Jorma Kaukonen: Holiday Marmalade
I grew up a secular Jew celebrating Hanukkah, and I think that the limit of my celebration was putting a couple of ornaments on a friend’s tree one year. Christmas was really no big deal to me, and the Christmas Industrial Complex had not yet become so ubiquitous. There were a few TV specials, and decorations, but I don’t think that there was such an overwhelming holiday craziness. No radio stations playing holiday music 24/7. No obsessing over “Black Friday.” And certainly no “Cyber Monday.” In fact, my most memorable Christmas was, I think, 1980, when my friend Eric and I split the entire day of programming at WPRB. He did classical, I did jazz. He started off the rock show, we shared the studio for a while, we ordered Chinese food like good Jews, and I closed down the station. We were pretty loopy by the end of the night.
My personal holiday transformation began in 1987 when I attended my first Christmas celebration with my future in-laws. After that first Christmas, it quickly became one of my favorite times of the year, and why shouldn’t it be—I drank, ate, napped and got presents. For a long time, we celebrated with my wife’s aunt, who had converted to Judaism, and her Jewish uncle and cousins, so there was always a number of tribesmen and women on hand. It was never about religion, but about family, and good times, and over the years, the celebration transformed—we started to share cooking and cleaning duties, we added latkes to the traditional ham, we changed locations and participants. And, pertinent to this music blog, I started to take increasing control over the music we listened to.
My in-laws love classical music, like jazz, and are generally ignorant about popular music. They lived in Africa in the early 1960’s, and somehow missed rock n’ roll. I (and my wife) began to include folk and rock Christmas music (and the stray Hanukkah song), until we pretty much took over the playlist completely. Luckily, my in-laws are good sports, and in this respect, are willing to indulge us.
When Jorma Kaukonen released his “Christmas” CD in 1996, I was all over it. I’ve been a fan of his work in Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, and as a solo artist, and “Christmas” immediately became one of my favorite holiday discs. I usually throw it on when I am cooking, and invariably, one of my in-laws will remark about how much they like it—as if they hadn’t heard it every year since 1996. It remains one of their charming quirks.
“Holiday Marmalade” is an 11 and a half minute jam (get it? Marmalade….) with searing blues guitar based loosely on “Silent Night.” It is far from a traditional holiday song, but it somehow works. I find it exhilarating every year.
Interestingly, Jorma has gone through a religious transformation of his own. He is half-Jewish, on his mother’s side, and celebrated Jewish holidays as a child, but that whole 1960’s rock lifestyle pretty much distanced him from his religion (although the first guitar he played in the Airplane was bought with Israel Bonds that his grandmother bought him). His return to Judaism came through his wife, who was born Catholic, but was attracted to Judaism. She converted, Jorma went through a “reaffirmation” process and they both practice, in some form. More details can be found here: —it is a fascinating and personal story. Jorma’s Jewish ancestors were, among other things, tobacco farmers in Ellington, Connecticut, about 30 miles from where I celebrated my first Christmas.
Despite the constant uproar from the Fox News crazies, there is no War on Christmas. As Jon Stewart pointed out recently, Christmas is doing just fine. Even if you don’t believe in the religious part of the holiday, the universality of its underlying message gives all of us the opportunity to transform the celebration, or recognition, or whatever, into something personal and special. Or you can spend too much money, fight with your family and be angry. I don’t judge.