Music fills the air during this time of year. From large choirs to neighborhood carolers, Christmas is celebrated by music. Radio stations put their usual line-ups aside to play Christmas music. Stores play songs designed to lift the spirits and perhaps free the pocketbooks of shoppers.
Some artists have achieved phenomenal success by their Christmas songs. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” is, perhaps, his most enduring and popular song. Gene Autrey achieved fame as a singing cowboy, but it was “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” rather than his movies or cowboy songs that we know today. While Elvis had many iconic hits, “Blue Christmas” still ranks up near the top.
In the 1950’s, a decade that was a golden age for country music, not too many country singers recorded Christmas songs. Disk jockey Ralph Emery, a legend on the WSM station in Nashville, confirms that there were only a few songs for the season, and those few got played over and over. One of those that got a lot of air time was “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’,” sung by Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.
This song, which was released on October 28, 1951, has become the all-time greatest bluegrass Christmas song. Like Crosby’s “White Christmas,” Autrey’s “Rudolph,” and Elvis’s “Blue Christmas,” it has been covered by lots of artists, including Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, and Sammy Kershaw. But nothing surpasses the original. The story of the artist who created the song is surprising as well.
The story blends the plains of west Texas with the bluegrass hills of Kentucky, but it also includes Boston, Massachusetts. It was there at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that a young scientist was pursuing a degree in electrical engineering. He went on to work for Bell Labs and earned a doctorate from Columbia University after submitting a dissertation titled “Properties of High-Pass Signals.” Although he devoted his working hours to such projects as “the use of computer simulation in the study of reverberation in digital audio,” he would not be remembered for his scientific labors.
His name was Benjamin Franklin Logan, Jr., but he was known among friends as “Tex” Logan. His fame came to rest on a passion that was as intense as his scientific studies. Tex Logan played the fiddle, having learned it from his father. It should be noted that his father was actually a violinist, and young Logan took lessons on playing classical violin. Growing up in Coahoma, Texas, Logan found more opportunities for fiddle playing than for playing violin in an orchestra.
While it was engineering that paid the bills and provided Logan a profession, it was the fiddle that gave him the greatest delight. He once said that he would happily trade twenty years of engineering for just one night of fiddling. After he got his bachelor’s degree from Texas Technical College, he spent some time playing fiddle in Wheeling, West Virginia, with a group called the Coal River Valley Boys. Even after he moved to Boston, he arranged some gigs there for another music group called the Lilly Brothers.
Logan loved the speed of bluegrass music. It is this emphasis on speed, the fast rhythms, and the furious finger work that largely characterizes the bluegrass music. Some wondered if there was a connection between the speed of bluegrass music and Logan’s research on mathematical speed that created the mental bond in Logan’s mind between the two areas.
Or maybe it was just roots. Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass music, spoke often of the Scotch-Irish connection, which he called “Ancient Tones.” Many Southerners were descendants of Scots, Scots-Irish, and English folks whose songs and melodies reemerged in bluegrass music. Within the fast chord changes, the high tenor vocals, and home-spun lyrics, people in rural America, from Kentucky to west Texas and beyond, savored the music we now call bluegrass.
Perhaps it was the homesickness of a Texas boy spending Christmas in Massachusetts. Something moved him to write about the memory of Christmas, of longing for home, of the experiences similar to everyone who ever left the home place to go far away in pursuit of careers and dreams.
Whether Tex Logan wrote the song with Bill Monroe in mind or not, it was a tailor fit for Monroe’s style and band, the Blue Grass Boys. Perhaps some of Logan’s fellow students at MIT might have said, “Christmas time is coming,” but he wrote his song to say, “Christmas time’s a-comin’.” He wrote it the way that Monroe and the fans of bluegrass music would have said it. Whether or not the “-ing” endings appeared in the written lyrics, they were missing (missin’) from the song when Monroe sang it.
Christmas time’s a-comin’
Christmas time’s a-comin’
Christmas time’s a-comin’
And I know I’m goin’ home.
Snow flake’s a-fallin’
My old home’s a-callin’
Tall pine’s a-hummin’
Christmas time’s a-comin’.
Can’t you hear them bells ringin’, ringin’
Joy, don’tcha hear them singin’
When it’s snowin’, I’ll be goin’
Back to my country home.
In bluegrass fashion, the song is fast paced and the pitches of the fiddle, banjo, and mandolin create the bell-like happy sounds associated with Christmas. The song even included Decca record producer Owen Bradley’s playing of a vibraphone, which is a chime instrument related to the xylophone. With a careful listening, the tones can be heard. Monroe said, “Around Christmas, a lot of people like to hear that kind of a sound on a lot of songs.”
Both Monroe and his fiddle player, Gordon Terry, tuned their instruments higher to fit the song. While many country musicians enjoyed jamming together, Monroe was a stickler for details when it came to recording. The song is one among many that demonstrates the fine tuning, so to speak, of Monroe’s high standards.
Tex Logan shared the stage with Monroe on a few occasions. He said, “It’s a legend that I was a Blue Grass Boy,” meaning that he was never a member of Monroe’s band. He went on to say, “I never was, but I’ve played so much with him, and have filled in and so on, and people think I was. I guess I’m an honorary Blue Grass Boy.”
One thing for certain, whatever legends may be around, in the song “Christmas Time’s A-Comin,” the songwriter, the singer, the band, and the total effect have never been surpassed.
HEAR BILL MONROE AND THE BLUE GRASS BOYS SING “CHRISTMAS TIME’S A-COMIN’”