In the Twin Ports, the holiday season is ushered in by all the usual signs — dropping temperatures, first snowfalls and glimpses of the big man himself, Santa Claus. But for many people in the Northland, the holiday season isn’t official until they hear the first playing of “Christmas City.”
“Christmas City” was first released in 1962, written and recorded specifically as a theme song for the Christmas City of the North Parade. The parade had been launched just a few years prior, quickly becoming a popular Twin Ports tradition. It was in need of a theme song. Songwriter Don Peterson from Hibbing presented two songs to the owner of WDSM (now KBJR-6), who in turn gave the songs to Merv Griffin for recording.
The first song was the now very familiar (at least locally) “Christmas City.” The second carol, “The Song of the Christmas City,” can be found on the B-side of the original vinyl single.
Mark Nicklawske, a Duluth resident who collects 45s, first came across a copy of “Christmas City” when he moved to Duluth in 2015.
Nicklawske has been collecting records since the 1970s, joking that he only became a homeowner because he wanted space for a jukebox. One year, he realized he owned so many Christmas records, he and his wife might as well throw a party. His annual jukebox Christmas party has been a tradition ever since. One of the 45s always on the docket is “Christmas City.”
“Looking for records is a great way to get out and learn about a community,” Nicklawkse said. “I like to find records that people are familiar with but not overly familiar with.” Most Duluthians have heard “Christmas City,” but the song on the B-side might be unfamiliar.
Duluth has a long history of mentions and references in songs — “Christmas City” is only the tip of the iceberg. Several other “Duluth-friendly” songs can be found on 45s, such as “Two Kids from Duluth Minnesota,” recorded in 1969 by The Stonemans. Another popular song that saw many versions beginning in 1950 was a song titled “Cincinnati Dancing Pig,” which mentions Duluth in the line “From Duluth to Birmingham, he’s the pork chop Dapper Dan.”
In 1974, northern Minnesota native Bob Dylan crooned over his childhood hometown in the song, “Something There Is About You,” singing the lyrics “Great days on the Great Lakes, walking around the hills of old Duluth.” It was the only time Duluth is specifically mentioned in any of his songs. “North Country Blues,” however, which was released in 1974, appears to be about the Iron Range — possibly even Hibbing — where Dylan grew up and attended high school.
The blog Perfect Duluth Day has done a thorough job of compiling a list of songs (and TV shows/movies) that reference Duluth. The blog even features a separate list of songs referencing Duluth neighborhoods or places, rather than Duluth itself. Links are included in the blog posts for anyone who wants to listen, but be warned: It is a deep rabbit hole. One could spend all day listening to song clips.
Even big names such as Nirvana and Alice Cooper had songs that mentioned Duluth in the lyrics. It is fair to wonder why Duluth occasionally shows up in song lyrics sung by performers that don’t seem to have any ties to the area.
“I don't think there is anything particularly phonetically appealing about singing the word Duluth,” said Paul Lundgren, one of the blog's founders. “When it ends up in a song, it's either because the songwriter wants to mention a random place, wants to mention Duluth specifically for some personal reason, or wants to joke about a cold place and thinks International Falls has too many syllables.”
There are, of course, more than a few talented local bands in the Twin Ports area, and many of them include Duluth references in their song lyrics. “Your audience will catch what you're referring to and get a little sense of belonging out of it,” Lundgren said. For instance, the Duluth indie rock band Low released a song titled “Starfire,” which is about Scott Lunt, the creator of Homegrown Music Festival.
For a historical look at this topic, in 1976 the Duluth Public Library put together a songbook of Duluth songs. The publication was not a collection of songs that simply mention Duluth. Rather, it was more of an effort to preserve Duluth history through songs written for local events, much as “Christmas City” had been written for the annual Christmas parade.
The songbook begins with the 1879 title “The Duluth Galop,” and goes on to include interesting entries such as a marching song written for the Glass Block department store, and a foxtrot titled “Oh, Mister Snow Man,” written for the long-extinct Duluth Winter Frolic.
“Christmas City” is arguably the most widely recognized song about Duluth, but there are many more songs that either name-drop or are outright about our fair city. Some have long disappeared from everyday life, some can be downloaded, and some can be heard at venues in Duluth. It is the season to enjoy “Christmas City,” but the variety of songs can keep a person engaged long past the holiday season.
Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. You can reach her at KMurphyWrites@gmail.com.