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One of the most famous baritones in country music of the 1950s, Tennessee Ernie Ford. (Contributed)

"Rock of Ages" by Tennessee Ernie Ford (1956)

In our large Catholic family, Christmas gifts always were opened in the morning, with one exception. For some reason, it was acceptable to open records (as they were called in those days) on Christmas Eve. A recording was a special gift in our household in the 1950s and '60s; money was tight with eleven kids and purchases were thoughtfully made. Listening to the newly acquired records was a family activity, usually after Christmas Eve Mass, and heralded the onset of the Christmas festivities in our household.

The square RCA Victor record player in the living room was wired to a purloined drive-in-theater speaker on the wall of the kitchen, so with enough imagination you could hear "in stereo" by standing in just the right spot between the rooms. Often as a preparation for Christmas, a new phonograph needle was installed. Wrapped LPs held pride of place under the tree, front and center of anything else that might find its way there in the days leading up to Christmas.

My father was a hard-working man, usually with two jobs until he opened his own printing business, when he went to working round the clock. A widower who migrated to California after World War II, he brought five young children, met a nurse, and proceeded to have another six kids with her. We were a close family, and he was its center. He did not abandon his Midwestern sensibilities in California however; Tennessee Ernie Ford was his favorite musician, and anything that TEF sang was music at its best.


Spirituals were Ford's main genre, and there was a new album every Christmas. For those of us growing up in the pre-Vatican II Latin-centric church, it was strangely wonderful to hear these songs in our own language. His voice was a deep bellowing baritone and he sang Negro spirituals as if he were the voice of the Almighty himself. In the mid '60s, he expanded to Civil War songs, but never left the religious music behind.

In time TEF became a joke to my brothers and sisters, the soundtrack of our elders, while we moved on to Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, and Motown. With 11 children, the teenage years in our family spanned a quarter century, and the adolescent tastes and soundtrack of the household evolved from Elvis to the Grateful Dead to hip-hop. The one constant was Tennessee Ernie Ford, and he continued to produce albums as if they were calendars.

My parents both died 32 years ago; my dad suddenly while watching my mother fade away from cancer. That first holiday without him we were in shock, he collapsed just 10 days before Christmas and we all gathered at our house still raw from the funeral. The stereo continued its job however, and TEF comforted us again that Christmas Eve with "The Old Rugged Cross" and "Rock of Ages."

This summer would have been my father's 100th birthday, and his family will gather to honor his legacy. Most of the crowd now is too young to have ever met the man, but his grandchildren and great-grandchildren will know him a little better because of the soundtrack: Tennessee Ernie Ford will be featured heavily on the iPod playlist.