Celebrating ‘Christmas on the Block’

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 'Christmas on the Block' was inspired by a holiday lights display on a home for the blind. Above, a South Philly street is decked out for the holiday season. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

'Christmas on the Block' was inspired by a holiday lights display on a home for the blind. Above, a South Philly street is decked out for the holiday season. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Christmas on the Block,” the second-most beloved Christmas song to come out of Philadelphia, has been around for more than three decades. (The first-most beloved, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” was written in 1865 in Trinity Church on Rittenhouse Square.)

Like many Alan Mann songs, the folk-rock song is a story. It began when he was wandering around the Overbrook neighborhood during the holidays and discovered a lavishly decorated house. 

“Someone told him that house is actually a group home for blind people,” said filmmaker Rich Murray, who made the original music video for the tune. “Even though they are blind, they have a tradition of decorating the house so wonderfully that people from all over the neighborhood come around each year to see the house.”

At the time, Alan Mann was a little-known singer-songwriter with close ties to the punk scene on South Street. The Alan Mann Band could switch between punk, Springsteen, and R&B, but “Christmas on the Block” hearkens back to Mann’s roots as a folksy troubadour with a 12-string guitar.

“It’s really a lo-fi — the lowest-fi recording, even for then,” said Larry Saklad, who played piano in the early years of the Alan Mann Band. “It sounds like it was done on a two-track Ampex tape machine that had old tape on it. It’s fluttery. But yet, it has this amazing folk quality. We haven’t been able to recreate that.”

One of the defining characteristics of the song is the children’s choir behind Mann’s vocals during the chorus. He recruited a second-grade class to come into the studio, and wrote lyrics on large cue cards for them to sing. The are slightly off-tune, off-rhythm, and completely adorable.

The song was recorded in 1982 and started to get some play during the holidays on Philadelphia radio, but it was not released commercially until 1984. 

“It was the traction that it got in 1982 that convinced his manager to do a video for it in 1983,” said Murray, who was tapped to make the video when he was still a student at Temple University. He had never made a music video before.

The gritty video (it opens with the band members surrounding a trash-can fire) became the first by an independent artist to be shown on MTV, possible through the help of Yoko Ono.

“John Lennon did the song with the children singing the chorus – the Christmas song,” said Murray. “I think Alan was influenced by it, so when Yoko heard the song – the story goes – she was very touched. It reminded her of John’s song, she loved the spirit of it and she asked to meet Alan.”

Five years after the music video was made, Alan Mann died by falling out of a burning building in South Philadelphia. He was 33.

Mann’s legacy lives on in the children who performed in the video. Natalie Paige Bentley of Malvern was just 8 years old when she appeared as part of the children’s chorus. Her aunt was dating Alan Mann at the time.

“You have these life-defining moments that happen in the course of your lifetime. Alan was one of those people,” said Bentley, who grew up wanting to be an artist.

“As a kid when you say, I want to grow up and be this, people laugh at you and say, no, you should be a teacher or something. Me, wanting to be an artist, he just said, ‘That’s wonderful. Of course you can. And you will,'” said Bentley. “For a child to hear those words – it stuck with me.”

Bentley is now working as a filmmaker, songwriter and actress.

You can hear the story of “Christmas on the Block” by clicking the orange audio button at the top of the page.

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