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.