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 during the 1950 Christmas season. It was quite an exciting 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 a dessert of pumpkin or apple pie a la mode, we were treated to a Disney movie.

It was indeed a delightful day for us that had experienced deprivation before being taken in by the orphanage nuns, a beautiful assortment of women who, without exception, honored the preciousness of life by taking in hundreds of boys.

The next four weeks of that holiday season brought more festive parties. 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, that was the best. That meant shopping for our Christmas gift at one of 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, who were neatly groomed and dressed and occasionally pausing to behold the magical winter wonderlands on display in the large storefront windows. Our merriment was untold and mystical, and the popular holiday songs and carols filling the air only added to our festive mood. That was my first fond memory of the joys of Christmas music. After shopping for presents, the Villanova students treated us to lunch at Horn and Hardart’s, a famous glass-and-chrome cafeteria and coin-operated automat. 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 film 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 our first Midnight Mass. To this day, I have never forgotten my awe at entering the chapel. The crèche on the side of the altar was magnificent and quickly caught my eye. There was the statue of 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 goodwill.) The ceremonial burning of frankincense and the lush fragrance of balsam firs neatly stationed by the main altar was intoxicating.

But what 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 carols 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 in bed. When the wee morning hours began weaving a final spell, I remember barely lifting my head from the pillow to catch any sighting of a foreign and ancient star. Then I fell back into a pre-warmed nestle with carols ringing in my ears and dreamed of Christmas and Santa all night. For a six-year-old boy, the experience of that Midnight Mass and the holiday season kindled a love for Christmas and its music that has remained with me throughout the years.

What is your favorite Christmas song/carol and why?

My favorites are O Little Town of Bethlehem and O Holy Night (Cantique de Noël). The imagery of peace and calm is just incredible. The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole is my favorite Christmas holiday song. I have always been a big fan of Nat King Cole.

THE MILLENNIA COLLECTION is a three-volume set of Christmas music with excellent text, 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 many Christmas music in the late 1970s and eventually owned a sizable library. The collection included many classical pieces, including 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 a planned ten-part series, the first three 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 develop exquisite Christmas music collections that would provide enjoyment on not one but three levels: art, fascinating stories (history), and music. Songbooks were also included in two of the volumes. Another impulse was to explain the origins of Christmas music over a two-thousand-year period.

You had to perform extensive research to ensure the integrity of your facts for the music, history, and art. How did you conduct 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 at the Music Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia and many more days at the Art, Religion, and Prints & Photograph departments. The research also took me to various departments of the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Museum of American History, and 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 smaller branch libraries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I also corresponded with local seminaries and libraries via snail mail before purchasing a computer.

The research was painstakingly done without regard to the lateness of the hour. At times there were problems associated with accuracy since some sources differed from others in 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 the accuracy of the content.

Did you have to obtain permission from the copyright holders? How complicated 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 the books went to print. It was sometimes tricky, particularly for some magazine illustrations from the late 1940s – early 1950s. I developed a database of approximately one thousand copyright entries concerning copyright ownership of images, song lyrics, and recordings. Some image copyright owners didn’t even know they owned the copyright until I approached them for permission. This was especially true for American Christmas Classics, which required 172 clearances before producing the collection. I am proud to admit I successfully obtained approval for every song I requested. It wasn’t easy after SONY Music Special Products, the manufacturer of the music CDs, was denied the recording rights to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song on three separate applications. Because of my persistence, I got the rights to these two most-valuable American holiday songs, another chapter in the adventures of THE MILLENNIA COLLECTION.

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

There was a certain amount of subjectivity involved. Aside from my preferences, I tried to include carols and holiday songs from a two-hundred-year period that I believe most consumers of Christmas music would select. Although most of the selections come from the 20th century, thus making it one of the most copyright-protected collections of American Christmas music ever assembled, I didn’t make allowances for what was copyright or public domain. You 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. Consumers, who might wish to strictly own the collection’s music, would have to purchase six or seven CDs to replicate American Christmas Classics . . . and they wouldn’t get the benefit of owning a lavishly illustrated book esteemed by Goldmine, a highly respected record collector’s magazine. 

In Best-Loved Christmas Carols, you say that “O Holy Night” (Cantique de Noël), a French carol, was once 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 music composer, Adolphe Adam, was Jewish. This combination may had much to do with the clergy’s antipathy toward Cantique de Noël. But parishioners loved it, and eventually, conservative higher-ups relented in their criticism.

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

Most women think highly of this volume, but it is still too early to tell if it will be accepted in the mass market. Folks who purchased the three-box THE MILLENNIA COLLECTION enjoyed Children’s Christmas Classics because of its uniqueness. The 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. He achieved his goal, although it took many more years than he had envisioned. I, too, wanted to provide children with an opportunity to appreciate classical music and enjoy their favorite holiday songs and carols. Another benefit is that incorporating Biblical passages supporting the Nativity gospel allows parents to expose their children to a relevant Bible story.

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

It is the only one that attempts to describe the history of Christmas music over two thousand years and enhances that history with fine art, illustrations, and classic holiday music. I hope people will come to judge the art collection as one of the finest of its kind. The massive nature of the group, plus the insistence on creating something truly unique and beautiful, set these four collections apart from others produced in the last forty years. My “overly ambitious” effort, more likely meaning “fool-hardy” in the eyes of seasoned marketers, was achieved with the immeasurable aid of Renate, my very supportive spouse.

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 a festive part of the year with family and friends. But more importantly, 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? And why?

Volume four, titled Sacred Christmas Music, is extraordinary. 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 manuscript illuminations from the great libraries of England and France and includes exceptional religious paintings by famous European artists. The book is a primer on the development of Western music told through the lens of Christmas music.

Who and what have been your biggest influences?

The Sisters at St. John’s Orphanage in Philadelphia. They cared for my brothers and me, along with hundreds of other boys, when we were hungry and desperate. Living at home with my mother and stepfather was a dark period.

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

When I started this venture, I wrote and compiled ten manuscripts about Christmas music. Six titles are 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. It is constructed similarly to my Christmas music titles. Another work in progress is titled Home to the Orphanage. It is a story about being raised in a Catholic orphanage and contrasts that with the experience of living with my biological family.

 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?

I am taking short vacations with my wife, Renate, playing with Berry and Pippen, our two dogs, squeezing in a round or two of golf, and listening to and cataloging my extensive music collection.

 Any final thoughts to share with us?

I wanted to create extraordinary Christmas music collections. They might become family heirlooms, better than most Christmas music collections. I was shooting for the stars, but I must, or forever regret, not following a dream.

Interview with Olivia Wilson