Unraveling a Christmas music thriller

The original album art for Merry Christmas to you from Joseph, 1981.

A FEW YEARS AGO, whereas flipping via the brand new arrivals crate at Good Worth Information in Raleigh, North Carolina, the place I used to be visiting household over the vacations, I grew to become transfixed by what I heard taking part in on the shop’s stereo system. It was instantly recognizable as Christmas music: A jubilant, resonant male baritone implored the listener to “let me dangle my mistletoe over your head / and let me love you.” However the voice, touchdown someplace between the velvet burliness of Teddy Pendergrass and the genteel phrasing of Lou Rawls, just like the lustrous manufacturing and lavish, fashionable R&B association, which included feminine backup singers who swooned alongside to the singer’s seductive caroling, appeared unlocatable. Likewise, the tune, a lurching minor-key sluggish jam in 3/4 time, had a bizarre melancholia at odds with the enforced buoyancy of the vacation season even because it summoned an extended custom of vacation music, akin to “Have Your self a Merry Little Christmas” and “Blue Christmas,” that expresses how cheery expectations at yr’s finish can usually yield an aching vacancy. Amid these combined messages and varied stylistic alerts, it was onerous to inform if the tune was festive burlesque or heartfelt vacation paean. I used to be intrigued, to say the least.

I requested the individual behind the counter what I used to be listening to and so they pulled out a vinyl copy of Merry Christmas to You from Joseph. The duvet artwork, that includes an apparently Photoshopped portrait of a Black man carrying a Santa outfit and a pair of headphones, didn’t make clear issues. Nor did the credit printed on the again of the sleeve, which listed a launch date of 2018. And with a reputation like Joseph Washington Jr., it was onerous to collect data from the web. Did Joseph Washington Jr. actually exist, I started to marvel, or was this some form of nom de plume utilized by a session musician who all the time needed to document a Christmas album (or maybe needed to stay nameless since Christmas albums are sometimes seen as cash-ins or used to meet contract obligations)?

The thriller surrounding the person behind the music solely magnified the outlandishness of the songs, all of which, based on the credit, have been penned by Washington. (A Christmas album consisting completely of unique compositions? Uncommon, if not unprecedented.) Whereas tunes like “Rudolph” and “Sharing Christmas with You” draw upon archetypal yuletide themes and topics, there was one thing about them—with their funky, bass-driven breakdowns (carried out by Washington) and sparse, seemingly offhand lyrics usually consisting of a repeated phrase and interstitial warbles and wails—that appeared removed from the standard style.

Take the second tune on the album, “Jesus’s Birthday.” After just a few bars of scatted singing of the title the lyrics transfer from guileless astonishment—“Now are you able to think about a child born from a virgin mom?”—to tautological literalism: “Properly there’s a day in December for so long as I can keep in mind. / That day is the twenty-fifth day of December. / We name it Christmas, properly it’s a day to recollect.” Set towards a lolloping rhythm and catchy, singsong melody, the lyrics, even after they go on to explain Jesus’s final position as redeemer, look like an afterthought, or a pretext superimposed on preexisting vamps and chord adjustments. Like “Let Me Hang My Mistletoe” and the infectious earworm “Shopping,” through which Washington’s barely flat intoning of the refrain—“I’m going buying, buying, buying round downtown”—completely captures the manic consumerism that accompanies the vacation spirit; the tune traffics as a lot within the profane because the sacred. Like among the biggest soul music, Washington’s songs joyfully confound corporeal and religious ecstasy.

I’ve been sharing my ardour for this album with mates for a very long time now, regardless of not realizing a lot about its creator or context. This yr I lastly determined to achieve out to Douglas McGowan, the producer who signed the document for Numero Group (the label that reissued Washington’s album). He supplied some important background and put me in contact with Washington’s son, Silas; as McGowan informed me, Joseph handed away in late 2021, after years of declining well being. Washington, who labored by day as a plasterer, was a San Jose–based mostly musician who carried out across the Bay Space within the mid-Nineteen Seventies, releasing two self-produced singles and infrequently showing on Jay Payton’s long-running present “Soul Is” on San Francisco’s KEMO station. Washington made two LPs within the Nineteen Eighties, each launched independently, with out help from a label: his unlikely Christmas album debut in 1981 was adopted by a second document, Make Means for Love, in 1988. As surveyed within the fascinating e book Benefit from the Expertise: Home made Information 1958–1992 (Sinecure Books, 2012), such “non-public press” information characterize a form of “outsider artwork” of the music trade and have been lengthy treasured by a small group of collectors. (Authentic copies of Washington’s document usually go for round $100.)

For somebody like me, who has all the time had a bit bother getting behind a miraculous virgin start however however seems to be ahead annually to the nice and cozy glow of the vacations and its promise of events and presents, Washington’s album hits a candy spot between sanctified good spirits and secular seasonality, one which was initially charted by such midcentury classics as “Rudolph the Crimson-Nosed Reindeer” and “Right here Comes Santa Claus.” I wish to suppose that Washington’s Christmas jams, largely unburdened the previous and by no means taking themselves too severely, are simply the form of new classics wanted proper now. Towards the rampant fatalism of the present second, I like to recommend the sensible, synth-laden album nearer, “New Year,” whose paradoxical promise to “do the issues I didn’t do in 1982”—presumably a reference to what the singer intends to do within the yr following the document’s launch, the road introduces a basic temporal ambiguity to the tune—feels eternally related, providing a commemoration based mostly on renunciation, a supplication for issues performed and left undone, and, in the end, an invite to get down whereas the getting is sweet.