When it comes to holiday music, there are three camps. First, there are people who hate holiday music, and spend December avoiding it all costs.

(You can go ahead and skip this piece).

Then, there’s people who love holiday music, but stick to the traditional songs.

And, then, there’s people who like holiday music mostly because there’s so much of it, some brilliant, some strange, and all worth putting on for a few weeks a year. For those who seek out unusual holiday music, here’s a few selections that was made by or about people who have ties to Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

James Taylor’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s The River

According to a 2018 piece published in the Oxford American, Joni Mitchell went Christmas caroling in the Morgan Creek neighborhood in December 1970 with her then boyfriend, James Taylor. Six months later, Mitchell’s album Blue was released, featuring a song that just has to be about Chapel Hill. In 2006, Taylor recorded this song on his own Christmas album.


Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Carolina Christmas

In the history of Chapel Hill’s music scene, there’s never been a band quite like the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Part of the “swing revival,” one of the more confusing (even at the time) trends in the mid-1990s, the Squirrel Nut Zippers had a platinum-selling album (“Hot”) in 1996. Two years later, the band released a Christmas album that features the band’s trademark mix of jazz-influenced melodies and humorous lyrics. While the whole album is great, it’s hard not to play “Carolina Christmas,” even though the song, like Mitchell’s, cruelly reminds us that it doesn’t snow here.

Kay Keyser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”

Kay Keyser was one of the biggest musical stars in the country in the 1930s and 1940s, and he was closely linked with his alma mater—UNC Chapel Hill. In 1947, his hit song was “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” which, as you might suspect, was designed to appeal to young people hoping for a date.

Libba Cotten’s “New Year’s Eve”

On January 5, Carrboro will celebrate Libba Cotten Day in honor of the folk singer and guitar player. While Cotten’s “Freight Train” is the song everyone knows, she also recorded an instrumental titled New Year’s Eve.

Chapel Hill/Carrboro bands love a good holiday song

We suspect we’ve just scratched the surface of late December songs. Here’s a few more:

Analog Mountains, “Christmas Evergreen
Dillon Fence, “Christmas
Southern Culture on the Skids, “Merry Christmas Baby
Mipso, “Christmas Must Be Tonight
Superchunk, “Child’s Christmas in Wales

Have one for us to add? Let us know. 

Barb K: “Hot Buttered Rum”

Reader Barb K writes the following: This one doesn’t really mention Christmas but the Red Clay Ramblers’ Tommy Thompson made this famous and Mary Chapin Carpenter does it on her 12 songs of Christmas album so that must make it a Chapel Hill Christmas song. I love the imagery in the first stanza (and loved  hearing them develop this during their once a month Cats Cradle shows in the 1970s.”

When chimney smoke hangs still and low across the stubbled fields of snow
And angry skies reach down and seize the sorry blackened bones of trees
In the dead of winter when the silent snowbirds come
You’re my sweet maple sugar, honey, hot buttered rum

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Martin Johnson lives in Chapel Hill. He teaches film studies courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a member of NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro and the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel...