Christmas music is omnipresent during the holiday season. Some of these melodies and the songs themselves were sung as long ago as the 1850s. Some were written for the holidays more recently. I have tried to make an accounting of popular holiday songs. That does NOT mean the recorded version of any of these songs are also in the public domain. Please remember both the copyright in the song and the recording have to be expired for the public to own the piece of music to be used. But no performing rights society can collect from public performances.
Here is a quick listen and an instrumental version of a Christmas standard
Songs I found to be in the public domain
- Angels We Have Heard on High
- Away in a Manger
- Go Tell It on the Mountain
- Hallelujah Chorus
- Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
- Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
- Joy to the World
- O Come, All Ye Faithful
- O Come, O Come Emmanuel
- O Holy Night
- O Little Town of Bethlehem
- The First Noel
Songs that are not in the public domain and have been written within the last 95 years
- Carol of the Bells
- Do You Hear What I Hear?
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
- Little Drummer Boy
- The Christmas Song
- White Christmas
Mississippi John Hurt sings on this thinly-veiled song about domestic violence in “Nobody’s Dirty Business.” According to John, the sadism works both ways. Eventually his woman leaves. But John writes her a letter begging her to come back. She eventually returns and I suspect the dynamic keeps cycling over and over again. An important message brought to you from way back in 1935 – sometimes relationships just plain old don’t work out.
Sloppy Henry puts so much soul into his singing you really believe every word. This recording is very old, but sounds contemporary. Good storytelling is timeless.
Although the subject matter of “One Dime Blues” may be cliche in the world of blues, no other artist has such a powerful cadence as the great Blind Lemon Jefferson. Jefferson’s quick-chords and toe-tapping rhythm is sharp juxtaposition with the song’s subject matter, each verse tackling the plight of the poor in the 1920s.
From Kansas City Kitty & Georgia Tom we get this upbeat blues number, “How Can You Have the Blues,” a flirty duet about a woman who appears to have it all, but is continually bogged down by depression. The name Kansas City Kitty may not ring any bells with the most enthusiastic American blues aficionados. It could be because there is a mystery behind the true identity of this sexy-voiced blues woman, but what we do know is that this track, recorded in 1930, features Thomas A. Dorsey, with a way out-of-character performance, on piano and vocals, playing under his popular pseudonym Georgia Tom. With its fantastic melody and conversational blues style, this number lends truth to the idea that money can’t buy you happiness. I chose this “Back in Time” version because it sounds the best.
Ragtime is known as “the music that got lost” – mostly because jazz stole its thunder and captured the public’s attention after 1917. Ragtime showcases brilliant pianists like Alonzo Yancey, the lesser known of the Yancey brothers. Alonzo, raised in Chicago, recorded “Everybody’s Rag” in 1943. He serves his piano straight up, and one can only imagine what it’s like to move your fingers as fast as this melody requires. A compelling and ferocious performance.
The man who claims he invented Jazz, Jellyroll Morton, wrote this song in tribute to the 1st man to play the coronet in what was referred to as ragtime, or Jass. Known in the Jazz community as “King” Bolden, Buddy was a New Orleans bandleader in the early 1900’s featuring an improvisational style that supposedly led to more musical experiments, and finally Jazz. Although I couldn’t find any Buddy Bolden recordings, here’s the next best thing, the inventor of Jazz, singin’ about his hero.
This man is a towering figure in the American Folk scene, writer of “This Land Is Your Land” who influenced so many of the great American songwriters (Bob Dylan for example.) He hated fascists so much he wrote this song about the rampant ideology tearing Europe apart.
It took me a while to adjust to Scrapper’s guitar playing. Not only is he a self-taught guitarist, he built his own guitar out of a cigar box and wire. As you can guess by his name, he was a rather fiery character better known as part of a duo with Leroy Carr, they had a hit with “How Long Blues” and toured most of the Midwest. This song defines the “Blues.” I highly recommend this and have grown to like Scrapper’s guitar style.
Bo Carter was the leader of the Mississippi Sheiks. In 1928, he recorded the original version of “Corrine, Corrina,” which later became a hit for Big Joe Turner. His solo work is a lot more suggestive. This song is a perfect example of Bo’s “Dirty Blues.”