12 O'Clock Track: Joseph Spence, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"

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Joseph Spence
  • Joseph Spence
I'm not as violently opposed to all Christmas music as some of my colleagues here at the Reader, although I'm staunchly against aural terrorism committed by retailers this time of year. It's not like most grocery stores, clothing shops, or auto-parts emporiums normally play good music, but when such mediocrity is confined to holiday-themed noise, well, it can be rough. I have plenty of favorites that I enjoy playing at home in limited doses, but today's 12 O'Clock Track manages to fit into both that category and another, which is to inject some toxicity into the usual golly-gee Christmas fare.

Serious fans of acoustic guitar are probably familiar with the brilliantly idiosyncratic Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence, whose tangled phrasing has led to frequent Thelonious Monk comparisons, but his gnarled lines seem conventional compared to his habit of grunting, moaning, and wheezing along with his playing. Yet his performance of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" elevates those vocal quirks while denigrating his guitar technique: his instrument is out of tune and, even by his standards, his lines are ridiculously choppy and off-kilter. The real "highlight" of the performance is his singing: he obviously forgot or never knew the song's lyrics, so he crudely spits out a load of gibberish, in perfect time. It's a performance for the ages.

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