Once upon a time, singers sang what writers wrote...and it was glorious!
We're about 50 years into the "Singer/Songwriter" era, and it may be time for the pendulum to swing back to the way it had been for hundreds of years: that singers sang what writers wrote.
It occurred to me that we have over two generations of people who may believe that our music in general, and Christmas songs in specific, come from only one place: the singer/songwriter. Nothing could be further from the truth. As much as I enjoy the handful of mega-talented artists today that are truly gifted singer/songwriters, too many artists are simply "stylists" that adorn their writing with vocal ornaments, and overuse these decorations to mask a mediocre song.
Written sheet music has been the preferred method of preserving music and Christmas songs for future generations, because the language is universal. I shudder to imagine what someone might think 100 years from now, if they came across some "stylish" Christmas songs of today that were reduced to sheet music! It's not today's Christmas music in general that I'm referring to here, or whether the older Christmas music was better. Surprisingly, I truly believe we're in a Golden Era for Christmas songs right now, and that some of today's material will become cherished classics in the future. It's just that there's so much more music available today, that the trendy, mediocre material appears disproportionately more prevalent than it would have been in the past, and that makes it harder and harder to find those precious, golden nuggets of today's great Christmas songs. More often than not, these trendy, mediocre Christmas songs are written by singer/songwriters.
One of my favorite pastimes is to troll through the sheet music in public domain libraries for Christmas songs of yore. If I see one I like initially, I print it out, and play it on the piano. It's obvious from this little exercise that the majority of these songs were written strictly for the quality of the song, and not to satisfy the terms of a recording contract.
If we use history as our guide, most people are unaware that a large number of our best loved traditional Christmas songs began as Christmas poems. Years if not decades passed before they were wed to a melody and finally performed in church. In some cases, the chosen melody was not even written as a Christmas song! The point being that one person carefully crafted a beautiful Christmas poem, someone else composed a wonderfully memorable melody, and put together, they made songs that have remained popular at Christmas for over a hundred years! This is evidence of the true value of a collaborative effort when it comes to music and Christmas songs. Add to this mix, the sheer joy we experience when these magnificent works are performed by a talented vocalist. I suppose you could find all of this in just one person, but historically this high degree of quality only comes from a group effort.
In the US, some our most popular Christmas songs were written in the 1940's and 1950's. Few people are aware that one man, Johnny Marks, wrote so many of these songs including: "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer", "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas", "Silver & Gold", and "Run Rudolph Run". He is also the composer of, "I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day" which was originally written as a poem around the time of the Civil War by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. None of these songs were recorded by Marks, but were recorded by talented singers of the time such as: Gene Autry, Brenda Lee, Burl Ives and Chuck Berry. Again, it's the combined effort of people with talent in specific disciplines that seems to have made the difference for these perennial favorites.
Lastly, I'm a little concerned about the negative impact the singer/songwriter may be having on some of our talented youth that are just singers, or just songwriters. Some of them may think you have to be both in order to succeed in music, and I'll be the first to lament the death of the A & R (Artist & Repertoire) department at major record labels. For many years now, there has only been an A (Artist) department, and no R (Repertoire) department. A gifted singer would find few doors open if they didn't write their own material, and a talented songwriter had a greater uphill battle if they didn't perform their own songs. Gleefully, the major record labels are now in decline, and the democratization of music is in full swing thanks to the internet. With any luck, this major change will bring back the tried and true paradigm for Christmas songs and music in general, that the best material comes when singers sing what writers write.
Geoff Szabo - Szabo Songs ASCAP