Interview with Author Ron Clancy

Have you always loved Christmas music? How did your interest in Christmas music develop and how did you become such an excellent music historian?

It all started from the 1950 Christmas season.  That was quite an exhilarating time for a six-year old boy raised at St. John’s Orphan’s Asylum in West Philadelphia. For starters, Thanksgiving dinner was made a grand affair by the good folks of the Knights of Columbus who annually volunteered their time to fete hundreds of starry-eyed boys. The delicious platters of turkey and all the trimmings just kept on coming until every one of us had his fill. But that wasn’t all! After dessert of pumpkin or apple pie a la mode, we were all treated to a Disney movie. It was truly a delightful day, especially poignant for those hundreds of boys who had experienced so much deprivation before being taken in by the orphanage nuns, a wonderful and odd assortment of women, who, without exception, honored the preciousness of life by taking in all the hundreds. The next four weeks of that holiday season brought one festive party after another. Hosted by local companies and colleges, we were giddy from all the excitement leading up to Santa’s big day. And when Villanova University students came by to treat us to a day in downtown Philadelphia, well, that was just the best. That meant shopping for our own Christmas gift at one of the Quaker City’s premium department stores – John Wanamaker, Strawbridge & Clothier, Lit Brothers, or Gimbels. It was a thrill just strolling along, or milling about, with bustling crowds of shoppers, most of whom were neatly groomed and dressed, and pausing every so often to behold the magical winter wonderlands on display in the large storefront windows. Our merriment was of untold, almost mystical, proportion, and the popular holiday songs and carols that filled the air only added to our festive mood. That was my first fond memory of the joys of Christmas music. After shopping for our presents, the Villanova students treated us to a grand lunch at Horn and Hardart’s, a glass-and-chrome cafeteria styled coin-operated automat and Philadelphia institution since 1902. We were grateful for the treasury of coins pressed into our hands and then the selection process to buy Horn and Hardart’s delicious offerings began in earnest. Ten cents for macaroni and cheese! Twenty-five cents for a chicken pot pie! Ten cents for a small carton of milk! Fifteen-cents for lemon meringue pie! And to top it off, we were treated to a matinee double-header – a Laurel & Hardy short and the comedy Fancy Pants with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball that left us in stitches. All and all, it was a fantastic day for us orphan boys. Finally, on a snow-dusted Christmas Eve, we were roused from our comfy beds for what would be for our first Midnight Mass. To this day I have never forgotten the feeling of awe I had then on entering the chapel. The crèche on the side of the altar was magnificent and easily caught my eye. There was the Baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and surrounded by Joseph and Mary, shepherds, ox, ass and sheep, and overhead was an angel bearing the good tidings. “Gloria in excelsis Deo. Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.” (Glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace to men of good will.) The ceremonial burning of frankincense only added to the drowsy and sweet intoxication caused by the lush fragrance of Christmas firs tethered to the pillars throughout the intimate chapel. But what mostly enhanced my wonderment and which made the occasion truly memorable was the singing of Christmas carols. Sung beautifully by a small choir of nuns, the enchanting notes of the mystic O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, the reverential Silent Night, the Latin hymn Adeste Fideles, and other carol hymns seemed to spiral heavenward as though on the wings of angels. After Midnight Mass we were led in procession across the vast concrete yard to our dormitory. A steady night wind whipped through the bare trees that only an hour before had been dusted with snow, and soon Sister Marie Carmine had us all snugly tucked into bed. When the wee morning hours began weaving a final spell, I remember barely lifting my head from my pillow to catch any sighting of a foreign and ancient star. Then I fell back to a pre-warmed nestle with carols ringing in my ears and to dream of Christmas and Santa all through the night. For a six-year old boy, the experience of that Midnight Mass and holiday season kindled a love for Christmas and its music that has remained throughout the years.

What is your favorite Christmas song/carol and why?

O Little Town of Bethlehem and O Holy Night (Cantique de Noël) are two of my favorites. They both accentuate peace and calm and the imagery is just wonderful. The Christmas Song sung by Nat King Cole is my favorite Christmas holiday song. I have always been a huge fan of Nat King Cole.

 THE MILLENNIA COLLECTION is a three-volume set of Christmas music with wonderful text and lyrics and beautiful images of great art. It is truly a collector’s dream! What compelled you to put this collection together and to write the books?

I began collecting a lot of Christmas music in the late 1970’s and eventually owned a sizable library of it. The collection included a number of classical pieces, such as motets, Christmas concertos (Baroque concerti), oratorios, hymns, etc., that are not usually part of mass marketed Christmas music collections. Friends of mine suggested I write on the subject. THE MILLENNIA  COLLECTION was actually a planned ten-part series, the first three of which were self-published. I put it together because I felt the marketing of Christmas music had become somewhat predictable. The giants of direct marketing of the genre have sold it by the same formula for the past forty or fifty years. Instead of creating a me-too product line, I opted to create exquisite Christmas music packages that would provide enjoyment on not one but three levels: art, fascinating stories (history), and the music itself. Songbooks were also included in two of the volumes. Another impulse was this: to explain the origins of Christmas music over a two thousand year period.

You obviously had to perform extensive research to ensure integrity of your facts for the music, history and art. How did you perform your research? Did you ever run into problems obtaining accurate information?

Before I wrote one word, I laid out a plan to develop a series of products initially titled A Christmas Festival of Great Music, Songs and Carols. Most of my early research was in the Music Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia and eventually hundreds of more hours in its Art, Religion, and Prints & Photograph departments. My research took me to various departments of the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Museum of American History, in addition to the fine art, music, and research libraries at the University of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, the Moore School of Art and Design, the University of the Arts, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, St. Joseph’s University, the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia, Westminster College of Music, and a number of smaller branch libraries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I also corresponded with other seminaries and libraries around the county via snail mail before I finally purchased a computer. The research was done painstakingly without regard to the lateness of the hour. At times there were problems associated with accuracy since some sources differed with others on the facts. I tried to make allowances for these discrepancies. I also consulted with the late Prof. William E. Studwell, one of America’s leading authorities on Christmas carols and editor of the first three titles, who reviewed the manuscripts for accuracy of content.

Did you have to obtain permission from the copyright holders? How difficult was this process and what did you learn? Were there any songs you wanted to include but could not due to not being able to obtain permission?

Yes, I had to obtain hundreds of permissions from copyright owners before a book went to print. At times it was difficult, especially with respect to some images from the late 1940s – early 1950s era. With respect to researching copyright ownership of images, song lyrics, and recordings I developed databases that provide precise information of over one thousand copyright entries. In some cases the owners of image copyrights had to be informed by me that they indeed owned the copyright. This was especially true in several cases for American Christmas Classics that required 172 clearances before the book went to print. I am proud to say that I was able to obtain permission for every single song I requested. It wasn’t easy since SONY Music, the manufacturer of the music CDs, was denied permission on three occasions for the recording rights to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and Nat King Cole’s rendition of The Christmas Song. Because of my insistence, I was able to get the rights to these two valuable American holiday songs, which is another chapter in the adventures of THE MILLENNIA COLLECTION.

American Christmas Classics, a part of THE MILLENNIA COLLECTION, is a wonderful tribute to American Christmas carols and song. How did you select the carols and songs for this volume?

There was a certain amount of subjectivity involved, but aside from my own preferences I tried to include carols and holiday classics from a two hundred year period that most people would select. Although a majority of the selections come from the 20th century, thus making it one of the most, if not the most, copyright protected collection of American Christmas music ever assembled, I did not make allowances for what was copyright or public domain. You just tell the history and let the chips fall where they may. As a result, the collection was quite costly to produce, making it a difficult sell despite its great appeal, and forcing me into personal bankruptcy. Consumers who might want only the music CDs would have to purchase six or seven CDs to replicate American Christmas Classics . . . and they wouldn’t get the benefit of a lavishly illustrated book with what some consider as one of the greatest collections of American Christmas art.

 In Best-Loved Christmas Carols, you say that “O Holy Night” (Cantique de Noël), a French carol, was once actually detested by Church authorities. Why did Church authorities feel this way?

The author of the lyrics eventually became a socialist and denounced his Catholic faith. To boot, the composer of the music, Adolphe Adam, was Jewish. This combination may have had a lot to do with the clergy’s antipathy toward the carol. But parishioners loved the carol and eventually conservative higher-ups relented in their criticism.

I think that Children’s Christmas Classics has great appeal to the entire family. It even includes a bonus songbook so that the whole family can sing along. What has been your feedback from both children and adults on Children’s Christmas Classics?

Most women think very highly of this volume, but it is still too early to tell if it will be accepted on a larger basis in the marketplace. Folks who purchased all three volumes of THE MILLENNIA COLLECTION have a greater sense of enjoyment of Children’s Christmas Classics. This third volume of the series uses the same rationale as Walt Disney in his production of the film Fantasia. Disney wanted children to appreciate classical music through the prism of animation. I believe he achieved his goal although it took many more years than he had first envisioned. I, too, wanted to provide children with an opportunity to appreciate classical music, in addition to enjoying classic holiday songs and carols. Also, the inclusion of Biblical passages supporting the Nativity gospels gives parents an opportunity to teach their children the Bible stories.

What makes your Christmas music projects unique from others on the market?

It is the only one that I have found that tries to describe the history of Christmas music over a 2,000-year period, and to do so by fusing that history with the time-honored music of Christmas and art. I hoped the latter will be judged as one of the finest collections of Christmas art. The massive nature of the collection, plus the insistence on creating something truly unique and beautiful, I believe sets my first four collections apart from most collections produced in the modern era. This massive effort, sometimes called “overly ambitious,” more likely meaning fool-hardy, was achieved with the immeasurable aid of a very supportive and wonderful spouse, and mostly as a result of my vision to do what marketers of Christmas music for the past so many years said could not be done.

What do you hope readers walk away with after reading and listening to American Christmas Classics, Best-Loved Christmas Carols, and Children’s Christmas Classics?

I hope they will better appreciate Christmas music as an integral part of celebrating with family and friends a festive time of year, but most importantly that it inspires readers to remember and celebrate the seminal event of the Western World, i.e., the birth of Jesus Christ.

Of all the music collections and books you have written, is there one that is more special to you? Any why?

Volume four, titled Sacred Christmas Music, is very special. Released by Sterling Publishing in 2008, it allows the history of Christmas music to be told from the early centuries of Christianity. The artwork includes a number of manuscript illuminations from the great libraries of England and France, as well as many religious paintings by great European artists. The story line is actually a primer on the development of Western music through the lens of Christmas music.

Who and/or what have been your biggest influences?

The Sisters of St. John’s Orphanage in Philadelphia who took care of my brothers and me, along with hundreds of other boys, when we were hungry, desperate, and despairing. Living at home with my mother and stepfathers was a very dark period.

What’s next? Are you currently working on a new project?

Remember when I first started on this venture I actually wrote and compiled ten manuscripts, all about Christmas music. There are six titles yet to be published, but that is something for another publisher. Also in the wings is THE HAIL MARY (Ave Maria): Its Glorious Story in Art & Music that is looking for a publisher. It is constructed in a similar fashion as my Christmas music titles. Another work in progress is a book titled “Home to the Orphanage.” It is a memoir of being raised in a Catholic orphanage, and it  might raised some eyebrows about orthodox thinking regarding being raised in an orphanage as opposed to one’s biological home.

 What is the last book you read?

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren.

When you’re not working, what are your favorite ways to relax?

Taking short vacations with my wife Renate. Squeezing in a round or two of golf. Listening to music, especially Baroque masters. Sunday crossword puzzles.

 Any final thoughts to share with us?

I simply wanted to create exquisite Christmas music packages. I had hoped they might be considered family heirlooms and better than anything else in the marketplace. I know I was shooting for the stars trying to create these precious music gifts; but try I must or forever regret not holding onto a dream.

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