Document Records, an independent record label that specializes in reissuing vintage blues and jazz, has a great set of five Christmas Blues albums, which feature a host of well-known artists from yesteryear, like Victoria Spivey, Leadbelly, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Freddy King, and many more you’ll likely have never heard of. Volume 1 alone has a massive 52 tracks, so it’s great value.
In this disk, we get fun songs like the delightful Bring That Cadillac Back by Harry Crafton with the Doc Bagby Orchestra, where Harry’s Christmas is ruined by his girl eating his turkey and running off with his Cadillac.
There’s some terrific blues, like Chuck Berry’s Merry Christmas Baby on Disk 2 and Victoria Spivey’s naughty I Ain’t Gonna Let You See My Santa Claus (Volume 3), and of course, we get Robert Johnson’s Hellhound on My Trail, with its mention of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
There’s a fair sprinkling of Christmas gospel along the way, including some interesting preaching. Like the 1918 sermon of Rev A.W. Nix, which he preached during the Spanish ‘flu pandemic, addressing the fact that many in his congregation were broke. He cautioned his flock not to spend money they didn’t have. Pretty good advice, don’t you think? Reminds me of Mr Micawber in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, who famously observed, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
Rev. Nix goes on to tell his flock that rather than go broke splashing out at Christmas, they needed to “spend your Christmas praising God and giving him thanks for what he’s already done for you this year.”
Being thankful maybe seems a tall order after 2020. So many lives lost all over the world to the pandemic, with the resultant economic fallout, domestic violence on the rise and isolation and restrictions causing no end of misery. And, in the developing world, hunger and poverty on the increase, along with sex trafficking and early marriage of girls.
But Nix was preaching to people in as bad a situation or worse in 1918. The influenza pandemic affected a third the population of the world, killed up to 50 million, and came in four waves, lasting until 1920. He’s on to something when he talks about thankfulness.
Modern psychology tells us that if we can find something to be grateful for, it improves our self-esteem, increases our energy, helps our immune system, increases our sleep quality, and enables us to cope better with stress. So being thankful, even in the midst of trouble, can be incredibly powerful.
Christmas, of course, gives us something particularly to be thankful for, in the gift of the child in the manager. The Christmas message is one of hope in the midst of fear and distress, because of this incredible event of “God with us.” God come to share in our humanity, our distress, our joys, our sorrows.
The traditional song Go Tell It On the Mountain captures the celebration and thanksgiving for what happened on that first Christmas. The Document Record collection includes the Famous Jubilee Singers’ version, but I rather like the Blind Boys of Alabama’s take on this.
Volume 3 of Document Record’s collection fittingly closes with Ella Fitzgerald’s The Secret of Christmas. Forget the warm glow you feel, the sleigh bells, the children singing and the presents. For Ella, the secret of Christmas
Is not the things you do
At Christmas time, but the Christmas things you do
All year through.
Preach it, sister.
Catch our interview with Document Record’s Gary Atkinson here.