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Thinking Through A Charlie Brown Christmas

Vince Guaraldi: Thinking Through A Charlie Brown Christmas

We talk a lot about relativity in music writing. How no matter the warm feelings of a teenaged, guitar-toting revivalist, Television will always matter more to the men and women who made it out to CBGB’s on a dedicated schedule. How no matter the warm feelings of a middle-aged, guitar-toting nostalgist, the Strokes will always matter more to the boys and girls who were 15 when “Last Nite” hit MTV. There’s always another scene, or another perception, it’s hard to take anything at face value – that’s why we ignore the timeworn cheesiness and save places for NWA on retrospective lists, because, well, they really meant something in ’87.

All of those different perceptions don’t mean a thing when you’re talking about Christmas music, and especially A Charlie Brown Christmas - the soundtrack to the classic, perennially-watched holiday special of the same name. It stands as one of the few truly universal musical experiences in American history; almost everyone has some faded memories of hearing these songs through blown TV speakers, or dusty, family record players. Its endless repetition in December, its canonization as traditional Christmas music, and the strange absence of even the faintest whiff of backlash has made the songs startlingly persistent. You could argue it exceeds the Star Wars main theme in terms of cultural penetration. It’s something worth exploring, what exactly did Charlie Brown have that thousands of failed attempts at Christmastime pastiche didn’t? How has it remained so relevant for so many people? From undisciplined ears, to music critics, to grandma and grandpa – it’s one of the most democratic records in pop history.

Naturally some of the credit has to go to Vince Guaraldi, the late Italian-American jazz composer responsible for the soundtrack. His dulcet, frozen notes made everything feel a lot like Christmas – imbued with the same aimless youthful ambivalence some of today’s blog-topics try so hard to recapture. Pitchfork’s Jess Harvell wrote that the record is “for many kids, still the first jazz they ever hear.”It’s curious to think the ubiquity of it all, especially considering how the soundtrack was almost scrapped by CBS executives – claiming that the children would be put to sleep by Guaraldi’s sublime compositions.

Frankly that’s a fair observation. I mean, jazz music even in its lightest forms isn’t exactly the stuff for kids. But maybe that’s the beauty of Vince Guaraldi’s chemistry. A track like “Linus & Lucy” doesn’t sound much like children’s music, but it definitely sounds like children. Perhaps that’s why we as adults can revisit it without needing to adjust our own personal perspectives. Timelessness is a rare thing in music; you could argue that Guaraldi’s work is one of the few examples that categorically refused to date itself.

Sure it’s difficult to get a critical grasp on A Charlie Brown Christmas, as with anything so deeply ingrained in our collective identities. There’s just no available vantage point, no real purpose in objectivity, you might grow up to hate the Eagles, but you’ll never grow up to hate Charlie Brown – there’s just no rebellion available. I think there’s a certain sense of ownership we have with things like the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, it is not your mom’s, or your dad’s, or your brother’s hand-me-downs – it belongs to each of us independently. We all have a place for it. It sounds like how we think about our childhoods. In the dying hours of a college party somewhere in Austin, Texas, the host put on the album without even the slightest sense of irony. “It’s just one of my favorites” he told me.

It is interesting to think how it got that way, after all Christmas music is probably the most insular, impenetrable ‘genre’ in music history, and the songs on A Charlie Brown Christmas aren’t even 50 years old. Plenty of other Christmas specials have passed through the American psyche, and outside of the novelty-hit “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch,” nothing has really stuck. But Guaraldi’s songs are attached to Christmas by association more than craft – not necessarily tasked to write Christmas music, he instead delivered on a suite of instrumentals perfect for endless circles on an ice rink, or snowflakes drifting on placid suburbia. Honestly that’s the way a lot of Americans remember the holiday – how the two weeks vacation we got from elementary school felt like an eternity. Even his take on the classics, “My Little Drum” or “O Tannenbaum,” remain delightfully unattached, putting us right back in the place of breezy, secured bliss of the childhood where we first heard it.

Nostalgia obviously has something to do with it. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying A Charlie Brown Christmas is among the most comforting records in my catalog, some of my earliest memories are built on these songs. But Vince Guaraldi certainly pushed us along. What he built back in ’65 so perfectly captured the essence of youthful wonder – the unlimited nature of the future, the increasing anticipation of Christmas, and most importantly, the erstwhile sense of contentment in the now – that the warm feelings we have towards the music of a half-hour Christmas special decades later almost  seems predicted in the music. Sure we have rose-tinted glasses, but Guaraldi approached the soundtrack with the same longing, ambiguous feelings. And they’ve never been captured better.

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