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(Above: Ceoltoiri Chluain Tarbh [Clontarf] go on the wren in 2008.)

By Joel Francis

Information on St. Stephen is scarce. Everything known about his life is contained in two chapters in the New Testament’s book of Acts. Stephen was one of several men appointed by the 12 disciples to preach the gospel. A man “full of faith,” Stephen “did great wonders among the people.”

However, the religious leaders in the synagogues at Libertine, Cyrene and Alexandria were not impressed. They falsely accused Stephen of blaspheming against God and Moses, and bribed witness to lie and corroborate the charges. Stephen was found guilty, taken outside the city limits and stoned.

At this point, history ends and religion takes over. The Catholic Church paid tribute to Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr after the crucifixion of Christ, designated Dec. 26, St. Stephen’s Day. On this day, also known the Feast of St. Stephen, families gathered to eat and drink together. Because Christmas Day was celebrated with friends at parties at the time, this day with family was a nice counterpoint.

Centuries later, the Irish further appended the legend with the hunting of wren. At some point during the Feast of St. Stephen, the children from each family would find a wren and chase it until it was captured or died from exhaustion. After “going on the wren,” the children would tie the dead bird to the end of a pole or put it in a cage and parade around town singing.

Each group would stop at homes around the neighborhood, show their bird and collect some money. At the end of the day, the money the town’s children gathered was pooled and used to host a huge city-wide dance.

There are two tales why the wren became the unfortunate victim of the day. In one version, St. Stephen had all but eluded his capture when a singing wren betrayed his hiding place. This account conveniently ignores Stephen’s statement on trial about seeing the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. The other explanation is that during the Viking raids on the Emerald Island in the eighth century, wrens betrayed the Irish soldiers’ location and foiled a potential ambush.

With this tradition in mind, Catholic-raised songwriter Elvis Costello teamed with Irish luminary Paddy Maloney and the Chieftains to pen a song depicting one of the most Irish of holidays. Against the backdrop of an Irish reel, Costello paints the picture of family “feeding their faces until they explode and getting drunk in an attempt to hide the awkwardness that comes with not having seen each other since this time last year.

The day’s only relief comes when the nattering, obnoxious children finally go out to murder the wren and the adults are finally “rid of them (rid of them!).”

“St. Stephen’s Day Murders” originally appeared on the Chieftains’ 1991 holiday album “The Bells of Dublin.” The theme of the wren is revisited in the songs “The Arrival of the Wren Boys” and “The Wren in the Furze Dance.” “St. Stephen’s Day Murders” also appears as a bonus track on the Rhino edition of Elvis Costello’s “Mighty Like A Rose.”

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

Classic Christmas Carol: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Fairytale of New York”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Jesus Christ”

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By Joel Francis

Big Star’s third album isn’t a happy affair. The record was delayed for four years by their label and issued in various configurations before finally being issued on CD as “Third/Sister Lovers,” nearly 15 years later. More than three decades later, it remains a fascinating mish mash of songs about death, abandonment, sexual paranoia and odd Velvet Underground and Jerry Lee Lewis covers.

Yet – perhaps metaphorically – out of this mess comes “Jesus Christ.” The fourth cut on the album, the song eschews the expected sarcasm and is a straightforward celebration of the Savior’s birth. In two short verses, songwriter and vocalist Alex Chilton paints an image of angles rejoicing that “Jesus Christ was born today.”

“Jesus Christ” is barely over two and a half minutes, but Chilton doesn’t even need that much to get his point across. The track starts with 20 seconds of nonsense before song kicks in, and closes with a saxophone solo from guest Carl Marsh that betrays the band’s Memphis roots. The performance has a deceptively spare arrangement, alternating between raw verses delivered with just Chilton’s guitar and voice and Jody Stephens’ drums. The touches of piano and percussion on the chorus, however, show that the boys have studied Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Although he’s barely audible in the mix, producer Jim Dickinson is presumably somewhere in the background, thumping away on bass.

Big Star may not have been big stars – a video for this song couldn’t even be found online – but they were very influential. Power pop acts like Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet and the New Pornographers owe a lot of their sound to Big Star. Paul Westerberg name-checked Big Star’s leader in the Replacements single “Alex Chilton.” Both Teenage Fanclub and Athens, Ga.-based acolytes R.E.M. have recorded memorable versions of “Jesus Christ.”

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

Classic Christmas Carol: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Fairytale of New York”

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(Above: “Fairytale of New York” may be the best modern Christmas song of all time.)

By Joel Francis

There aren’t many Christmas songs set in jail, but dang if songwriter Shane McGowan and the Pogues don’t turn lockdown sunny side up during the four and a half minutes of “Fairytale of New York.”

“Fairytales” opens famously on Christmas Eve in the drunk tank. As an old man sings and mourns his last Christmas, the narrator’s mind drifts to a Christmas Eve with the love of his life.

McGowan paints a vivid picture of that day in the New World with “cars big as bars,” “rivers of gold,” and a wind that “goes right through you.” After exploring the Big Apple together, the pair stumbled into a place where

“Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing.
We kissed on a corner,
Then danced through the night.”

Irish composer Fiachra Trench’s string arrangement captures perfectly the hope of the moment and excitement of a new life in a new world. During the subsequent verses, love fades and is replaced by drunkenness and addiction. But even as the couple exchanges insults, they keep returning to that Christmas Eve when the choir sang and the bells rang out.

Guest singer Kirsty MacColl appears as the woman in the story. Her melodic voice is a nice counterpoint to McGowan’s gruff brogue. MacColl’s part was originally written for Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan. That plan fell through in 1986, when O’Riordan absconded with Elvis Costello, who was producing the band’s second album.

When the group hired Steve Lillywhite to produce their third album, he suggested MacColl, his wife at the time, to sing guide vocals on a demo until the band could find a replacement. McGowan liked her part so much she was asked to sing on the record.

Released in December, 1987, “Fairytale of New York” has become a holiday staple. In 2005 the song was re-released as a single, to benefit “Justice for Kirsty,” a crusade to uncover the truth behind MacColl’s 2000 death in a controversial boating accident.

“Fairytale of New York” has been covered numerous times, but never improved.

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

Classic Christmas Carol: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

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(Above: The magnificent video for “Must Be Santa,” far and away the best track on Bob Dylan’s new holiday album, “Christmas in the Heart.”)

By Joel Francis

Bob Dylan surprised a lot of people when he announced the release of his first Christmas album several months ago. “Christmas in the Heart” surprises in a different way, however, by playing it straight and offering no surprises at all.

Adorned with a cover that looks like a Norman Rockwell collectible dinner plate come to life, “Christmas in the Heart” features 15 well-worn holiday favorites with arrangements and production straight out of the 1940s and ‘50s.

In retrospect, Dylan’s desire to record a Christmas album shouldn’t have been an astonishment. For the past several years, Dylan has dabbled in pre-war pop. A cover of “Return to Me” popped up on a soundtrack several years ago, and several similar originals, including “Beyond the Horizon,” populated his 2006 album “Modern Times.”

Of course, Dylan has long been a purveyor of traditional song and the folk tradition. As the oral history components of American society diminish, holiday and children’s music are the few remaining songs passed from generation to generation. Christmas music stands directly at the crossroads of these passions.

A third consideration is that Dylan delights in doing the unexpected and challenging expectations. The man who returned to the Newport Folk Festival nearly 10 years ago in a wig (and dons a similar headpiece in the video for a “Christmas in the Heart” song), appeared in a Victoria’s Secret commercial and wrote a song with Michael Bolton, clearly enjoys toying with his dedicated following and legend.

Unfortunately, this understanding doesn’t make “Christmas in the Heart” an enjoyable listen. Producing the album under the pseudonym Jack Frost, Dylan drapes the album in arpeggio guitars that recall Les Paul’s singles with Bing Crosby, lilting backing voices in the style of the Andrews Sisters and a nostalgic gauze that would be at home on a Perry Como platter. By smoothing every surface, Dylan leaves no room for any rough edges, which, frankly, is all his voice has to offer these days.

The song selection is another stumbling block. The vast majority of these hymns and carols have been heard and performed a thousand times over. Although his arrangements are clever – check out the piano on “Little Drummer Boy” or violin and light country touch on “Silver Bells” – they hem too closely to the tried and true. Dylan does not have a traditional voice, so it’s understandable his singing doesn’t work in this traditional setting. The album would have been better served if Dylan played to his strengths, like a reading of “Run Rudolph Run” a la “Summer Days,” or more obscure choices, like Buck Owens’ “Santa Looked a lot Like Daddy.”

The single “Must Be Santa” hints at what “Heart” could have been. Originally a 1961 sing-along with Columbia Records honcho Mitch Miller, Dylan more than doubles the tempo and thanks to the frenetic accordion playing of Los Lobos’ David Hildago – who also bolstered Dylan’s “Together Through Life,” released just six months prior – turns the song into a mariachi rave. Another lesser-known track, “Christmas Blues” was also a good choice. More songs like this and fewer Latin hymns could have made “Christmas in the Heart” a holiday staple.

With all album proceeds going to charity, Dylan’s intentions are noble and his reasons sound, but the flawed execution prove the record’s undoing. It’s too bad “Must Be Santa” wasn’t released as a stand-alone single, with any of the remaining 14 songs on its b-side, or as the centerpiece of an EP. As it is, “Christmas in the Heart” is best purchased as a Black Friday bargain.

Keep reading:

“Together Through Life” is a Minor Masterpiece

Traveling Wilburies – “Inside Out”

“Tell Tale Signs” Sheds Light on Legend

Bob Dylan – “All Along the Watchtower” (live)

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light

Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

What Bob Dylan Means to Me (part 1)

What Bob Dylan Means to Me (part 2)

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By Joel Francis

When Scribner’s Monthly asked for Christmas poem submissions in 1872, Christina Rossette wrote “In the Bleak Midwinter.” For unknown reasons, however, the poem was never sent in and remained unread until it was published after her death in 1904. Two years later, composter Gustav Holst, best known for his symphony “The Planets,” set the words to music.

Rossette’s words paint a picture of the stark, unlikely setting in which Christ was born in which “Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.” It’s not difficult to imagine the isolation of a land where “snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow.”

Holst’s melody is subtle. There are no big crescendos or explosive choruses. Instead, the song builds gradually, like the falling snow, settling cozily on the contemplative lyrics.

In the second and third verses, Christ is born in a manger and worshipped by the animals. The final verse is the best-known. It’s lyrics are as touching as they are humble.

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what can I give Him –
Give my heart.

“In the Bleak Midwinter” never entered the top-tier Christmas pantheon like “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night.” Unlike those hymns, one can go an entire holiday season without hearing this song. It’s nice to be able to seek refuge in a song as lovely as this rather than having it incessantly pumped through speakers at the mall.

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Above: Paul Desmond and the Modern Jazz Quartet put their spin on “Greensleeves.”

By Joel Francis

The melody for “Greensleeves” dates to 16th century England. It is been rumored that King Henry VIII for his lover Anne Boyeln – the subject of the recent “The Other Boyeln Girl” novel and film. According to historians, however, the best case scenario is that ol’ Hank just stuck his words on an existing melody.

Double entendres were common in the love songs of the Renaissance. At the time, the color “green” was a charged term. It implied the color that a woman’s clothes would turn if she made love outside. Lady Greensleeves, the subject of the song, was said to be a prostitute, or at least a promiscuous woman.

As with the words, no one knows who wrote the melody. It was likely developed by English minstrels and troubadours as they traveled the countryside. The tune was first published in a 1580 broadside entitled “A New Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves.” Four years later, it turned in A Handful of Pleasant Delights as “A New Courtly Sonnet of the Lady Green Sleeves.”

Nearly 300 years later, Englishman William Dix penned new lyrics to the familiar, lilting melody. At age 29, Dix was confined to several months of bed-rest after a nasty bout with a near-fatal illness. Manager of maritime insurance company by day, Dix used the opportunity to write several hymns. The new words became “What Child Is This?” and draw on the nativity story from the Gospel of Luke.

It’s hard to believe such a cherished song grew from such bawdy beginnings. Over the last 60 years, it has been performed by everyone from singers Odetta and Olivia Newton-John to rockers Jethro Tull and Jeff Beck. John Coltrane made it a jazz standard and organist Garth Hudson of The Band played it over the closing credits of Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Waltz.”

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Above: Pedro the Lion hear The Bells.

By Joel Francis

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the poem “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Day, 1864. Christmas had become a bleak occasion for Longfellow. In July, 1861, shortly after the start of the Civil War, Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, decided to preserve a lock of their child’s hair. As she was sealing the hair in wax, a few drops landed on her dress, which caught fire. Panicked, Fanny ran to her husband for help, but he was unable to extinguish the flames in time. Fanny died the next morning. Severely burnt on the face, arms and hands, Longfellow was in no condition to attend the funeral.

Five months later, Longfellow was still in the throes of grief. His Christmas Day journal entry reads “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” Exactly one year later he wrote “Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” Christmas Day, 1863 was compounded when Longfellow learned his son had been severely injured fighting for the Union in the Civil War. There was no Dec. 25 journal entry that year. His despair is reflected in the second-to-last verse of “Christmas Bells:”

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Just one year later, Longfellow was starting to emerge from his grief. Lt. Charles Longfellow had survived his injury and lifted his father’s heart. In addition, the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln gave the senior Longfellow hope that the Civil War would end soon. With newfound hope in his heart he wrote of hope and redemption. The poem closes with the realization “old familiar” chorus of the bells are God’s promise to never forget His children.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

“Christmas Bells” has been set to several tunes. The first arrangement appeared in 1870, when Longfellow’s poem was renamed “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and his seven verses were trimmed to five. The melody used today was written by Johnny Marks in 1956 – nearly 100 years after Longfellow set his words to paper. Holiday music would not be the same without the songs written Marks. His contributions to the Yuletide cannon include “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

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