The Christmas Tape

Wendy McClure recounts how an old audio tape of holiday music becomes a record of family history, unspoken rituals, and grief.

Wendy McClure | Longreads | December 2019 | 18 minutes (4,618 words)

The Christmas Tape has always existed.

The Christmas Tape was recorded around 1973 or 1974. My dad thinks we were in our second Oak Park house, the one on Elmwood. I would have been 2 or 3. I don’t remember.

The Christmas Tape was our family tape, a seven-inch reel of holiday music played on an open-reel deck. The first four songs were taped from a folk-music show called The Midnight Special, which aired Saturday evenings in Chicago. I don’t know which one of my parents recorded the Christmas Tape, but I think it was my mother.

The Christmas Tape meant Christmas, which meant that everything was going to be all right.

Because the songs came off the radio — because whoever taped them had only a moment to toggle the RECORD switch — they all have their first few seconds clipped off at the beginning. Each one ends with a few soft thuds of fumbled edits before stumbling into the next song.

Nobody knows these songs; nobody outside our family at least. My brother and I never heard them anywhere else, except on The Tape, and we assumed they came from some alternate Christmas universe.

They are, in playing order:

“The Little Drummer Boy,” by Marlene Dietrich, who sings it torpidly in German while a children’s choir mewls rampa pam pam! in accompaniment. (It sounds, really, like a mash-up between the pageant scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas and a smoky Berlin cabaret.)

“Mystery Song Number One,” one of two folk tunes on The Tape so woebegone and obscure that not even my parents could remember what they were called or who the hell performed them. We thought of this one as “Three Drummers from Africa,” since that was the refrain: Three drummers from Africa/ leading the way/ to play for the baby on Christ-a-mas Day.

“Mystery Song Number Two,” featuring a single guitar and the vocals of a slightly dour-sounding trio or quartet. Maybe called “Come Let Us Sing.” Maybe not even a Christmas song.

“Go Where I Send Thee,” by Odetta: For years my brother and I had no idea who the folk singer Odetta was, so for a long time this song was just a voice, neither a he nor a she, racing through the lyrics of raggedly and breathlessly and ferociously in a tempo so frantic and ecstatic that it matched our own Christmas! Christmas! excitement.

Last year I emailed my dad to ask who recorded The Christmas Tape, since he is the only parent I can ask now. He wrote back saying that he and my mom used to love The Midnight Special. “It featured all the folk songs that killed the 60s,” he wrote. It is the sort of funny thing my father likes to say these days, funny but slightly evasive. Does he not remember whether he or my mother recorded the songs? Does he mean he wanted the 60s dead? (Probably.) When I try to nail down family history details I get genial not-quite-answers like this that I have to work around. This is how I came to think it was my mom who recorded The Christmas Tape.

There used to be more to The Christmas Tape. After those first four songs, my mother recorded two popular holiday LPs, collections of carols and traditional songs by the Harry Simeon Chorale and the Robert Shaw Chorale, so that The Tape drifted off into the more conventional realms of “Silent Night” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” for the next two hours or so. Then it sounded more like any other family’s Christmas tape, if other families had Christmas tapes.

I don’t know why my mother decided to tape albums that we already owned and could easily play on the turntable; maybe she grew impatient with recording songs off the radio. Or maybe she wanted to create an expanse of unbroken time, free from the interruption of radio commercials or the need to turn a record album over. Time that she could live inside, with us, seamless as a snow globe.

It’s true the air seemed to change when the tape deck was switched on: a thick pop from the speakers and then an expectant hum, the world enhanced.

***

The original tape-ness of The Tape is important: how it was hundreds of feet of acetate and magnetic particles. How the tape recorder was a Sony deck my parents had purchased in Japan around 1966. They had been stationed there during my dad’s active duty in Vietnam. He had been on minesweeper patrol in the South China Sea and he and my mom sent each other tapes on little three-inch reels. My dad recorded his letters from his ship, using a portable deck, while my mom, back in their apartment in Sasebo, made hers on the new tape deck. On one of the tapes my mother sent, she told my dad she was pregnant.

The Christmas Tape was our family tape, a seven-inch reel of holiday music played on an open-reel deck.

How, after my dad’s deployment ended, my parents brought the tape deck back to Illinois. They’d bought other stereo stuff in Japan, too: a turntable; speakers; a tuner with an AM/FM band display that lit up like a window in a little house. My brother, Kevin, was born, then me. At some point, I am told, there was a tape of Kevin and me, our tiny babbling voices, but I’ve never heard it. I remember only The Christmas Tape.

How, when my brother was little, he’d been both terrified and obsessed with the tape deck: scared of the drone the stereo gave off when a tape ran out, the noise dark and furred. How my mom noticed he kept drawing circles, pairs of them, and figured out they were meant to be the reels. Later, when Kevin was older, I watched him turn a piece of notebook paper sideways and draw the tape deck box in faithful detail — the headblock, the pinchwheel, the VU meters, the numbers on the sound-control dials that he neatly labeled. Then he took two empty reels — the small three-inch ones, the kind my parents used to send to one another — and positioned them on the paper and turned and turned them.

(How I sat here at my desk and looked at websites about tape decks trying to find words like “headblock” and “pinchwheel.”)

(How I keep doing this, stopping the tape and starting it again.)

Eventually Kevin learned to work the actual tape deck, could thread The Tape’s crumpled leader through the tape head and onto the takeup reel, drawing out the untouchable part that held the music. He’d turn on the speakers, then switch on FWD. Forward.

The Tape sounded the best when it played the radio songs. Whereas the album recordings had the faint crackle and hiss from the stylus needle, the first four songs were so clear their sound seemed to come from everywhere at once, like the multitude of angels that appeared to the shepherds.

***

Also important: The Christmas Tape was almost never played on Christmas day. By then we didn’t need the tape: there were gifts to open and the day took care of itself. The Tape was for the day we put up the tree — a fake one; my mother was allergic to real ones — on an almost invariably snowless weekend day tinged with obligation.

I don’t know which one of us insisted on The Tape each year we brought the tree down from the attic (fully assembled, wrapped in plastic) and brought the slumping, mildew-and-winterberries-scented cardboard box of ornaments up from the basement. Maybe we took turns. Since my brother mastered the tape deck technology, it was likely his job to turn on the stereo and pick the right moment to start The Tape, deploying the wintry, Teutonic dirge of Marlene Dietrich.

Hört ihr Leute, she sings. Pa-rum-pa-pa-pum.

(Also, and I can’t find a way to tell this part without putting everything else on pause: on some nights, during some Decembers, my mom would be in bed early because she’d tried to adjust her antidepressants, or else had just started the meds again and was waiting for them to work.)

 

Kommt alle her geschwind. Pa-rum-pa-pa-pum.

(And while I remember things like the sound of my mom’s voice in bed — saying I’ll be okay — or the shape of her under the bedcovers just beyond the slab of hallway light from the open door, I have no single fixed recollection, only these parts I know from memory, playing back again and again, and now that’s part of the song.)

***

Eventually the reel-to-reel tape deck was deemed too out-of-date to bother with and retired from the living room stereo cabinet, and my brother took the deck up to his room. He was in college then; I was four years behind him, in high school. My brother figured out a way to dub the first four Tape songs to a cassette so that we could listen to them on a boom box in the living room.

This gave the sound of The Tape’s songs a slightly muffled underwater quality to them, but the fact that The Tape was now the tape of The Tape made everything more tape-like in a way my brother and I loved. The sonic snap at the start of each song recording was more pronounced somehow, as if each song had to punch through a membrane into existence.

Kevin and I didn’t think of The Tape as just four songs, as the 15 minutes of music I realize they are now. Maybe our sense of time was blurred by what we had learned from making our own recordings, from popping blank tapes into the VCR to capture bright rackety chunks of MTV. You could record five hours onto a 120-minute videocassette, so it seemed like any stretch of time could be made to fit or expand. You could put your whole life into a few minutes if you had the right songs to carry them.

The Christmas Tape was almost never played on Christmas day. By then we didn’t need the tape: there were gifts to open and the day took care of itself.

“The Little Drummer Boy,” by Marlene Dietrich: When my mother was 19, her family was stationed at an Army base in Heidelberg, Germany. As she became immersed in the German language she began to speak it fluently. “When you wake up and realize you have been dreaming in another language,” she explained to Kevin and me one night at the dinner table, “then you are fluent.” This song, sung slowly and dreamlike in German, became fused in my mind with the knowledge that my mother had lived in another country and had spoken that language, had maybe been someone else once.


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“Three Drummers” by Unknown (AKA Mystery Song #1): For a while the two Mystery Songs, especially this one, gave me twinges of Christian anxiety. This was in the years during and after my stint in Pioneer Girls, a Jesus-ish after-school club that a friend had talked me into attending with her on Tuesdays in the basement of her church. As a result I’d acquired a persistent low-level guilt about not feeling more “saved” and a vague shame that I hadn’t understood The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to be an allegory of Christ until the other Pioneer Girls deigned to tell me. (“It’s so obvious,” my friend Gretchen said.) I wondered if the Mystery Songs were Christian songs I should know but didn’t because my carelessly agnostic family hadn’t taught me better.

“Come Let Us Sing” by Unknown (Mystery Song #2): And I mean, the words to this one are inscrutable: it has a numeric cumulative pattern like the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” but instead of counting drummers drumming and pipers piping, it goes:

Twelve for the Twelve Apostles,

Eleven for the good men gone to Heaven

Ten for the Ten Commandments,

Nine for the moonlight shining bright,

Eight for the Gabriel angel,

Seven for the seven stars in the north,

Six for the noble waiters,

Five for the ferryman on his boat…

And so on, pieces of a weird unknown parable that I thought would become a story if I listened hard enough; everything would suddenly become intelligible, like a dream in another language.

“Go Where I Send Thee,” by Odetta: My brother’s effort to retrieve these songs from the obsolete media that held them might have been especially motivated by the need to hear this one exactly as we knew it. Upgrading the stereo equipment had left us Tapeless for a couple of Christmases and my mom had tried to make do by buying a CD of Odetta’s Christmas Spirituals album. But the songs were re-recordings of the originals, so the “Go Where I Send Thee” track on was different — only two minutes long, more sedate, and completely lacking the licking flames of the version on The Tape — which as far as we’re concerned, is the one true version.

When Kevin rescued these songs from the original Tape, he could have easily enough copied the rest of the stuff on there — the Christmas albums Mom had recorded, the stretch of Andy Williams and Nat King Cole at the very end, the songs that made up the most of The Tape’s playing time — but there was never a question as to why he didn’t. My brother and I wanted only that small hoard of songs that had never been heard anywhere outside our living room. We were never forced to sing them in creaky unison at school concerts; they’d never been played as holiday background music at the supermarket, or at the office of our terrible dentist, who had a glassy-eyed six-foot marlin mounted on the wall in the exam room. As odd and chewed-around-the-edges as these four songs were, we considered them pure, and so they became The Tape as we knew it.

***

But this also meant The Tape was incomplete. On a C60 cassette you’d have just half of one side filled. On a CD, you’d have more than an hour left.

At first my brother and I tried to add our own songs. For a while I kept and played a cassette dub of The Tape to which I’d added a handful more holiday favorites, such as “Fairy Tale of New York” by the Pogues and “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”, the well-intentioned but sort of awful charity single performed by a passel of 80s British pop bands. These songs, awkward and apocryphal, never felt right on The Tape. Later, when my brother digitized the songs and put them on a compact disc, he tried to fill the remaining space with music he deemed to be in the same spirit as the original four songs, which apparently to him means a couple of Peter, Paul, and Mary tunes, about 50 minutes of Irish folk songs about winter, and a smattering of “Contemporary Celtic” mixed in, and of course that felt wrong too.

(We played it Christmas Day at one of the first family get-togethers after Mom died, and in the middle of what seemed like the fifth shambling Irish ballad in a row I got up from the couch and stalked across my dad’s living room to the stereo. “I’m going to change the CD,” I said under my breath. “This sounds like a bunch of fucking sea shanties.” But this was later.)

I remember as well a version of The Tape in which the first four songs were followed with a long stretch of blank space, so that if you let it keep playing, the cassette mechanism would tick softly along in the quiet minutes until it ran out. I think I played The Tape this way for two or three Decembers when I lived in Iowa. I might have played it in one of my drafty student apartments or on the drive back to Chicago for winter break, listening to the murky strains of Marlene and Odetta and Mystery Folk People for a little while, and then the nothing that became the sound of the car on the road. That still feels like one of the best ways to listen to The Tape: first the old music, which is the past, and then all that empty space, the present and the future.

The space where it all happens: After my brother leaves home for college; after I leave home. After my parents sell the house, which is after my mom falls on the stairs and needs a place that’s easier for her chronic pain, and more and more my dad takes care of her.

After I move back in with them for a year after grad school, depressed and adrift. After my brother gets into something called Mahikari and every weekend he drives 50 miles to their dojo to practice giving “light energy” through his hands. After that one Christmas when my mom lets my brother give Light to her bad knee, the one she’d dislocated when she’d fallen, and he sits there with his hand hovering over her leg for 20 minutes at a time. After I ask my mom if she really thinks it helps and she says, “Well, it can’t hurt.” After everything, it still feels like now.

***

“The Little Drummer Boy,” by Marlene Dietrich: In my 20s I’d put on a little shtick in my parents’ living room making fun of the song, of Dietrich’s mumblings in particular. You can practically hear the ice clinking in her gin and tonic! I’d say. I’d imitate her sneering at the children’s choir: Vat are zees cheeldren doink in mein schtudio?! (I hadn’t really seen Dietrich in any films and had no idea how she really spoke.) I was living in Chicago and would drive out to my parents’ place in the suburbs to help put up the tree and decorations, and being funny had become part of the job somehow. My job, because my mom couldn’t really walk, and later she’d be sick, and because my brother was sort of in a cult, and because my dad was trying to keep the household going, and later I’d try to talk to him and ask him about all of us but none of my questions ever seemed to be the right ones. So instead we’d play the Christmas Tape and I’d make the jokes about this song, because my mom would laugh. Not a parent laugh but an adult laugh, full and unrestrained, and the fact that I could get her to do it felt amazing, like I could open doors with my mind.

“Three Little Drummers,” by the Beers Family: At some point the internet made it possible for my brother to find out, at last, what the two mystery songs were called and who performed them — in this case, a wholesomely pie-faced couple and their blond daughter, the three of them wielding fiddles and autoharps and dulcimers. “Three Little Drummers” is the first track on their 1964 album Christmas with the Beers Family, which is on iTunes and everything, as if it had been there all along.

“Come Let Us Sing,” by the Armstrong Family: It’s a little funny, isn’t it, that both of these lost songs turned out to be recorded by groups dubbed family.

“Go Where I Send Thee,” by Odetta: Years later my husband, Chris, bought me Odetta’s 1960 Christmas Spirituals album, which has the seven-minute version of the song, the same one on the Tape. When I played the album track it was strange to hear the song from the very first second, from the words children, go — because on the Tape these are partly cut off and distorted in a way that makes them burst out of the silence like a strangled cry.

***

Inside the long silence things are still in the present tense, even though it was more than 19 years ago. My parents move to New Mexico, to the house they bought just before Mom’s cancer was discovered. We fly out there for the holidays — my brother on one flight, Chris and me on another. We have all realized over the past month or so that this will be my mother’s last Christmas, and perversely my mind processes this fact with a serendipitous lilt: So nice how that works out, I keep thinking, Christmas in the place where my mother wanted to spend the rest of her life, and now the end of her life coming so close to Christmas.

Inside the long silence things are still in the present tense, even though it was more than 19 years ago…We have all realized over the past month or so that this will be my mother’s last Christmas…

Chris and I get in close to midnight after a long layover and my dad pushes my mom’s chair into the kitchen so that she can say hello, but when I see her slouched there with her oxygen tank shushing it doesn’t seem at first that she can talk or if she even knows we are there. I haven’t seen her in six months and am not prepared to see her this way. Already she seems to have crossed some threshold. In just another week, right after Christmas, she will start hospice care.

I am too much of a wreck to do my so-called job of being funny. My aunt JoLee and her partner Karla, who have often shared this duty with me, are stranded in Mexico. I was counting on them to make the drinks, crack up my mom, save Christmas, but their flight is cancelled by snowstorms in Denver. My brother, who was supposed to stay at my aunts’ place, now has to sleep in a spare room at my parents’, where the cat hair he’s allergic to clearly bothers him, but he won’t stay at a motel; he coughs wracking, terrible coughs and insists that he’s fine. I know he’s not. None of us are fine right now. At one point my brother is trying to talk to me: he’s upset about something, something about the room where he’s staying and all the cat hair, and how they, our parents, said they’d keep it clear for him but they haven’t. “I want to talk to them about this,” he says, and he keeps saying them and they, which sounds wrong to me and I don’t want to think about why, but finally I have to say it: “What do you mean ‘them’?”

“What?” he says.

“It’s Dad who has to do everything now. Stop saying them,” I say, my throat going tight. There’s no them anymore.

***

(How I knew for years that we would lose her and so I kept a space open for grieving her.

How I kept it open for years, thinking it would prepare me. How it’s still open and maybe unfinished.)

***

Every year now, when it’s an appropriate time to listen to Christmas music, and thus The Tape, I invariably go online to find out what I can about the four songs, because almost every year there’s a little more to discover. Instead of adding new songs, I find I have this notion that the old songs can themselves collect stuff, as if The Tape could record and play at the same time. Chris once took me to see a performance where we watched a guy recording snippets of radio noise onto a tape loop until the sounds overlapped, roiling and repeating, and I imagine The Tape to be something like that, picking up new information. The Marlene Dietrich song, really called “Der Trommelmann,” was recorded in 1964, about two years after my mom left Germany. The Beers Family released only one more album after their Christmas record and ceased playing after Robert Beers, the father, was killed in a car crash. I found out the Armstrong Family was part of the folk community in Chicago in the 60s, though what I wanted to find most of all were the words to “Come Let Us Sing,” which had always sounded so baffling. Was one line really Six for the noble waiters? I’d resorted to typing snatches of lyrics into bizarre search strings on Google.

Last year something came up at last: not a full set of lyrics but a handful of the right lines: Come let us sing; what shall we sing? I’ll sing you one… These appear in an article from a 1930s musicology journal, which identifies the song as an Appalachian tune called “The Twelve Apostles” and declares it to be a “relic” and a “quaint musical survival.”

“Its status as song, carol, or chant is difficult to fix,” the article’s author, a Josephine McGill writes. “Orally transmitted through generations of mountaineers, the text has obviously suffered corruption…Through its reiterations, its questions and answers, the piece suggests threads of association with Hebrew hymns, medieval carols and secular verses.” In other words, like a tape loop with all kinds of tiny luminous fragments taken up in it, bits of old chanties and Biblical stuff and descriptions of the night sky: eight for the Gabriel angel, seven for the seven stars in the north.

On The Tape it seems like the sound for “Come Let Us Sing” has degraded more than the other three songs somehow. The voices are warbly now, as if the music is slowly changing form — not dissolving but settling, like silt in a stream turning to rock.

***

On The Tape, like The Tape is still a discrete thing, when in fact it’s a cassette in a scuffed case in my desk, a CD marked with Sharpie in my brother’s handwriting, a handful of MP3 files on my computer’s iTunes. The iTunes songs were ripped from the CD, four spliced sections of the 15-minute-or-so audio file, the cassette dub of the original Tape. Each digital track is a sliver of time containing not just the song but the seconds of Tape noise that precede and follow it: interstitial bits like residue, like soil clinging to the exposed roots of a plant. Sometimes when I play my music library on shuffle, one of The Tape songs will come up, the sound quality discernibly thin, a sort of audio ghost visitation. When this happens during any season other than Christmas I listen for only a few moments before I click to the next random song.

All four of The Tape songs are now available as tracks on digitally remastered albums, so it’s possible now to buy them as authorized downloads, as tidy song files with metadata. You could build a better Tape but of course it wouldn’t be The Tape. The Christmas Tape isn’t Christmas songs; not even these weird other-universe Christmas songs. The Christmas Tape is itself the other universe, or a portal to it. All the spots on The Tape where the recording was started and stopped, a little door opening and closing.

To get there, almost, I can play the songs, The Tape files, in their original order. I can put them in a playlist so their noise-edges fit together: the faint hum at the end of the Marlene Dietrich song is broken by the pop at the beginning of “Three Little Drummers,” and between that song and “Come Let Us Sing” a flutter and a tiny shard of radio voice, trapped and so brief the only word you can make out is “once.”

I think my mother is there. I think that is her hand on the tape deck’s control switch, trying to catch the songs as they begin, pushing the recording switch from PAUSE to FORWARD. The soft fumbles on The Tape feel like her, her sense of timing, once stopping the recording of “Three Little Drummers” in the middle of the song by mistake. When I ask my dad who recorded The Christmas Tape and he doesn’t say it wasn’t my mom, is that enough for her to be there? I don’t know: I think she recorded The Christmas Tape and I think she is there. On the other side of the playback, she is there. It is a Saturday night in December, near midnight, and she is waiting, listening, in the house where we live.

* * *

Wendy McClure is the author of The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairieand several other books for adults and children. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, BUST Magazineand the Chicago Reader

Editor: Sari Botton