Holiday Triumphs: Jean Shepherd, “Earliest Christmas”

Continuing the fabled tradition begun all the way back in 2009, Scratchbomb presents Holiday Horrors and Holiday Triumphs: an advent calendar of some of the more hideous aspects of this most stressful time of year–with a few bits of awesomeness sprinkled in.

Thumbnail image for shep2.GIFOnce again, I present a holiday tale from Jean Shepherd to warm your hackles this Christmas. It is very typical Shep show, which is to say, all over the map and yet one cohesive unit.

In this episode from Christmas Eve 1971, Shep starts out by relating the eerie beauty of seeing power lines go down in a snowstorm. Then, he relates his earliest Christmas memory: seeing an insanely melodramatic adaptation of an extremely melodramatic seasonal poem, “The Bootblack’s Christmas.” He proceeds to recite some more examples of Yuletide melodrama, which he finds both ridiculous and amazing. This was a frequent topic of his: How humanity’s true nature was revealed in what he called Slob Art, the kind of junk that ordinary folks like. He was saying this literally decades before pop culture was seriously studied by anyone.

The show closes with a tale from Shep’s army days, when he got a two-day pass and hitchhiked from his base in New Jersey to visit Manhattan for the first time. There, he took in the wartime phenomenon called The Stagedoor Canteen, resulting in a chance encounter with a volunteer waiter who would go on to fame and fortune years later.

Mixed in, you’ll hear Shep do some holiday-related commercials, including a flying bird toy that used to advertise frequently on his show, and appeals from charity. He also shills for his own recently released album, The Declassified Jean Shepherd.

I snagged a copy of this album up years ago when I saw a copy in the used LPs section at the Amoeba Records in Berkeley (the only good memory of my sole trip to California thus far, a tale for another time), and it is an odd artifact. It’s comprised of clips from his radio show and a live performance at Carnegie Hall (which I’m pretty sure both of my parents attended), intercut with odd snippets of very early 70s rock music. A strange choice, since Shep was resolutely anti-rock. He was more at home with jazz; check out Charles Mingus’s “The Clown” to hear him collaborate with the legendary bassist/bandleader on an improvised spoken word piece that is amazingly prescient (and creepy) considering it was recorded in 1957.

But I digress. Please enjoy this collection of Chritsmas tales from the master of the monologue.

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