Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Author Interview: Ronald D. Lankford on 'Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, and Silent Nights'

The idea for Virginia author Ronald D. Lankford's 2013 book, Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, and Silent Nights: A Cultural History of American Christmas Songs, was sparked by his childhood memories.

“I grew up listening to Christmas songs in the 1960s – 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,' Gene Autry, the Lennon Sisters,” he told me during an interview at this year's Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. “Christmas music was always there, so it was an important family ritual.”

The book looks mostly at holiday songs written since the 1930s, when the first secular, commercial Christmas tunes appeared, written by Tin Pan Alley composers and lyricists and distributed through the still new medium of phonograph recordings. Citing music industry historians, the author places 1934 as the year that saw the launch of the first modern Christmas standards, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Winter Wonderland” (the latter of which never mentions Christmas).

Referencing Irving Berlin's “White Christmas,” recorded by Bing Crosby, and Mel Tormé and Robert Wells' “The Christmas Song,” recorded by Nat “King” Cole, Lankford writes that this kind of holiday song, “performed by a well-known singer, pressed on a 78rpm record, and sold on the mass market, would create a new category of popular music.”

Although Americans celebrate several holidays every year, from New Year's Day to Independence Day to Thanksgiving, only Christmas has a wide range of music associated with it.

One reason for that, Lankford surmises, “is that Christmas seems to last longer than most holidays. Every year we have four or five weeks after Thanksgiving” when Christmas is celebrated, not just one day on December 25.

Another reason, he added, is “that it probably just holds a bigger place in our hearts than other holidays. A lot of people that are religious love it for religious reasons and a lot of [people who] aren't involved in religious aspects of Christmas also love it.”

For his research, Lankford acknowledged that his sources included Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas and Jody Rosen's book-length study on the origins and influence of “White Christmas,” but he also relied on Penne Restad's 1995 book, Christmas in America: A History. These and other sources emphasized nostalgia as a theme of Christmas music and other holiday traditions.

“Mostly what I was looking at was source material in the United States. If you want to understand the songs coming out in the '40s and '50s, you need to see how Christmas was sort of invented in the 19th century by the American middle class. Over and over again we come back to family, home. Dickens was very popular in the United States in the 1840s,” he pointed out, “so I wanted to go back and be grounded in these sources.”

He writes that “the first theme to emerge in the modern Christmas song was nostalgia.” He notes that recordings like “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” (already mentioned), as well as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (from Meet Me in St. Louis) and “I'll Be Home for Christmas” – all from the early 1940s – were songs that “connected with listeners by offering wistful images of the American past.

Ronald D. Lankford
Starting in the late 1940s and continuing through the 1970s, however, novelty songs (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” for instance) began to push nostalgia to the side, and songs “focusing on the holiday blues and hard times” started to get radio play.

The counterintuitive holiday popularity of mournful songs like “Blue Christmas” and “Pretty Paper,” he told me, really took off in the 1960s, when “everything changes.”

John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, mere weeks before Christmas, he said.

Then, the next year, The Beatles arrived in America and “music changes quite a bit. Then we start having a variety of revolutions in the street and so the mood of the country changes.”

At the same time, he said, “what we think of as family begins to change. We tend to think of family as being a mother at home, father at work, and two children – or people used to think that [but] that started to change in the Sixties and, I think, it was a little disorienting.”

As a consequence, Lankford noted, “most of our classic songs end by 1963. [In] the Sixties and the Seventies, what we have instead are a lot of cartoons basically aimed at children,” such as Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Many popular singers, even rock stars, record at least one Christmas album during the course of their careers, yet creating a hit holiday song is elusive even for artists normally at the top of the charts.

“It's a really difficult trick to pull,” Lankford explained.

“In one way, most Christmas songs are traditional, so you're going back again to family and home, and so people don't want anything really 'out there.' Weird Al's Christmas songs,” for example, “have not become classics.”

On the other hand, he said, “if you want to be a classic, you need something that people will play year after year, so it has to have something distinctive enough that it's going to stand out from every other song.”

Those, he said, “are the two qualities they would have to have” – simultaneously conservative and distinctive – “to get played five weeks a year and not wear themselves out.”

The most unexpected thing Lankford found in his research was that Elvis Presley's first Christmas recordings met resistance and negative criticism.

“I was surprised,” he said, at “how controversial Elvis Presley's Christmas album and [his] Christmas music was in 1957.”

Today, he explained, it seems like Presley is an American icon: “baseball, apple pie, and Elvis.”

Yet in the late 1950s, “when he was touring, he was very controversial and his album was very controversial.”

Lankford recounted a “wonderful story” told to him by a dentist in his hometown of Appomattox.

The dentist's mother was an Elvis fan who "went downtown to buy the Christmas album when it came out. She brought it home, took it out of its sleeve, started to play it, and she didn't get finished with one cut when she said, 'This is the worst thing I have ever heard in my life.' She put it back in its sleeve, took it back to the drug store, and asked for her money back.”

It's easy to see why that controversy of 57 years ago seems puzzling today. This time of year, the tracks on Elvis Presley's Christmas album are played over and over on the radio. Reissued several times, that LP has sold more than 23 million copies and is now considered the best-selling Christmas album in recording industry history.

In addition to his most recent book, Ronald D. Lankford is the author of Women Singer-Songwriters in Rock: A Populist Rebellion in the 1990s (2009) and Folk Music USA: The Changing Voice of Protest (2005). He also edited Should the Voting Age Be Lowered? (2007).

Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, and Silent Nights: A Cultural History of American Christmas Songs, by Ronald D. Lankford.  University Press of Florida, October 2013. Hardcover, 264 pp., $21.95.  Kindle edition, $10.49.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Author Interview: Economist Adam Smith Describes How 'Bootleggers & Baptists' Cooperate

Just over three decades ago, economist Bruce Yandle, then working for the Federal Trade Commission, published an article in the journal Regulation headlined “Bootleggers & Baptists: The Education of a Regulatory Economist,” which noted how groups presumably at odds with each other often collaborate, wittingly or unwittingly.

In 1999, in another piece for Regulation (PDF), Yandle described more fully the phenomenon after an additional 16 years of observation:

“Durable social regulation,” he said, “evolves when it is demanded by both of two distinctly different groups.” Those groups are the “Baptists,” a shorthand term for those who make a moral or ethical case for legislation or regulations, and the “bootleggers,” a term that applies to economic interests who benefit financially from legislation or regulations. (A synonym for “bootlegger” might be “rent-seeker.”)

“'Baptists' point to the moral high ground and give vital and vocal endorsement of laudable public benefits promised by a desired regulation,” wrote Yandle, while “'Bootleggers' are much less visible but no less vital. Bootleggers, who expect to profit from the very regulatory restrictions desired by Baptists … are simply in it for the money.”

What Yandle did was to apply public-choice economic theory to regulatory politics and, in the process, create a colorful concept that has been cited thousands of times since 1983 in attempts to explain how government makes rules.

Fast-forward to 2014, when Yandle, now a retired dean at Clemson University, has collaborated with his grandson, economist Adam Smith of Johnson & Wales University. Their new book is called Bootleggers & Baptists: How Economic Forces and Moral Persuasion Interact to Shape Regulatory Politics. The two authors spoke about it at a forum hosted by the Cato Institute in Washington on October 9, 2014.

'Aligned interests'
After the forum, I asked co-author Adam Smith a few questions about the book and his research.

Adam Smith speaks at the Cato Institute
Smith explained that the term “bootleggers and Baptists” originated during alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s, when “you had bootleggers and Baptists with aligned interests” even if they did not realize it.

Baptists, he explained, proclaimed “Down with legalized distribution of alcohol!” because they saw drinking as morally detrimental. Bootleggers, too, proclaimed “Down with legalized distribution of alcohol!” because Prohibition raised the price of illegal liquor and fed more profits to the bootleggers.

“It was a boon to the bootleggers,” Smith explained, “and the Baptists were kind of oblivious to that situation.”

Broadening the concept to include other kinds of regulations, Smith said, “what we see today in our modern political economy [are] many, many manifestations of the same kinds of strange bedfellows.”

More and more, he said, “we're seeing that those bedfellows are recognizing one another and coming together to form even more powerful would-be bootlegger/Baptist coalitions.”

There is also a relationship between “bootleggers and Baptists” and “crony capitalism,” when government grants preferential treatment to certain, well-connected businesses.

Smith said that, in the book “we call it 'bootlegger/Baptist' capitalism instead of crony capitalism.”

He added that “what I hope the book shows is that cronyism is more than just a bootlegger. That's the only thing that's usually recognized: There's just some special interest group.”

Yet, he explained, “a special interest group cannot move forward without moral cover, or at least can't get much out of the political domain without the Baptist” providing a beneficent reason for legislation, “and so we have to call attention the bad work Baptists are doing in creating opportunities for cronyism.”

Avenues for research
Both Smith and Yandle acknowledge that their book, while expanding upon the original thesis Yandle put forth in 1983, opens up new opportunities for further research by other economists and social scientists.

“There's obviously a lot of empirical work to be done,” Smith explained.

He pointed to “all these social regulations that people aren't looking at in terms of econometric work in the same way that they are [looking at] economic regulations, because we just don't think of it that way. We don't think of environmental policies and health-and-safety standards as giving money to anybody.”

Instead, he said, people “think of those as in the public interest. In other words, the Baptists have succeeded in convincing us of that fact but that's just not true. There are a lot of groups that benefit from that legislation and we need to put them under the microscope. We have to put those regulations under the microscope in the same way that we do economic regulations.”

Smith added that “this is a useful framework for recognizing groups” that may have self-serving (but hidden) economic interests in promoting new regulations.

“Never count a good bootlegger down,” he quipped. “A lot of times when we can't see the bootlegger, it doesn't mean they're not there. Seeing the Baptists can call attention to the fact that maybe there's a bootlegger standing in the shadows” during a debate about imposing new rules or restrictions on human action.

Bootleggers & Baptists, by Adam Smith and Bruce Yandle, was published by the Cato Institute on September 7, 2014.

(This interview appeared, in slightly different form, on Examiner.com on October 14, 2014.)

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