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Hidden Holiday Music Gems


Even if you think you've heard all the holiday music out there, we think we can surprise you. Folk music expert Jim Blum joins us with some rarely heard, holiday music gems.

Whether you're getting groceries, waiting on line at the mall, or just getting gas, you are bound to hear the strains of "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," or "Par Um Pa Pum-Pum." We are well into the hardcore Christmas music-countdown when there doesn't seem to be any other kind of music available.

We all may have our favorite carols, but you've got to admit, Christmas music tends to get pretty repetitious.

That is unless you're listening to Jim Blum's radio show. He has discovered a number of hidden holiday music gems, and he's here to share them with us.


Jim Blum has been hosting a music show on folk music for almost 30 years at WKSU, the NPR affiliate in Kent, Ohio. He's also one of the hosts of the internet radio station Folk Alley.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Of whether you're getting groceries, waiting on line at the mall or just getting gas, you're bound to hear the strains of have a holly jolly Christmas, chestnuts roasting on an open fire or barum ba bum bum. We are into the hard core Christmas music count down, when there doesn't seem to be any other kind of music available. We may all have our favorite carols of course, but you've got to admit, Christmas music tends to get pretty repetitious. That is unless you're listening to Jim Bloom's radio show. He has discovered a number of hidden holiday music gems, and he's here to share them with us. Jim Blum has been hosting a folk music show for almost 30 years at the NPR affiliate in Kent Ohio, he's also one of the hosts of the Internet radio station Folk Alley. Jim, welcome to These Days.

BLUM: It's great to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, as I say, you've been a music DJ for many years, do you play a lot of Christmas music this time of year.

BLUM: Well, I tried playing it in July, Maureen, it didn't go over very well. And then it started to click that Christmas is in December. And that's when all these things began arriving. Well, 78s is what they were when I started.


BLUM: But I was always amazed at how these artists would take a tired old gem make it sparkle again, by either dressing it up with a new arrangement, changing a verse here or there, or writing their own songs.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And indeed you have compiled a very eclectic list of music, and we're gonna play a lot of it today. But what kind of holiday music is actually interesting to you?

BLUM: Well, of course, like anybody I love the chestnuts, the favorites, but I am always impressed when someone writes their own song, where they take an inspiration, come up with their own melody, and give us a new perspective for the holidays, these holidays come to us in a big bundle this time of year, and sometimes they can become not tradition but repetition.


BLUM: And there's no shine to them. But when these artists, and we're gonna listen to a few of them here in the next few moments, when they bring to the table something of theirs, which, in essence, as you learn to listen to it as something that's about you, then suddenly the Christmas package is open for the first time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, talk about putting their own spin on things, the first pick of this group of very eclectic music that you brought us is a group of harmonizing cow boys called riders in the sky. And the actual song is called the last Christmas medley you'll ever need to hear. Let's take a listen.

(Audio Recording Played)

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That was riders in the sky with the last Christmas medley you'll ever need to hear. That pretty much covers it, doesn't it Jim.

BLUM: Well, if you like to hear Christmas music, but you're in a dreadful hurry, that's the one. Now, it must have taken them a week to prepare and arrange and record that. You listen to it, and it's over in less than two minutes. Of but, I mean those songs were originally in different keys and of course different melodies. They are so wonderful, and they are celebrating, I think, some 30 some years of doing this, maybe more.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Riders in the sky.

BLUM: Yes, and they were all session players, although, I believe one of them [CHECK] and they have this wonderful harmony, and they have kept cow boy music alive for a generation now.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It kind of reminds me of running through the mall around Christmas time. That's kind of what you hear coming out of the different stores.

BLUM: Well, and there's a perfect example of taking not one song and making it new but taking twelve songs and making them all into one.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Jim Blum, he's been hosting a folk music show for almost 30 years at the NPR affiliate in Kent Ohio. And we are going down the list of his forgotten gems, I think we can call them, of the holiday season. The next song we're gonna play is very different, it's called Christmas in the ashram, by singer song writer Chris Rosser. And here it is.

(Audio Recording Played).

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And that is Christmas in the ashram by a singer song writer named Chris Rosser. And Jim, that is actually a really, really sweet song. I love the Hine about Santa hats on shaved heads. Tell us a lot bit more about Chris Rosser.

BLUM: Well, Chris Rosser is a little known producer and musician in Asheville North Carolina. I didn't know anything about him, but when I heard this song performed by Tom at a Ralph's, Tom told me that Chris actually wrote it, and I travel a lot in the Carolinas and I actually sought him out. And we stayed with him for a day. He's this big tall guy, real quiet. But I talked to several musicians who he has produced. And they all said the same thing. He makes you relax, and you can tell from his Hindu philosophy, he is able to coax the best out of you. And if you don't want have that instrument on your song you're hooking for, he can play them. He plays something like 28 different instruments from all around the world.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, it really is quite a take on a Christmas carol. Moving on, we have another quite an interesting take on a Christmas carol. It's from a very enterprising fellow named woody Phillips of actually, let's set this one up before we hear it. This is the dance of the sugar plum fairy like no one has ever heard it before, right Jim.

BLUM: Well, this is not the we Tchaikovsky intended it.


BLUM: And I'm not gonna spoil it, but Woody Phillips is a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. And he is a cellist, but he is also a carpenter, and that's all I'll say.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let's take a listen. This is Woody Phillips and his tools with Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

(Audio Recording Played).

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is Woody Phillips' version of the dance of the sugar plum fairy and he's doing that all not on instruments.

BLUM: No, what you heard was on a variety of power and hand tools, whether it be the skill saw or the power vac or various sharpening devices. But he did this in his basement, and of course I'm not sure how his wife puts up with this, but he's done all the rehearsing. But his dissertation, all right, was on 120 grit sandpaper and its effects on margarita making in SOuthern California at the dawn of the third millennium .

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I don't doubt it a bit.

BLUM: Well, I don't know how he's able to get these in different paces and different, you know, speeds. That's the part that I can't figure out. But that's one of those songs, as I'm hosting these programs, I never put it in the beginning of the set. I always bury it in the middle so people are going what is that?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is that, indeed.

BLUM: And there's not enough of that in radio. Not enough surprise and discovery. That question is just not asked that much anymore, and that's why Woody Phillips is around.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You are absolutely correct. Did he just do this or has me made other songs.

BLUM: Well, he has, but those have never really made it to the national eye brow. But yeah, he has worked with lots of the musicians on the west coast playing early American music, and I'm sure that's what he'll hear more of.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's hear another song of it's called somebody stole my Santa Claus suit by Dan hicks and the hot licks. And then we'll talk about it.

(Audio Recording Played).

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's somebody stole my Santa Claus suit by Dan hicks and the hot lick. They just played here in San Diego in early September. What can you tell us about Dan Hicks and the hot licks?

BLUM: Well, Dan surfaced in the '70s deciding to do retro before that term had even been in vogue. He liked to play old swing songs, but more specifically would write his own songs in that early style. Back in those years, radio was up for grabs. And if something was good, the local host might play it. And that's why Dan Hicks became a success. He disappeared mysteriously for 20 years, and then he came back in full voice with all of his hot licks. And that guitar player at the end of the song, Gonzalo Bergara is actually from Argentina and plays Jango Reinhardt style, and is just this wonderful player. But in that song, I've seen something in Hicks that I haven't seen before. Normally he's got a bit of a scowl to him, most it tongue in cheek. But at the end of the song he reveals as much as he was upset at the beginning by losing that Santa Claus suit, that at this time of year, we need to learn that we can lose something and even have something taken from us, but it's really not that important in the scheme of things. And I was surprised to hear Dan Hicks have this revelation.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have to take a break, but before we do, I want to get in one more piece of music. The next song we're gonna play surprised you, it's by the indigo girls but you didn't realize that at first.

BLUM: I did not. Maureen, I get tons of CDs to listen to, and they're piled up everywhere. And I thought I had it in the wrong case because I heard all these bluegrass instruments with the indigo girls, and I thought something's gotta be wrong here. But they recorded this new Christmas album, new for 2010, in Nashville, and son of a gun, Allison Brown and Luke Bulla and all of these wonderful players are on it, and the combination, I know, was a joy for all.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what is it that you like about this song in.

BLUM: Well, I like the fact that the indigo girls took a chance to get outside their box.


BLUM: I like the fact that the pace of this original allows these Nashville hot shots to really shine. Luke bulla plays three instruments on this. And Allison, of course, is this wonder kid on the banjo, and she's an acclaimed producer in Nashville as well, and helping to keep this music alive. So I think the indigo girls will allow others -- their own fans to discover these other players. Of the other players have I chance to shine on something they don't normally get to do.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, we are gonna play this song going into the break. I want to let everyone know that I'm speaking with Jim Blum, and we're gonna be back with some really obscure and amazing Christmas music. And what we're dona be leaving now on is I feel the Christmas spirit by the indigo girls.

(Audio Recording Played).

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and that, of course, once again, is the indigo girls, and they're performing I feel the Christmas spirit. We are finding some hidden holiday music gems, brought to us by Jim Blum, are he's a folk music host, he's been doing a program for almost 30 years at the NPR affiliate in Kent Ohio. He's one of the hosts of the Internet radio station Folk Alley. And our next song, Jim, is not like anything I've ever heard before. Unless, perhaps, you've listened to a real lot of Tuvan throat singing. Of this is the.

Premiere banjo player Bella Fleck, and some Tuvan throat singers with a version of jingle bells.

(Audio Recording Played).

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, there it is.

BLUM: That got you, department you?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Jim, it's up to you to respond to this one.

BLUM: Well, bella fleck is a very unusual character. And for somebody so shy, it's hard to believe that he is so worldly. He is from New York City, and he began studying the French horn. Check check and he decided he was gonna have to learn the five string. And he began playing in bluegrass bands and became the best of the best. And then at the peek of his popularity with the new grass revival around 1990 he split to combine the banjo with jazz. Everybody thought he was nuts. But now he's an international phenomenon. And he is searching the world to bring music that we don't know about, you know, where we live, to our ears.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you have any idea how he hooked up with these Tuvan throat singers.

BLUM: Well, keep in mind that Bella is gonna be booked at folk and jazz and world festivals all over the world. And when you're at these events, you meet other people, and the Tuvans were playing -- who you heard was actually Ayan-ool Sam of the Alash Ensemble, and they were booked where the Fleck Tone were booked, and magic happened.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It did indeed. It did indeed.

BLUM: And believe it, for people listening from where they're from, they probably thought Bella was the odd ball.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You're probably right. I tell you, you really need to hear that in stereo, because it takes on a whole new dimension. So for something completely different, let's move on. Here are the good lovelies with their version of God rest ye merry gentlemen.

(Audio Recording Played).

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is the good lovelies, purchasing their version of God rest ye merry gentlemen. Jim, how did you discover this trio of women.

BLUM: Well, believe it or not in folk music, we have annual conventions. There is a business side. And at the folk alliance conference in Memphis this past February, I went to their showcase, they were performing, I didn't know who they were. And I saw the crowd respond to their harmony. And afterwards, they're all real shy, and one of them walked up and said, would you hike our Christmas CD? And I said you bet I would. And I hear it just brimming with new confidence and new ideas. And they're the perfect example of why Canada has it right. They have regulations up there, I suppose that's not the exact term for it, but you have to have a certain amount of Canadian content to be broad cast either as a production or as a composition or as a performer. And it has allowed all sorts of musicians, a chance to be heard, and as a result, some of the best folk music today comes from Canada.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's very interesting. That's sort of a Squirrel Nut Zippers kind of a sound that they have, isn't it.

BLUM: Well, it is, or you could take it back even earlier to the Boswell Sisters. And these three women were all working other jobs just 2, 3-year ago. About you they won a Juneau award, which is the equivalent to a grammy in our country, for best roots album. And they won a Canadian Folk music award last year.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you know what their Christmas CD is called?

BLUM: Gee, what is it called?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Oh, we'll find out later. I just thought maybe it might be on the tip of your tongue.

BLUM: I can answer most questions about Christmas be but you caught me there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sorry. Our next tune is by the singer song writer, and I'm gonna have you say his name because I don't know how to say the first name. That then is Mr. Stevens?

BLUM: Oh, Sufjan Stevens.


BLUM: Of course, when you asked me to come up with ten, I came up with a thousand. But Sufjan Stevens, is this guy from Detroit, which doesn't tell you anything about what he's about. He's an under ground phenomenon, and let's get a taste of what he's actual about, and then we'll try to understand him.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Absolutely. And the cut we have is called that was the worst Christmas ever.

(Audio Recording Played).

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Wow, what a Christmas that was. That was called the worst Christmas ever, and it's performed by singer song writer, Sufjan Stevens. What do you like about that one, Jim.

BLUM: Well, I thought it was important to hear that song and to hear him. Because of most of what we heard so far is pretty cheery. But as we know, getting together at Christmas with those we love, sometimes it's challenging, especially in a dysfunctional family. And nobody writes a song about that, but Sufjan did because it's what happened. And life is about what happens. And it's the good and the bad. And I think it's good to include that because if you don't face your problems you're not gonna over come them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And it's such a pretty song too, but you listen to the words and it's a nightmare.

BLUM: Well, it is, it is. Sufjan plays a bunch of instruments be often at the same time, but the piano, the clunky banjo, the guitar, the whimsical harmonies might not him, he's completely different from anybody I've heard. And nobody really plays him much. He never pushes when he does. Yet, when he comes to play any hall, he'll pack it. And it's all really because of what the Internet has brought to us, that sense of discovery is back.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, one of our last songs here, Jim, is by John Gorka, and the song we're gonna hear is called Christmas bells. What should people listen for as we hear this one.

BLUM: Well, halfway through it is a -- if you took college poetry [CHECK] you may recognize the words of long fellow. But in essence, it was Johnny cash who created the melody for this. It never really went anywhere. But Gorka released it in 1990 on Windham Hill.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is John Gorka with the song, Christmas bells.

(Audio Recording Played).

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That was John Gorka with the song Christmas bills, another beautiful song with a serious message, Jim. You know, before we end, I'd love you to tell us a lot bit about Folk Alley, the Internet radio station that you help host.

BLUM: Well, do you remember the Little Rascals?


BLUM: They decided that they were gonna put on a show and if anybody, you know, liked it, they could chip in a nickel on the way out.


BLUM: Well, that's what our general manager, Al Bartlett, had in mind when he wanted to start Folk Alley and not charge for it. We decided that the Internet was our oyster. And the Internet that we're able to listen to in Ohio every weekend for hours on end was not enough for the rest of the world. We felt that folk music was under served, and it was just too good as you've heard just in this past hour. So far Folk Alley was born about six years ago, and it's on the Internet, and it's manned by lots of people putting in extra hour, many volunteers, but it allows listeners in now all 50 states and a hundred and 50 countries to enjoy and discover this wonderful mix of folk art that's really being overlooked.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And how do you find it on the Internet.

BLUM: If you just search for folk radio, we'll be the first thing that comes up.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. That's fair enough. And I want to tell everyone the magic of the Internet is also told us that the good lovelies holiday music CD is called under the mistletoe. So Jim Blum, thank you so much, I appreciate it. We are gonna go out with a song that you've also given us, it's by the Weepies, it's called all that I want. Anything you want to add to this song, Jim?

BLUM: Well, again, these two, Steve Tannen, and Deb Talan, were just complete nobodies about four years ago, and the indie folk pop world has discovered them, as I did at a folk ark lines conference, deb has this wonderful gift of delivery, and her method here is one that's so simple but so profound.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you again, Jim Blum and happy holidays.

BLUM: Happy holidays to you and everyone in Southern California from my tiny little cabin in the snow belt of Ohio.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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