Album of the Week, December 17, 2022
I knew of Fred Waring before I heard his music. Popular radio (and later television) show. First employer of Robert Shaw, who put together and trained Waring’s Glee Club as a kid fresh out of Pomona College in 1938. Even, improbably, major contributor to 20th century cocktail culture, via the invention of the Waring Blendor, and indirectly to the development of the polio vaccine as Waring Blendors were used in the lab in the production of Jonas Salk’s vaccines.
But I had never heard Fred Waring. Then, somehow, I came across this album, a 1959 session for Capitol Records . Friend, I was not prepared. It comes on gangbusters, with a sound effects track of a train passing, bells ringing, carols singing, and probably barnyard animals too. There’s an immediate segue into a jolly rendition of “Ring Those Christmas Bells,” which I first sang with the Boston Pops years ago, not knowing its connection to this record.
And then? By all that’s holy, the carolers break into Alfred Burt’s “Caroling, Caroling.” I sang Alfred Burt’s carols as a high schooler in the church choir at Denbigh Presbyterian Church, but had never really heard them on record. This album gives a full Robert Shaw Chorale-style performance to the carol, and makes you believe that the carolers are just standing outside the window, thanks to some interesting studio magic.
An aside about that: If you insist on the purity of live recording without recording trickery, this is not the album for you. Here choirs of children are doused with reverb to simulate outdoor performance down an echoing street — or maybe at the other end of a church? Tracks are stitched together without a break, giving the impression of a television variety show that is being sped up for rebroadcast. And those bells and trains return from time to time to remind you of the artificiality of the whole thing. This is a record that revels in audio montages, recapitulations, and other reminders that you should really go out and get that television set like the Joneses down the street.
I don’t mean to sound Grinchy. There are some truly magnificent choral performances on this album; in addition to “Caroling, Caroling,” other Alfred Burt compositions include “O Hearken Ye,” “The Star Carol,” “Jesu Parvule,” and “Bright, Bright the Holly Berries.” There’s a spine-tingling alto solo on “I Wonder as I Wander” and a gospel rave-up on “Go Where I Send Thee” that has me shouting along. Unfortunately the latter is preceded by one of the rare missteps on the album, an otherwise vocally impeccable performance of “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” that is performed in dialect.
But overall the album wraps you in a kind of woozy mid-century cocoon woven of equal parts sincerity, joy, and made-for-radio sonic joy. And isn’t that what some kinds of Christmas music are all about, Charlie Brown?
You can hear the album here: