Christmas songs dealing with both the sacred and secular aspects of the holiday have long been a staple of popular music. Indeed, these songs were sung long before there was anything that could be called “popular music.” Some carols are extremely old and refer to pagan solstice festivals including Yule. Bluegrass, being of considerably more recent vintage, can’t lay claim to that kind of antiquity, but in its 75+ years the music has contributed some excellent songs to the Christmas season. Here are the stories of two of my favorites, followed by a few honorable mentions.
One of the earliest and best of the Christmas songs originating in bluegrass is Tex Logan’s “Christmas Time’s a-Coming,” first recorded by Bill Monroe in October 1951. The story of how this song came to be is well told in “The Music of Bill Monroe” by Neil Rosenberg and Charles Wolfe (Illinois 2007). Texas native “Tex” Logan, born Benjamin Franklin Logan, Jr., was a fiddle virtuoso and is likely the only well known bluegrass fiddler with a doctorate in electrical engineering. During the late 1940s and early 50s, Logan performed with the Lilly Brothers and Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper. He wrote “Christmas Time’s a-Coming” with Monroe in mind; then he and dobroist Buck Graves (his bandmate with Wilma Lee and Stoney) performed the song for Monroe backstage at a show in late 1951.
Monroe liked the tune very much and promptly recorded it. He asked Logan to play the fiddle part on the recording but Logan was unable to make the session. Tex had written a challenging fiddle part for the song in an unusual tuning, and then-Blue Grass Boy fiddler Gordon Terry worked out the part for the recording. The band called Logan in Texas from the studio and played the recording for him over the phone for his approval. Tex gave the OK and the song was released in time for Christmas. The recording also featured Monroe’s producer Owen Bradley on the vibes; Neil Rosenberg believes that to be the first use of the vibes on a bluegrass record.
“Christmas Time’s a-Coming” is very popular and has been widely covered outside bluegrass. Artists who recorded the song include Johnny Cash, Emmy Lou Harris, Sammy Kershaw, Charlie Daniels, The Oak Ridge Boys, and the cast of the TV show, “The Waltons.” In another sign of its mainstream popularity, the song turned up on a 1960s Reader’s Digest five-record set of Christmas music, in a nice country version by Bill Anderson.
In 1962, the Country Gentlemen released a song that has become a perennial bluegrass Christmas favorite, “Christmas Time Back Home.” The story of this song is told in Gary Reid’s excellent liner notes to the CD reissue of the 1962-1971 Rebel (record label) recordings of the Country Gentlemen. The song was written by John Duffey, then the band’s mandolinist, and Ann Hill, who was married to former Gentlemen banjoist Pete Kuykendall. Duffey had the melody, two verses, and a chorus, but was stumped on a third verse. He gave Hill what he had at a Gentlemen gig and she revised one verse and wrote the missing verse in 20 minutes while sitting at a booth in the bar.
Like “Christmas Time’s a-Coming,” the Gentlemen’s recording of “Christmas Time Back Home” featured the vibes. Duffey wanted vibes on the record because Monroe’s recording of “Christmas Time’s a-Coming” had them. The problem was that none of the band members could play the vibes. Duffey called the local musicians’ union and was referred to a jazz vibes player. The jazz man was used to working from written music, but having none, the band told him to play it by ear. According to Gentlemen bassist Tom Gray, the vibist had to drink a lot of beer to get through the session. Duffey was concerned that he got a little too carried away and threw in a chord not usually played in bluegrass, but the playback sounded fine and the record went on to become a holiday classic, vibes and all.
Two more old favorites: the 1958 Stanley Brothers recording of a beautiful Carter Stanley original, “Christmas Is Near.” And a tune not often heard, “Home For Christmas” by Red Ellis and the Huron Valley Boys (featuring mandolin virtuoso Nolan Faulkner).
And to show that bluegrass isn’t limited to Christmas music; here’s a bluegrass arrangement of Woody Guthrie’s “Hanukkah Dance” by Nefesh Mountain.
Wishing all of you the happiest of holiday seasons and all the best in 2022.