The music that
made us merry
Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace
– Silent Night by Rev Joseph Mohr, 1816
IN MY mind’s eye, I am standing in the little kitchen waiting for my grandmother to finish mixing the cake so I could get the bowl and spoon.
Her back is to me, pretending she does not know I am there. As I circle the small space in my head remembering the old refrigerator and the table with its vinyl cover, the tears flow. They rush up from the centre of my stomach, painful as the water leaves my eyes. I wished I was 12 again and my grandmother was here for Christmas. Silent Night was one of her favourites. Blame it on the music. Blame it on Nat King Cole.
For a long time I did not realise that the voice behind popular Christmas songs like Silent Night, the First Noel and the Christmas Song (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire/ Jack Frost nipping at your nose...”) belonged to an African American, Nathaniel Adams Coles. The “s” in his name was dropped as he became more involved in entertainment. His life story reads like a script for a Hollywood movie.
Born in Alabama in 1919, he was the son of a Baptist minister. He grew in Chicago, playing the organ and singing in church. He first learned to play the piano from his mother who was a director in the church choir. He then received training in classical piano, but it is said his real love was jazz. He dropped out of school to pursue his dream and made his first professional recording in 1936.
His voice is described as satin and liquid, but even the story about how he became known as a singer is dramatic. It seems he was performing with his band and a man requested a song. Initially, Cole refused but then it was whispered that the man was a big spender and could maybe help their career. Cole sang, and that, as they say, was that.
“Black people were expected to sing comedy songs and, like, minstrel-type songs, or blues, or songs about work...but it was very, very unprecedented for a black man to come out and sing Cole Porter or sing George Gershwin or the great theatrical songs. He had this great sort of romantic aura about him, which was not what black performers of either gender were encouraged to do.”
Sadly, Cole’s career was plagued by racism. It must be remembered that the Emancipation Proclamation was only read in the US in 1863, almost 30 years after Africans in the British Caribbean were freed. In fact, the law did not take effect until another two years later, in 1865. So there was intense resentment to Cole, his voice, good looks, poise and extreme calmness.
If you can imagine it, in 1956 in Birmingham, Alabama, this gentle talent was attacked on stage by white supremacists from the Klu Klux Klan. “He had to stay in his place. Can you imagine, he could have a white promoter, a white manager, but he still had to deal with being black?”
Incredibly, in that same year Nat King Cole made history when he became the first African American to have his own television show. “And this television, this new television stuff, it was all white people...and then Nat Cole got a show.”
The show began in 1956, on NBC. “That was all people talked about. ‘Did you see him last night?’” Although guests included top entertainers of the day like Peggy Lee and Sammy Davis Junior, the show was cancelled because advertisers refused to support it.
Still, Cole’s popularity was global, even influencing performers here in TT. For instance, listening to Mighty Sparrow’s Home for the Holidays it is possible to hear the satin vocals that made Cole so famous. “Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays/ ’Cause no matter how far away you roam/ When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze/ For the holidays you can’t beat home, sweet home.”
Eventually granny gave in and handed me the spoon, “heh.” She was gruff but I did not care. I was home, it was Christmas and the cake was good. And the music? It completed the safety of the little kitchen, and gave me memories with more smiles than tears every time.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN