It is incredible to me just how many sad songs there are about Christmas. There are even Spotify playlists that collect all of the sad songs together. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good sad song, and I even like sad Christmas songs. As happy as this season is it can be a source of immense pain for many people.
Many churches around the country even hold special “Blue Christmas” services specifically to acknowledge that there are people for whom this season is less than joyous. These services are only growing in popularity as more and more people acknowledge that Christmas can be simultaneously a time of spiritual joy and earthly sadness.
The name of these services is obviously tied to the song by the same name. Elvis Presley wasn’t the original artist to record “Blue Christmas”; that was Doye O’Dell. He also wasn’t the first one to take the song to #1 on a Billboard chart; that was Ernest Tubb. But Elvis Presley was certainly the one who made this song the Christmas classic that it is today.
Elvis released “Blue Christmas” as the fifth track on the “A side” of his 1957 Christmas LP: “Elvis’ Christmas Album”. But we might not have “Blue Christmas” services at all if it weren’t for Mae Axton.
Mae was a songwriter who is known as “The Queen Mother of Nashville” and wrote over 200 songs in her decorated career. Elvis wasn’t a nationally known superstar when Mae recognized his immense talent at a Hank Snow Jamboree in Jacksonville, FL in the summer of 1955. She decided that night she wanted to write his first big hit.
Mae would introduce Elvis to his longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and in November of 1955 Elvis would sign a record deal with RCA Victor. He agreed to put the song Mae wrote on his first album.
Just before Christmas, on December 9, 1955, Elvis Presley performed “Heartbreak Hotel” for the first time at a concert in Swifton, Arkansas. He told the audience that night that it would be his first big hit and it was. Elvis took that song to #1 on the Billboard Top 100 the very next year.
This sad song about a person who has lost the love of their life and must move into the Heartbreak Hotel on Lonely Street was first performed at Christmas time, just two years before Blue Christmas would rise to #1.
Read – Psalms 96:11-12; Psalms 98; Luke 1:46-55
Isaac Watts was a songwriter as well. And arguably his most famous song is the one we are singing this week during our advent devotion, “Joy to the World”. There is some amount of dispute as to whether or not Isaac Watts meant this to be a song about the birth of Jesus or about the eventual coming of God to judge the world. What do you think?
Of course I think this is a Christmas song! When Mary, the mother of Jesus goes to visit Elizabeth in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Mary responds to Elizabeth with words that ever so beautifully echo the words of Psalmist in Psalm 98. You may have heard of this song: The Magnificat.
Well over 100 composers have set Mary’s words to music. My personal favorite is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat, BWV 243. The joy in Mary’s heart pours out in the dance like setting of this piece.
In the verses from Psalms in today’s reading we see the entire world rejoicing in God. The people, the rivers, the mountains, the seas, and all that the seas contain. It is no wonder a song with this much joy is one of the most celebrated Christmas Carols of all time.
Joy to the world; the Lord is come!
Let Earth receive her King!
Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing.
Joy seems to be pouring out across the scriptures in song and it is no wonder as we have already seen that the story of Jesus is echoed throughout the Old and New Testament.
Mae Axton’s stamp on the music industry would echo out from her as well. Mae had a son named Hoyt who also became a songwriter. In fact, Mae and Hoyt are the first mother and son to have a #1 pop single in the rock and roll era.
In 1970, Hoyt Axton had been toying around with a melody that he wanted some producers to record. One of the producers told Hoyt to just make up some words to the tune so their could get a better idea of how it would sound with lyrics.
So, Hoyt stood right there and sang the melody of his song using these words that you likely know so well:
Jeremiah was a bullfrog
Was a good friend of mine
I never understood a single word he said
But I helped him a-drink his wine
And he always had some mighty fine wine
Hoyt Axton’s song , “Joy to the World” with nonsense lyrics became a #1 hit for Three Dog Night. It was featured in the movie The Big Chill, and to this day the Denver Broncos use it to celebrate wins in their home stadium, and in 1994 Mariah Carey sampled the chorus with its obvious relationship to Isaac Watt’s Christmas carol on her own Christmas album.
At the end of Mariah Carey’s rendition of the traditional “Joy to the World”, she segues into the chorus of the Three Dog Night song where she alters the third line:
Joy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the people everywhere you see
Joy to you and me
That is such a beautiful way to bridge the two songs together and describe the joy that Jesus brings to us all through his birth. The angels even told the shepherds that Christ came for “all people” in Luke’s Gospel. But, what about nature? The Psalmist went to great lengths to describe how nature itself would be filled with joy.
Mae Axton gave us one of the saddest songs at the most joyful time of year. 15 years later her son gave us a line off the top of his head that is spot on with the text of Psalm 98. The third line of Hoyt’s chorus is: Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea.
We celebrate joy this advent season, not because there is nothing to be sad about, but because the Joy of God causes his whole creation to cry out and share his joy. Joy to the world, all the boys and girls. Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea.
Joy to you and me.
Sing – Joy to the World
Almighty God, grant us in equal measure; Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Hope in a Savior, Peace in our world, Joy in our hearts, and Love for our fellow man. In the name of Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrate this Advent season, Amen.