History of Christmas Music
The golden age of popular Christmas music
started, roughly, as the depression was ending and lasted for over
25 years. It was part of a phenomena fueled by the convergence of
otherwise disparate developments, all coming together in a way that
might be hard for us to envision today.
Although Thomas Edison had invented the phonograph over 50 years
earlier, it took until the 1930's for a generally accepted format to
become widely established. By this time, the 78 record was king. Any
number of record companies could make a record, and it could be
played on any manufacturers record player. Prior to this, each
manufacturer produced both records and record players that were not
interchangeable in the market place. The standardization of sound
recording and playback was the first piece of the puzzle.
Then, about 1930, movies began to talk; or, in our case, sing.
Although movies had been popular since the turn of the century, they
were largely considered entertainment for children, and the working
masses. With the advent of sound, movies had a surge of popularity,
with an appeal to all people. The movie musical was born.
At about this same time, the microphone was invented. Amplified
sound, ironically, lead to a singer being able to use nuanced
phrasing to express the emotions of a song. Prior to this, a singer
had to be a 'belter', so that the song could be heard in the last
row of the balcony. Arguably, one of the early benefactors of this
new technology was Bing Crosby. He had a big hit in 1935 of Silent
Night; it foreshadowed the beginning of an era.
Although today, we tend to identify a single song with a particular
singer, and perhaps a singer writing his or her own songs, that was
not the case before the mid 1950's. During this earlier period, many
singers recorded a song. The song was the hit; and there was plenty
of work for songwriters. Even in the depression, when work was tough
to find for many people, the entertainment industry had a need for
songwriters to supply the demand for movie scores. The Broadway
musical, as we know it today, was also developing in this same early
period. And then, after W.W.II, came two huge trends: the baby boom,
and a prolonged period of affluence which propelled a large number
of people into the middle class. People had money to spend; they
spent it on themselves, and they spent it on their children.
Put everything together, and we get a broad, prolific period of
sophisticated, and skillfully written American popular music, with
an attendant proliferation of Christmas tunes.
Collecting Christmas music can be broadly classified into two areas:
the music itself; and then all the visual tools used to sell the
music. Early on, sheet music established the practice of using
attractive illustrations to sell music. Collecting sheet music is a
sub-category onto itself. Almost all popular Christmas music of the
period could be available in sheet music.
Developments in marketing led to the picture sleeve. This was a
protective piece of paper, in envelope form, into which a record
could be placed. The picture sleeve, starting with children's
records after W.W.II, and spreading into all music shortly
thereafter, became the way to visually attract the customer. They
are often colorful and are collected in their own right. They
developed at the same time the seven inch, 45 RPM record (the one
with the big hole) became the standard for selling a single song.
During the 1930's and 1940's, when the 10 inch 78 RPM was king, a
group of records could be purchased in an album. That is, the music
from a movie or Broadway show was put onto a group of records, and
the records were sold in a folder with pages that held the records
and resembled a book or "album". Hence, the derivative of the word.
The cover of the album was often a scene from the show, or some
other illustration conveying visually what was inside musically.
When the 12" LP developed in the mid 1950's, the word album was
still used. This time, the large format gave illustrators a bigger
area to ply their trade. These albums are also collectible, and a
very important part of collecting music.
Some collectors enjoy the sound of the early records, and actually
play their collections. Other collectors just like the appearance of
the album, and collect them as such. A tremendous amount of early
Christmas music is available in modern formats, and some collectors
enjoy listening to early recordings in that way. Often, the
illustration which was used on an early record is replicated on the
cover of a modern CD.