowing that if you have a topnotch artist who's selling records and there's really only a small window of opportunity for them to sell as many records as possible. So to be able to get an artist to do a Christmas album at the peak of their fame, you know, creates a whole lot of audience and, you know, a whole lot of stream of revenue for the recording companies.

MARTIN: Is that a bad thing?

Prof. NEAL: And I think that's the route.

MARTIN: I mean, is there something wrong with that?

Prof. NEAL: If the music - if there's an attention to the quality of the music, it's not such a bad thing, but sometime, I really get the feeling that these are projects that are really just phoned home. That they're just kind of knocking them out to recording and sometimes in the middle of May and in June, so it doesn't quite have that kind of quality that we'd like to think of. Now, you know, in some ways, this is no different than how they made Christmas music 50 years ago, but at least for me, you know, as I'm getting biased and nostalgic, you know, it doesn't seem that it has the same kind of gravitas to it.

MARTIN: Are there any contemporary popular artist who you think are putting albums out that we are going to listen to five years from now, 10 years now that your kids are going to listen to?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. NEAL: I'm not so sure, you know? Because I some ways, I haven't exposed my kids to those albums yet. You know, my kids are listening to the Jackson 5, and "Soul Christmas" and The Temptation's first Christmas album, "Christmas Cards." I mean, that's what they're listening to and, you know, it will be interesting to see as they get older and start to develop more - specifically, their own musical taste, what kind of Christmas music they'll gravitate to then.

MARTIN: Professor Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African-American studies at Duke. Thank you so much for joining us, and merry Christmas.

Prof. NEAL: Thank you, Michel. Merry Christmas to you also.

MARTIN: Thank you. And to sing us out, I think - what should we do, I'm going to let you pick.

Prof. NEAL: Oh, The Temptations.

MARTIN: Okay, let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "The Christmas Song")

THE TEMPTATIONS (Singing Group): (Singing) Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose. Yuletide carols being sung by a choir. And folks dressed up like Eskimos. Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe help to make the season bright. Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow will find it hard to sleep tonight.

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