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The earworms of Christmas

Earlier today I became aware that that insipid Christmas song, “The Little Drummer Boy,” which I have loathed these many years, was running in my head and would not stop. Mild and even-tempered a fellow as I am, a virtual milquetoast, I could not help but reflect how gratifying it would be if the composer, lyricist, arranger, musicians, and everyone involved in the publication, production, dissemination, and broadcast of that song were set to work trimming Satan’s bunions.*

In other holiday news, at Motivated Grammar, where it had previously been thought that my strictures against holiday cliches were perhaps too severe, there has been a conversion experience, prompted by this headline from the Salt Lake Tribune: “Yes, Virginia, there is no Newt (on the ballot).” When you have to explain the joke in your headline with parentheses …

Now there are only a few more days to endure year-in-review top-ten features about things we already knew, and then we will have a fresh new year to clutter up with cliches and lame journalistic gimmicks.


*Irreverence runs in the family. My older sister, Georgia McIntyre, used to express mock sympathy for the little castrati in the Vienna Boys Choir, because “they sing that song every year and their voices never change.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:46 PM | | Comments (20)


Well, de gustibus. I happen to think it (along with "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and possibly "Silver Bells", the unofficial Christmas carol of New York City) one of the finest Christmas carols of the 20th century, and among the most worthy to survive. Certainly it is no more insipid than "O Little Town of Bethlehem", the 19th-century equivalent of "Holly Jolly Christmas".

See also .

What I've never understood is the actual premise of the Little Drummer Boy. Who goes up to a sleeping infant and starts whanging on a drum? A kid who wants to get cuffed by the mother, that's who. What the heck kind of "gift" is it to pound the skins?

I like "Mary Did You Know?" but I suspect it's a bit too religious for radiotime.

I really don't want to see pictures of and listen to a synopsis of those who died this year.

Oh milquetoast blogmeister, you've at least got to give some begrudging creds to the late, beloved crooner, Bing Crosby for his "Little Drummer Boy" duet rendition w/ Ziggy Stardust (aka David Bowie) from way back in the Pleistocene era?

No one could pum-pah-pum-pum quite like mellow old Bing. Pretty cool harmonies there, as I recall.

Admittedly, in the day, the vocal confluence of the fairly middle-of-the-road old-schooler, more 'mature', Crosby, and the spacey young musical iconoclast, glitter rock upstart, Bowie, on 'Drummer Boy", seemed about as likely as say a crazed Joe Cocker, and The Singing Nun belting out "Silent Night" together. Just sayin'.

But for some odd reason it worked for Bing and David, and for many has become a Xmas classic. For others, like yourself, an irritating "earworm".

Dear professor, I'm sure your sister Georgia was well aware that the ranks of the famed Vienna Boys Choir did change 'organically' over time, as the inevitable advent of voice-lowering puberty kicked in, and boy sopranos suddenly would morph into early adult baritones, or tenors, rendered hymn-worthy no longer, at that point. NEXT!

However, young, talented castrati (deprived of their 'family jewels', as it were), were, indeed, prominent 'players' in early Italian opera, paying a drastic price, in my view, in pursuit of their high-register vocal art. The unkindest cut of all?

Moving along-------Hmm........ could the reinvented Newt be the mean Gingrich who (like Dr. Seuess' Grinch) steals the November 2012 election? Will his reptilian (hardly Newtonian), academic brain prevail, or will the savvy American electorate see beyond his intellectual smoke-and-mirrors, recognizing the self-aggrandizing, pompous political (opportunistic) animal that he really is?

Will crippling hubris be GOP presidential-hopeful, Newt's ultimate Achilles' heal?

The plot clearly thickens. More questions than answers at this juncture.


Describing any song as "one of the finest Christmas carols of the 20th century" is damning with faint praise, indeed.

Eve, I rather appreciate the lists of those who have departed during the year just wrapping up. However, there is usually at least one name on the list that makes me think, "Really--didn't he die long ago?"

Alex, in my opinion, no Newt is good Newt.

Timely post. Was just thinking of this. Totally agree (of course) about the Little Drummer Boy, which is both embarrassing to both having to hear, and, as a child, to have to sing (1).

Here's another. Stop me if you've heard this one. Mary's Boy Child, a recording which makes my flesh crawl. What do you know, it has a Wikipedia entry, which claims that "It was first recorded by Harry Belafonte ..." (2). That explains it.

This is a good topic. How did our comments veer into the candidacy of Newt Gingrich?

1. How is it that rot like this takes forever to decompose but I still can't find downloadable radio-songs I love from 20 years ago? Gaah-!


Lawrence--see paragraph 2 of the original post, which prof. McI wrote knowing full well that a segue was inevitable.

hmpstd, I've missed you, too!

Dahlink, my father used to ask about pretty much everyone, "Is he still alive? He must be older than dirt!" I'm with you on the Newtness.

Twenty years ago, Lawrence? You're downloading disco??

Catcha? Mine is in Hebrew. Wha??


Kind of echoing Dahlink's short, pithy comment, above, in point of fact, our astute blogmeister, Prof. John McI., sort of opened up the 'can-of-newts' w/ his article headline quote from the Salt Lake Tribune punning on Gingrich's recent failure to make the deadline for the upcoming primary vote in the State of Virginia. Figured former House Speaker Newt was therefore fair game in this current, high-stakes, wide-open political season.

I would imagine that the aforementioned Utah-based newspaper would have a strong editorial bias in favor of Mitt Romney, even though Romney appears to be slightly downplaying his Mormon faith as a potential 'intrusive' factor in his possible future role as our next president.

Don't recall the American electorate back in the late '60s/ early '70s being all that veklempt (sp. ?), or especially vocal over the fact that Richard Nixon was a self-avowed Quaker.

Tricky Dick was clearly feeling his oats (Quaker, or otherwise) as president until that unfortunate Watergate fiasco broke, as the guy who boldfacedly claimed "I am NOT a crook" exited high-office, resigning in abject disgrace. But I digress, as usual.

Lawrence, if you've been around this "You Don't Say' site for a while, you should realize by now that both Dahlink and myself (and other 'prime suspects') are most guilty of the segue detour, as charged. We'll try to behave.


P.S.:------Re/ Harry Belafonte's "Mary's Boy Child", I just listened to his version on YouTube and must respectfully disagree w/ your rather harsh "rot" label for these old Xmas chestnuts, at least in this particular case.

If Belafonte had approached this carol w/ say his signature heavy calypso beat, a la his "Banana Boat Song" then I could see where that might be slightly disturbing to some listeners. But he played this one pretty straight, w/ just a slight hint of the distinctive Jamaican lilt in his vocal delivery. Just MY opinion.

Lawrence, I guess Mel Torme's 'Chestnuts' gets under your skin as well?

Alex, my memory is that during Nixon's first run as presidential nominee, there was huge fuss and furor over his opponent's Catholicism, complete with threats of daily phone calls from the Pope.


I'm with you on the annual, almost de rigeuer, end-of-year media role call of notable folks who have left this mortal coil in the year past. IMHO it gives one a real sense of our own mortality and time's passing; a definite feeling of some personal loss, even though most of us only admire these famous personages from afar through our appreciation of their lifetimes of accomplishment, performance, or service to society's greater good.

It's true that there are always a few on that esteemed honor roll of dearly departed who we thought had already taken their final leave, usually because of their very advanced years.

I always get a chuckle out of the Hollywood running gag that the venerable craggy-faced actor Abe Vigoda is dead*. In fact, he's very much alive-and-kicking at 89-years-young, and as many may recall, appeared in a highly successful Snickers commercial in last year's Super Bowl, co-staring w/ that octogenarian phenom, Betty White. Actually, 2011 was a banner year for the adorable Ms. White, who had almost as much media face-time as the pulcritudenous Kim Kardashian. Major difference---Betty has loads of talent........ Kim.......hmm......... not so much. (Although big-time professional party-girl Kardashian is reported to be getting paid the grand sum of $650,000 to merely appear at some gala Las Vegas New Year's bash tomorrow night. I guess there's some kind of talent at work there?)

*According to Wikipedia, the first report of Abe Vigoda's ultimate demise appeared in a 1982 issue of People magazine. When the issue hit the newsstands Abe was performing in a stage production in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.(I just knew there had to be a Canadian connection there. HA!) Vigoda took the whole faux pas in stride, appearing in a PR shot for Variety magazine sitting up inside an open casket holding the 'guilty' People issue in hand. Other false reports followed over the decades, as Vigoda's faux demise became the butt of many a standup comics' joke routine. Vigoda has clearly been getting the last laugh.

But trust me, Spain's Generalisimo Franco is DEFINITELY dead! (Chevy Chase will second that emotion.)


Alex, we were living in Switzerland when Franco died. I will always remember that I was riding a tram in Zurich, reading the International Herald Tribune, with the headline about Franco's death on the front cover. A Spanish "Gast-Arbeiter" snatched the issue from my hands to read the news. In his case, I think it meant it was time to go home again.


Just noticed in the intro line of my last post that I (unwittingly) wrote "role call", instead of the intended, "roll" call.

Ironically, for those deceased thespians of note, "role call', at least as a lame pun could apply. Actor..... role...... you get the drift? Just sayin'.



Picking up on our run-on segue, it's very cool that you got to spend some time living in Switzerland. Working, or as a grad student?

Interesting little anecdote re/ that fellow Zurich tram passenger suddenly grabbing your 'International Trib' first section w/ the main 'header' proclaiming Franco's ultimate demise.

This gentleman could very well have been either an expat Catalonian, or a dislocated rebel Basque who longed for some semblance of democracy in his former homeland. Taking in the import of that stark headline he undoubtedly felt some renewed stirrings of hope for a free Spain, and the lifting of the repressive pall of Fascism that had prevailed for so many decades under the egomaniacal Franco.

The message of Pablo Picasso's masterful, poignant mural,"Guernica", his abstracted painterly grand homage, in black, white, and shades of gray, to the human tragedy that befell that eponymous small Basque town in the mid-'30s, perpetrated by Franco and his heartless military thugs, still appears to resonate to this very day w/ anyone who may have experienced the brutality, and oppression of totalitarianism in our time; be it at the sardonic whim, and ruthless command of a Generalisimo Franco, or any other of the handful of 20th-century Fascist, or Communist dictators, from Hitler, to Stalin, to Ceauşescu, to Pol Pot. But i digress.

Dahlink, I've never been to Switzerland. (Well, other than the Zurich airport, flying into Europe from Toronto.) However, I have visited Spain, at length, a couple of times in the '70s, and particularly fell in love w/ the charming, lively city of Barcelona. Antonio Gaudi, and his architectural masterworks blew me away. His unfinished neo-Gothic Cathedral of the Sacred Family and Guell Park were otherworldly. I actually experienced a bit of vertigo in climbing up the winding stone staircase in one of the cathedral towers. Great view of the city below, nonetheless.

Oh, and the seafood paella, alfresca, was superb.

Can you believe that Gaudi, well advanced in years, was fatally injured by a moving Barcelona tram while leaving his beloved cathedral? From viewing vintage photos of the day, It appeared that almost half of Barcelona's population turned out at the funeral/ memorial to honor this beloved giant of Spanish modernist architecture.

Well I've managed to make one huge segue, segue into yet another segue. Doh!

Dahlink, may you and yours have a super healthy and prosperous 2012.


"Little Drummer Boy" must be the bracketing carol of the season. On Dec. 1, I found myself in a CVS at 11:30 p.m., wandering the aisles in search of actual medications that had to be somewhere amid the nail polish and the Pringles just as the cheesiest recording of it that I have ever heard wafted through the fluorescent glow. I realized then that the holidays had arrived.

Alex, very interesting comments about Spain. I did not know the story about Gaudi's death.

Spain is one country we have never visited, but it's on our list. One reason we did not go there while we were living in Europe is that Franco was well advanced in years, and I did not want to be there when he died.

My husband had a post-doctoral fellowship at the ETH in Zurich, and we lived there for almost two and a half years--long enough to get a very different perspective on our own country. I gave English lessons to a variety of Swiss and non-Swiss students.

When we arrived Nixon was president and Watergate was just beginning to generate some buzz. We were in Salzburg when we overheard some Texans exclaiming that Nixon had resigned. They were whooping it up in the cathedral and we thought--wow, things have changed since we left!


Indeed, Spain deserves at least a one-time-must-see visit for any ardent world traveller, before they eventually either meet their Maker, or are merely too aged to comfortably perambulate. (Sorry if I offended any of you atheists out there w/ that Maker bit. HA!)

At least spend some quality time in her main metropolises, Madrid and Barcelona, w/ perhaps a leisurely jaunt (well train, or bus ride) up the Catalonian coast to the Port Ligat/ Figueres coastal area to take in the spectacular original home/ studio, and magnificent sparkling Costa Brava seascapes of native-son Salvador Dali, inarguably the 20th century's most acclaimed, masterly, and flamboyant surrealist genius.

My close Mexican-Basque-American amigo, Roman, I'm quite certain would recommend a sojourn into the mountainous, picturesque Spanish Basque region on the north coast around the towns of St. Sebastien, and Bilbao, where one can marvel at American-Canadian architect Frank Gehry's magnificent monumental edifice-----his Guggenheim Museum of Art/ Bilbao---- a swirling interplay of sweeping curvilinear forms rendered in thousands of burnished titanium facets, and deftly sculpted panes of glass. With some cut limestone thrown in for good measure.

Of course, much closer to home, here in downtown Los Angeles, clearly Gehry's Bilbao masterwork is uncannily echoed in his equally mind-blowing creation---The Walt Disney Hall (of Performing Arts)---- the crown jewel of our storied Bunker Hill cultural corridor. Both structures embody Gehry's expressed desire to create buildings that have the feel of ships in full, billowing sail. His life-long fascination w/ fish forms, (staying w/ the nautical theme), inspired Gehry's intriguing surface treatment of both building, where he likens the closely knit titanium 'skin' of the structures to gigantic fish scales.

Dahlink, I recommend a marvelous book on Barcelona written in the mid-2000's by former Time magazine in-house art critic, and prolific nonfiction author, Aussie expat, Robert Hughes. It's titled, "Barcelona: The Great Enchantress". It's penned from a decidedly personalized perspective of the author, as Hughes' enduring fondness, and high regard for this unique Spanish city is revealed, most lovingly, on almost every single page. The book is a comparatively short read at 169 pages.

Another major European city that has captivated the attention, affection, erudition, and imagination of Hughes is Rome, Italy. I was most fortunate to receive his latest hot-off-the-presses tome, "Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History" for Christmas, and am looking forward to immersing myself in Hughes' usual visceral, first-person, highly informative, and descriptive style of narrative prose. IMHO he is one of the consummate painters of pictures w/ words.

Another (belated) Xmas gift from my generous girlfriend, (which was a total surprise from left field), was the recently published paean, in words and photos, to many of our world's most famed personages, by photographer, Annie Leibovitz, entitled, "Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage" w/ a superb introduction by noted American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Leibovitz chronicles, first-hand, some of the most personal, and significant remaining artifacts of these notables lives, from poet Emily Dickenson, to Charles Darwin, to John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Georgia O'Keeffe, Abraham Lincoln.......... et al.

Laura Lee, when I first gave this weighty tome an initial quick purview, I immediately thought of you, and how much you would likely appreciate this book of significant personal objects and familiar locales, that thru Leibovitz's masterful eye and sensitive prose, are somehow brought to life, anew, for future generations to savor, ponder, marvel, and contemplate. I highly recommend you track this one down, Laura.

Hmm...... I've managed to segue, ad nausea, once again. Oh well.

Now get to those New Year's resolutions folks........pronto. Perhaps one of mine should be to strive to be much more pithy and concise in my blog postings, going forward? Do you think?

I wonder how long THAT resolution would last? (Don't answer.)


Christmas Songs- "Silver Bells," et alii - are not the same as Christmas carols.Thank you.

Thank you, Alex! I will look for that book.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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