I wasn’t surprised last week to receive an e-mail from a stranger whose subject line read simply “Tex Johnson.” I get a handful of them every year, usually beginning right around Thanksgiving, then evaporating shortly before Christmas. I’m kicking myself for not hanging onto all of them.
Back in 1995, see, my then-editor John Strausbaugh asked me to write something for a Christmas issue. Along with the expected dour message of holiday hopelessness, I dropped in a passing reference to Tex Johnson and His Six-Shooters’ Rudolph the Red-Noised Reindeer album. It was an odd little cowboy Christmas album that came out in the 1960s and was a staple around our house. Even though my sister and I made fun of it, we still sang along. As we grew older we came to pulling the record out ourselves every year. To this day, my folks still play that album, and I pop in my cassette, to hear toe-tappers like “Wait for the Wagon,” “Fum Fum Fum,” and a few cowboy songs that have no clear connection with Christmas whatsoever.
Even though I was strangely obsessed with that record, I concluded (eventually) that it was just another anonymous Christmas album, one of thousands. That it brought back such lucid and powerful memories was a fluke; one of those weird pathways in the brain. (Hell, I even remember how that album smelled.)
But after that passing mention, I started hearing from people. More than you might expect. And all the letters went in one of two directions. This one I received last week was a perfect example:
As a kid growing up in the Sixties ( born in ‘ 52 ), in Northern New Jersey, my Grandfather took my brother and I to a local department store one year to buy some Christmas things, and the Tex Johnson album was one of them. I got quite a kick out of your article, because I thought I was the only person in the world (besides my brother), who would have even known about this Christmas album. Through the years, the album itself either got lost or broken, however I still have the album jacket! I still remember a lot of the songs and I think “Cheyenne” was probably my favorite, even though it wasn’t actually a Christmas song. Whenever I see the album cover, I start to sing a few of the songs to myself, just for the heck of it, and suddenly the years vanish and I’m a kid standing in my Grandfather’s living-room once again, looking at his Christmas decorations and wondering what kind of gifts I was going to receive…
Most of them are like that—people who, for some reason, got it in their heads to do an online search for Tex Johnson, convinced they were the only ones who remembered that record. They come across that decade-old story, and decide to share their memories, both of that album and of a more innocent time.
The other letters come from people who are seriously, almost dangerously obsessed with trying to find that album in any form, or want to share a bit of Tex-related trivia with me. One guy wanted a copy so he could inflict it on his kids. Another found an MP3. Still another sent me the cover art to Songs of the West—a collection of cowboy songs for children, which appears to be the only other Tex Johnson album.
I’ve written about this phenomenon before, but it keeps coming up, and I still don’t understand it. These people from all over the country have something implanted in their heads, this one weird little generic Christmas album that they can’t forget, and they feel compelled to talk to someone about it.
For awhile I toyed with the idea that aliens dropped a handful of these albums into record stores around the country 40 years ago, and that the subliminal messages buried in the recording are only now being activated,
Now, though, I tend to think there’s a simpler explanation. Tex Johnson has become the basis for what Kurt Vonnegut called a granfalloon. A granfalloon, for the unaware, is a false karass, or a group of people who feel connected to each other by something that’s absolutely meaningless. Vonnegut cites Hoosiers, members of the Communist Party and nationalists of any kind.
Thing is, I doubt very much that these people who send me notes about Tex Johnson realize that they’re part of a community.
Then again, perhaps it’s better they not know. Perhaps it’s better they each keep their memories of Tex Johnson safe and untarnished and unique. I think, that holding a big Tex Johnson convention, the way some subcultures do, would be disastrous, because there’s a deep sadness to it. Like everyone, I suppose, we’re all desperately trying to recapture something we had when we were kids, but have long since lost. The note reprinted above makes that pretty clear. I think if we were all to gather together in one place and plop the album on the turntable, that simple commonality would be inescapable, and too miserable for words.