Samuel James. Photo by K Marie

Portland roots and blues musician Samuel James grew up mostly in foster homes without the kind of Christmas celebrations that other people nostalgically pine for, and as result, his relationship with the holidays, and the music that accompanies them, had been fairly “Scroogey,” he said.

“Those experiences I think that solidify that music for people was never really there for me, and I always just saw it as really corny,” said James.

That all changed last year when, for the five days leading up to Christmas, James shared clips on Instagram of himself playing holiday songs, including “Silent Night” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” and they got more traction than anything else he’s ever shared.


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“It really surprised me that people liked it so much because I’d always had the corniness of the music in my head and was kind of doing it tongue-in-cheek,” he said. James thought about why so many people loved holiday music so much and realized that there’s only one kind of music that everyone knows the words to and that stops people in the street.

“There’s only one kind of music that everybody accepts being around them all the time and that’s American folk music,” he said. Casting holiday music as folk music opened the door for James in a big way. “You can draw a lot of lines around it, bad lines maybe around capitalism and bad lines maybe around religion, but for good or bad, it does represent us.”

James told himself last Christmas that, this year, he’d make a holiday album, choosing songs he feels represent what that means culturally. And so, on the day after Thanksgiving, known in the shopping world as Black Friday, a true Christmas miracle occurred: James released an album of holiday music. It’s available for purchase digitally on his website ( and Bandcamp page.


“Holiday Instrumentals” is stacked with classics, including “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Joy to the World,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Silver Bells” and “Auld Lang Syne.” Playing six- and 12-string guitars, James works his magic with some improv and the kind of scintillating playing that he’s made a name for himself with. But the songs are also recognizable, making them a fresh yet sentimental entry into the landscape of Christmas music.

“Holiday Instrumentals” album cover. Photo and design by Samuel James

The album gives a nod to a style of music called Sacred Steel, which Wikipedia describes as a “African-American gospel tradition that features the steel guitar as part of religious services.” James said that, in some states, Black church music means piano and organ, but in others, it’s played on a lap-style guitar. “Even though I’m using different instruments, I tried to take other cultural references that I have and put them into this cultural music, this folk music that we all have.”

James told me he thinks of himself first as a lyricist and that making a cover album with no voice in it at all felt strange, but he thought that by focusing on the music, he could make the songs more accessible to people. James also said he respects artists who can cover a song and make it their own, citing David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s version of “Little Drummer Boy” as the definitive Christmas example. “For me, it’s Bill Withers, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin. Their songs are theirs, even the songs they covered.”

Learning the songs was easy for James because they were already so familiar. “It’s that deep in our consciousness that even somebody like me who’s a pretty good Scrooge about it could figure out how to play it within like a couple of seconds.”

Despite an often challenging childhood, James did hold some memories of his late father, Mike James, close to his heart while making the album because he grew up listening to him play the songs on the piano. “He tried to teach me, and I wouldn’t have it,” said James, admitting that piano is actually the instrument he plays best. Considering how good he is at guitar, I can only imagine what he’s like sitting in front of 88 keys.

James also thought of his longtime girlfriend, Rosa Noreen, who requested he record her favorite holiday tune, “Silver Bells.” “My heart was in that in a very different place than I think with the rest of them,” said James, who wanted the song to simulate the sound of a drunken party. “So the lead on that is kind of a little intoxicated.”

So while you’re spiking the eggnog, give “Holiday Instruments” a spin. I bought my digital copy on Bandcamp and love it. You can also send it as a gift from there. The suggested price is $10, though you can pay more than that. I opted for $15 with a smile on my face as James’ take on “Jingle Bells” played in my ears.

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