Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Breaking Up Christmas Before It's Begun

A Christmas week online media adventure...

(With Dec. 26 update, appropriately enough.)
While I was still in a half-asleep Wednesday-morning fog, the clock radio and WVTF cut through with a short piece about the between-holidays tradition of "Breaking Up Christmas" music parties, and a pointer to, a Virginia Folklife Program website I hadn't run into before.

I didn't see the item itself on the Morning Edition rundown or WVTF sites. It ran a bit incongruously somewhere around the story about Larry McMurtry's "Literary Life", an interview with Liz Smith recalling "when gossip columns ruled," the news that Arnold Stang has died, and Frank Deford's speculation that multi-product spokesmodel Peyton Manning learned comedic timing from football. (Not the "hardest" of news this time of year.)

Update -- WVTF played the spot again on Saturday morning's Weekend VA, with this lead-in: "When Christmas is over, the fun is just getting started for many in Southern Appalachia. Virginia State Folklorist Jon Lohman has the story behind 'Breaking up Christmas,' a little-known tradition that takes place the week between Christmas and New Year's Day."

Searching for that passage helped me find the program -- and a new resource to bookmark. The segment turned out to be distributed via, the Public Radio Exchange, "a growing social network and community of listeners, producers, and stations collaborating to reshape public radio."

The organization has a blog, RSS feeds, Twitter feeds, and services for listeners as well as producers and stations. Cool... but back to Breaking Up Christmas...

Paul Brown and a fiddler whose name I've forgotten, at Pinewoods Camp c. 1978?The first time I heard the program, I suspected it might be by Paul Brown, but didn't think it was his voice on the item, although I was still half asleep. Paul's the banjo-pickin' NPR news guy who did a documentary on Breaking Up Christmas a dozen years ago (as mentioned here). I think he was the first person I heard play the tune by that name, too, when he was my banjo teacher for a week or two about 30 years ago (photo at right). I couldn't find a link to that documentary of his, but did discover that he's donated his archives to my alma mater down in Chapel Hill. Cool!

In my Googling around the subject, I also found a UNC educational resource for school teachers interested in using the Breaking Up Christmas tradition (and Paul's documentary) to get students writing about their own family or cultural traditions.

The Song of the Mountains page for its 2006 Breakin' Up Christmas party mentions Paul's project and includes this enigmatic lyric:
Hoo-ray Jake and Hoo-ray John,
Breakin' Up Christmas all night long.

Way back yonder a long time ago
The old folks danced the do-si-do.

Way down yonder alongside the creek
I seen Santy Claus washin' his feet.

Santa Claus come, done and gone,
Breakin' Up Christmas right along.

I also discovered the CD of Paul's program through a fan of his in Japan, although he or she doesn't seem to police the spam on that page much. Do Breaking Up Christmas and Viagra ads go together? Who knew?

One result of all this impromptu research: I headed up&down to Floyd to see if the CountryStore had a copy of the record. (It did; I bought a couple of copies -- one for me, one for Christmas giving.)

Video footnotes c/o YouTube: Two great versions of the tune (you'll have to wait a minute for the video on the second one... from the upper Appalachians around Ithaca)

(I first heard the Horse Flies at that same Pinewoods summer camp I met Paul! Time sure flies, and the Web pulls it together... web... flies... Horse Flies... must be a thread there.)

More update: House parties, jam sessions, folk music, public radio, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube,, make an interesting cross-section of old and new media "social networking." The PRX organization I discovered in my online travels this week is another manifestation... and it has it's own online video item to explain what it's all about. Enjoy: