“poor old rudolph” – the bellrays (2001)

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There are two kinds of people in this world: those who abhor holiday music and those who adore holiday music.  As for me, I’m jamming to Christmas music daily after Thanksgiving until the fat man takes flight in his sleigh.  Christmas is just a musical time.  Everyone is so cheerful and the cold means I’m staying inside more, so I need some hot tunes to get me in to the holiday spirit.

A lot of people don’t like Christmas music and it isn’t hard to understand why.  The soft rock stations that change their format for the season and the malls and supermarkets that pipe in holiday tunes all play the same old standards we hear year in and year out know by heart.  They stick to the classics and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Those songs have resonated for generations and that’s why they’re classics.  And though they only come out for a few weeks towards the end of the year, those universally beloved tunes do become stale.  Whether it is the traditional Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, and Burl Ives, or even the more modern stylings of Paul McCartney, Wham, and Bruce Springsteen, their songs are always in heavy rotation with no room for newcomers.

It takes time for a Christmas classis to earn that distinction.  When Springsteen covered “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” with the E Street Band for the first time, who knew it would be the definitive version?  And who would have ever guessed that McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” would sit in the pantheon of great Christmas songs?  You can’t really know.

To those who are tired of Christmas songs, I say to them they just are not adventurous enough to seek fresh and new Christmas songs. Their criticism is that what we hear on the radio is stale and there are modern songs that don’t get the same airplay.  Fair point.  But that stuff takes time.  Give it a few decades and the more stale and dust-covered classics will be retired and make room for the new class.

As for what we consider classics now, they’re the just the ones who got noticed.  For every Christmas classic we can name now, there are 100 that are lost in the cracks of music history.  That is where I like to look.  I get so excited at this time of year to dust off the more obscure Christmas songs or even discover ones that are new to me.  There are fun, fresh songs are there dying to be heard and help you get into the Christmas spirit.  Feeling like a Grinch because of the tacky songs you hear in line waiting for the mall Santa?  Well, do something about it.  Find the Christmas music that excites you.

I have a few trusted places I go to find obscure Christmas songs. There are whole blogs and radio programs that surface this time of year just to deliver you some new music to excite you and show off to guests at your Christmas bash.  Before I found those great sources, I had to take what I could get.  While in high school, Bob Dylan had a satellite radio show that ran for three seasons on XM.  Theme Time Radio Hour was a program where Dylan would play a curated playlist based on a theme for that episode.  Episodes includes songs about shoes, Tennessee, coffee, and weather.  It was during his Christmas/New Year’s show that I first heard “Poor Old Rudolph” by the Bellrays.

I had never heard of the Bellrays before.  And frankly, I haven’t heard anything of theirs since (but I should and will).  I just know this one Christmas song.  I eventually dug around to learn more, but there isn’t a lot.  The Bellrays, fronted by Lisa Kekaula, is a garage bands based of Riverside, California that incorporate punk and soul influences in their music.  And they’ve been doing it for over 25 years!  Impressive for a garage band with minimal exposure.

“Poor Old Rudolph” was one of several contributions by the Bellrays to a Christmas compilation album issued by Vital Gesture Records in 2001 called A Vital Gesture Xmas Vol. 1 (there has not been a second volume in following 15 years).   With other contributions such as “Fuck Christmas,” “Back Door Santa,” and “Rocket Ship Santa,” It’s a shame there was never a follow-up.

“Poor Old Rudolph” has become one of my favorite Christmas songs.  It’s a raw-recorded jazzy number about the classic red-nosed reindeer living his days as a playboy since becoming famous.  It’s a warning from Kekaula about how his wandering will only bring him blue Christmases when his playboy days are over and he has no one left.  Rudolph could’ve had a simple life with a family, but he had to go for all the girls and Kekaula cautions the listener that there ain’t no use in runnin’ if you’ve got nowhere to go.

It is a fun take on a classic Christmas character that is fun, exciting, and not obnoxious like most parodies about the character.  Not only that, but it gives people who are tired of the original Christmas song a chance to appreciate the character again through this new song.  There is a lot of great Christmas music out there.  A lot of good music.  So when people tell me hate Christmas music, I don’t really listen because I know they haven’t explored the genre much.  Plus, don’t be a Grinch.  Let people enjoy the holidays with the jingle jangle Christmas tunes they do like.

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