Today’s entry comes to you courtesy of a blog chain by Harri3t Spy about holiday songs. Hugh mentioned the he was supposed to write 1100 words and mention six Christmas songs… I’m not sure that was part of the original assignment, but it sounds like a worthwhile goal.
The rest of the chain includes:
Harri3t at spynotes
Hugh at Permanent Qui Vive
Jeanne at Necromancy never pays
Cranky at It’s My Blog!
Dr. Geek at Dr. Geek’s Laboratory
Lemming at Lemming’s Progress
Readersguide at Reader’s Guide to…
Freshhell at Life in Scribbletown
edj3 at kitties kitties kitties
My Kids’ Mom at Pook and Bug
joyhowie at The Crooked Line
Magpie at Magpie Musing
Dave at The Ideal Dave
and back to Harri3t for a wrap-up at spynotes
I love Christmas music because it seems to reach back to the beginning of me. Some of the carols were probably the first songs for which I ever tried to learn the words. My Mom plays the piano and, then as now, she has a Story & Clark baby grand piano in the living room. In the bench for that piano, I recall two books of music, one green, hardbound, and thick containing many sorts of carols and folksongs, and the other red and white, soft bound, and much thinner solely dedicated to carols. Long before I knew how to read music, I remember looking in those books trying to figure out how the words to those songs flowed down the page from one line to the next, and then one verse to the next. When I later began to learn to play the flute, Christmas celebrations featured the extended family around a piano, my Mom or a cousin playing, with whatever instruments we knew to how to play… a flute, an oboe, a trumpet, one or two violins… accompanying a diverse group of voices, some dedicated to melody, others to improvised harmony.
I remember feeling particularly attracted to a number of songs in those years. “Jingle Bells” is perhaps the first song I recall, because its upbeat simplicity is something that attracts so many children. “Silent Night” was the first song for which I could read the words of the various verses off the written page. “Joy To The World” was a blast of radiant energy, as was “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing”. I also recall “Good King Wenceslas” as being a simple, plainsong favorite.
Another time and place that brought a couple favorite Christmas tunes to my memory was in my late teens. My Mom joined our Parish church choir. Being raised in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, she has a reverence for four part harmony that fuels her participation in choirs and choruses to this day. I eased into the Church choir, at least to help fill into the baritone section during the holiday season, because a flautist was sometimes required for descants or obbligatos. Since I attended rehearsals, why not sing? And if I was singing during holidays, why not sing throughout the year? For a couple years, it turned into a full membership.
Four songs that I recall with fondness from this period are “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”, “In The Bleak Midwinter”, “O Holy Night”, and the Latin text of “Ave Maria” set to the Franz Schubert melody of the same name. The last two were often used during Christmas Masses as the Communion meditation before the priest was seated, the church darkened and “Silent Night” was sung. The version of “O Holy Night” is particularly memorable when the choir director sang it as a tenor solo; I have two recordings of this, one by Harry Connick, Jr. from his Christmas Album, and the other by Mahalia Jackson on a Starbucks Christmas compilation album. The Mahalia Jackson recording probably comes closest to touching this memory for its pious simplicity, but it is a memory of a voice heard in person, of a particular place and time. As such, it lay slightly beyond the reach of present day events.
The last 10-15 years have brought more interest in secular Christmas fare. The soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by Vince Guaraldi is a perennial favorite, at least when two tracks (“Hark The Herald Angels Sing” and “Christmas Time Is Here” (with vocals)) are excised to create a nearly instrumental jazz combo album. “Linus and Lucy” is nice to hear, but not really a holiday track. “Christmas Time Is Here” is a lovely, simple Christmas song… though of a more secular variety common to many holiday songs from the mid-20th century. Another favorite is “A Merry Affair: Starbucks Swinging Songs of Red Velvet and Mistletoe Kisses”, the 1999 Christmas Compilation CD from Starbucks. Later Starbucks compilation CDs have wandered more through a diverse range of time periods and styles (I have this and the six most recent discs from Starbucks), this one pretty much sticks to the jazz theme: Kurt Elling, Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan, lightly swingin’ Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Bing Crosby, Mel Torme, Lou Rawls, Charlie Hunter, Diana Krall, and Nancy Wilson.
But what of more religious Christmas material? Popular or jazz artists generally don’t embrace it. Being a good Catholic boy, Harry Connick, Jr. did put the Schubert “Ave Maria” and “O Holy Night” on his CD “When My Heart Finds Christmas”. Likewise, Gordon Sumner (aka Sting) was raised Roman Catholic, and his winter album “If on a Winter’s Night” includes versions of “Gabriel’s Message,” “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming,” and the “Cherry Tree Carol” that at least touch on the religious core of the holiday.
The one exception I have discovered in the last few years is the album “A Christmas Cornucopia” by Annie Lennox. A chorister in her youth, she chose traditional French and English carols, occasionally arranged with Medieval and Middle Eastern accents in an otherwise modern instrumental palate. After hearing the “date rape Christmas song” (Baby, It’s Cold Outside) and the “gold digger Christmas song” (Santa Baby) more than few times a Christmas season, it’s nice to hear more about “our Savior’s birth” than a Greek saint (St. Nicholas) with corrupted Dutch (Santa Claus) and German (Kris Kringle) nicknames, and dressed in a red and white suit inspired by 1930’s advertising art (Coca Cola) who is delivering gifts on the wrong day (St. Nicholas Day is December 6th). The song also ignited my interest in several carols that I had not previously appreciated, including “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “The Holly and The Ivy”, and “The Coventry Carol”.
Thanks again to Harri3t Spy for giving me the opportunity to ramble through so many Christmas music memories. Lemming, you’re up next!