Against-the-grain singer and piano man Bob Dorough died this past April at the age of 94. His singular approach to song will always be associated for me—and countless others—with the season. So here, just in time for Christmas, is a tribute to the departed bebopper after a long life, richly lived and sung.
An armchair psychologist might say it could only be a December baby born in the Great Depression who could have devised a song so devastatingly critical of the contradictions between consumerist Christmas and Christian charity as Bob Dorough’s “Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern).”
The song was released on the Columbia label’s potpourri LP, Jingle Bell Jazz for the Christmas season in 1962. Featuring the likes of Duke Ellington doing “Jingle Bells” and Dave Brubeck stomping through “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the record’s last track on the B-side is Dorough’s “Blue Xmas” as recorded by the composer himself and an ensemble led by Miles Davis.
Born December 12th, 1923, Dorough’s childhood birthday parties in Plainview, Texas may or may not have been overshadowed by the chaos of holiday shopping, but either way, the brilliant bitterness and incandescent inventiveness of his song repays many times over any real or perceived injury done by Santa and his elves. So timeless is the song’s shape and sentiment that it is hard to believe there have been only fifty-six Blue Xmases since its conception. Each year at this time, Dorough’s mirthful miniature is born again in all its glowering blue glory.
In 1962 Columbia got a jump on the holiday season, issuing Jingle Bell Jazz on October 17th—right in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Many feared that the world might not make it to another Christmas. If the Apocalypse had come that fall, Dorough’s text and its recalcitrant melody of off-kilter intervals and distorted scales would have been a fine way to cap a millennium of Christmas jeer: wherever there have been good tidings of great joy, there have also been bad tidings issued by ill-wishers and naysayers, grinches and grouches.
Dorough’s lyric starts off with an attempt at empty courtesy, but then quickly leaves that scripted sentiment behind for a tour of the dark side of the season; once you hear his wonderfully scrimping, mean-spirited melody you’ll be unable to read the words without hearing in your head the composer’s distinctive voice singing them:
I hope you have a white one, but for me it’s blue
Blue Christmas, that’s the way you see it when you’re feeling blue
Blue Xmas, when you’re blue at Christmastime
you see right through,
All the waste, all the sham, all the haste
and plain old bad taste
Sidewalk Santy Clauses are much, much, much too thin
They’re wearing fancy rented costumes, false beards and big fat phony grins
And nearly everybody’s standing round holding out their empty hand or tin cup
Gimme gimme gimme gimme, gimme gimme gimme
Fill my stocking up.
All the way up.
It’s a time when the greedy
give a dime to the needy
Blue Christmas, all the paper, tinsel and the fal-de-ral
Blue Xmas, people trading gifts that matter not at all
What I call
Lots of hungry, homeless children in your own backyards
While you’re very, very busy addressing
Twenty zillion Christmas cards
Now, Yuletide is the season to receive and oh, to give and ahh, to share
But all you December do-gooders rush around and rant and rave and loudly blare
I hope yours is a bright one, but for me it’s blue.
The genesis of “Blue Xmas” is related in the eponymous book—a slender paperback—written by Dorough and published by Circumstantial Productions in 2005. In the Summer of 1962, Dorough was working in the Pennsylvania hills some two hours outside of New York City when he got a call from Miles Davis, who asked him to write a Christmas song that Dorough would then sing (with Davis playing trumpet) for the Columbia Christmas record. Whether it was out of contractual obligations or just for the money, Davis seems only reluctantly to have agreed to participate in the Columbia project. Rather than re-roasting a Christmas chestnut as the jazz musicians on the disc planned, Davis turned to Dorough for original material.
Like so many young musicians, Dorough had long been dazzled by Davis’s mystique and music. After saying hello to Davis on a NYC street in the early 1950s and being completely snubbed by him, the two hung out in Los Angeles in 1959 when Dorough was living there and Davis and his sextet arrived in town for an extended engagement. When Dorough came to the club one night, Miles was at the bar while the band played. Davis then led Dorough up to the bandstand and had John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Wynton Kelly stand aside so that Dorough could sing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Baltimore Oriole” accompanied only by Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. This vignette in Dorough’s book has the ring of one of those many examples of Davis’s unique talent for humiliation. Dorough admits that he had no idea how his impromptu performance went over in the club, and as always, Miles said nothing afterwards by way of thanks or approbation. Nonetheless, the two began to spend some time together after Dorough’s return to New York some months later.
Then in 1962 came that summer evening’s call for a Christmas song from the singing, piano-playing composer. Utterly surprised, Dorough first stammered that he’d think about it, but such was his awe for the great man that he immediately set to work. Davis’s persona exuded contempt for eggnog and carols, never mind yuletide glee. So Dorough decided that his song should have a “very Dicdensian ‘Bah! Humbug!’ sentiment” riffing on the idea of “commercialization of the fine holiday.”
When Dorough brought his finished song to Davis’s place in Manhattan later that summer Gil Evans was waiting in the trumpeter’s basement music room. Dorough played and sang “Blue Xmas: for Evans and Davis several times, the latter eventually proposing a slight reshuffling of the sections. Evans then spent all night throwing together his angular, nagging arrangement for the recording session, which was to take place the next day, August 21st—the height of the sweltering New York summer.
That session began with yet more humiliation. When Dorough arrived he saw no one at the piano: “I kept looking to see which piano man was coming to the date,” writes Dorough in Blue Xmas, “and had a glow inside that maybe I was going to play piano.” He was soon disabused of that idea when forced to stand by while Miles telephoned Wynton Kelly then Bill Evans. Neither was available. (The scene recalls a similar one orchestrated—probably malevolently—by Davis for one of the two 1959 sessions for Kind of Blue in which both Kelly and Evans had been summoned when only one was needed.)
When Davis said there would be no piano player at all, Dorough told him that he sang from the keyboard—and he did so into his nineties—and needed the guidance of his hands on the keys to keep his voice in tune through the chromatic, purposefully awkward grumblings of the melody. He’d neither rehearsed with the ensemble nor heard Evans’ just-completed arrangement. Davis granted Dorough only a single opening chord and not another note on the piano. Attempting to buttress his sagging self-esteem, Dorough reminded himself that Thelonius Monk had been forced by Davis to lay out—or stroll, as the argot of the day put it—on the latter’s Bags’ Groove session back 1954.
After this potentially dispiriting start to the 1962 proceedings, Dorough marshaled his remaining confidence and plunged in. Things went smoothly. It happened also to be the first Davis date for tenor player Wayne Shorter, who confidently strode through several choruses of swinging but still-standoffish minor blues that framed the disjointed declamations of Dorough’s bebop baroque. As for Davis, his muted horn is heard only in an almost taunting dialogue with Dorough’s vocals. That cool sarcasm brands the piece a Davis production, but also adds a moodier, more malevolent tone to the disaffected, but spry humor of Dorough’s song.
Davis thanked Dorough by giving him union scale wages, falsely grabbing a share of the composition credit, and—a quarter century later in his autobiography Miles—by claiming that the record company had forced him to work with the “silly singer.”
In spite of these affronts, Dorough remains in his book touchingly thankful for having had the chance to record with Davis. We can hardly blame him for his loyalty and undying reverence. Or perhaps Dorough is clever enough to let the historical record—and the vinyl one—speak for itself without resorting to the trademark put-downs of Davis’s life and memoir, one of the most mendacious in the history of the genre.
Dorough relates that the last time the two saw each other, Davis cadged twenty bucks and disappeared: the trumpeter was more likely to take a dime from the needy than give one.
The superficial listener might judge “Blue Xmas” to be negative in intent and affect, a goofy if momentarily engaging, oddity. This is a mistake. The song’s evanescent dyspepsia is far from the arid irony of so crucial to contemporary attitudes and ersatz counterculture. Dorough’s music is far cooler than what now counts as cool in the so-called hipster precincts of Brooklyn and beyond. His is the rarest and best kind of social criticism that both expresses unwanted truth, while refreshing, entertaining, and uplifting. One laughs at its cruel-kind wit and savors its bittersweet aftertaste. Dorough’s “Blue Xmas” raises the spirits far more than the smarmy warmth of a pick-any-popstar’s white one.
Soon after the 1962 session Dorough, his wife and young daughter left New York City. Among other accomplishments, he went on to compose and sing many of the songs for the Saturday morning educational cartoon of the 1970s School House Rock. He also wrote “I’m Hip,” a hilarious send-up of cool—perhaps also an unconscious retort to Davis’s treatment of him—done by David Frishberg, then Blossom Dearie.
But it is Dorough’s Christmas anti-carol that will longest outlive him: it’s a piece that is, for those who really listen to it, both a cutting plaint and a melancholic love song to the season.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com.)