'Yinz better watch aht': After 18 years, Pittsburgh-themed Christmas carol still rings true
In most regions Christmas Eve, Santa Claus is coming to town. But in Pittsburgh? Santa Claus is comin' dahntahn.
It was 18 years ago Christmas Eve when Kevin Harkins and a few friends wrote lyrics to a familiar Christmas song with an obvious Pittsburgh twist.
Harkins, of Bell Acres, coined his lyrics to the popular “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” as “The ‘BURGH Christmas Carol” in 1997, according to e-mails he's kept.
And just in time for Christmas, Harkins and his cousin John Chamberlain — the man behind the Pittsburgh-centric yajagoff.com blog — released a podcast about the lyrics which included a singing of the song performed by the likes of Scott Blasey, of The Clarks; Jackie Cain and Ashley Dougherty, of WTAE; Flick and Kelly, of the afternoon show on 100.7 Star Pittsburgh WBZZ; Trib Total Media Home and Garden editor Doug Oster; among others.
For Harkins, creating the lyrics came almost naturally.
“I was always the guy at the law firm who could do the Pittsburghese accent,” Harkins, an attorney with the Downtown-based Cohen & Grigsby firm, said of the regional dialect commonly referred to as Pittsburghese.
So he and friends Bruce Chiu, Kevin Sullivan and Bob Wenzel worked on lyrics for the song originally written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie and first performed on an Eddie Cantor radio show in 1934.
After sharing the Pittsburgh lyrics with friends and colleagues, the song spread quickly, Harkins said.
Facebook wouldn't be created for another seven years and Twitter for another nine. So Harkins' only way to share the lyrics instantly was through e-mail.
“‘Viral' would have been completely foreign to me,” Harkins said of the term used to describe images and video that become popular in a short span of time online.
He credits a lot of the early popularity to those who moved away and were seeking a piece of their hometown at the holidays.
“A lot of people had to leave the city to get a job,” he said. “So there were all these Pittsburghers across the country who were seeing it and thinking of Pittsburgh.”
Since then, Harkins still sees his lyrics on the Internet.
“Every Christmas we'd get pings back from people who saw it,” he said.
For Chamberlain, of Kennedy Township, his cousin's version lets Pittsburghers enjoy the language some try to avoid in the region.
“There are many people who have tried to not have a Pittsburghese accent,” said Chamberlain, who in 2014 unsuccessfully led a campaign to get “jagoff” in the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. “But it's also fun to have it. And it's also great to poke fun of ourselves. It's a great parody.”
Mike Yanchak knows about the lack of speaking Pittsburghese. The Pittsburgh native and vocal artist who goes by the performance name Mike Why said family and vocal coaches have “drilled yinzerese out of me.”
Yanchak was a member of Pittsburgh-based a capalla group DoubleShot when, in 2010, the group published a version of the song on YouTube.
“I didn't expect it to be the thing I got most notorious for on YouTube,” Yanchak said.
Another version of the song was performed in the early 2000s by Pittsburgh oldies band Johnny Angel & the Halos and airs each holiday season on local radio.
Harkins credits the longevity of his lyrics and popularity of the song to Pittsburghers having pride for the dialect shared here.
“It's a badge of honor,” Harkins said. “It's a way to keep our weirdness — and I don't mean that in a bad way. We are unique and we like to be unique. It's a way to honor our heritage.”
Bobby Cherry is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected]