Monday, November 10, 2008

Sounds of the Season

Am I rushing the season? Some folks may think so but, well, as I write this, we have about a half inch of snow on the ground and it's still coming down; Thanksgiving is just over two weeks away and, well, in this dreary time in our country's history, a little Christmas music can't hurt.

Last year I wrote a blog about how a local radio station had begun playing Christmas music 24/7 by this time (and they're doing it again), as well as a bit about my favorite types of Christmas music:

Christmas Music

So this year I thought I would write a little more in detail about my favorite music of the Season. First off, the old world Christmas music (European and American) is what I consider to be the best. As I wrote last year, this includes such well-known carols as 'God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,' 'Good Christian Men Rejoice,' 'Here We Come A-Wassailing,' 'Silent Night,' 'Jingle Bells,' 'The First Nowell,' 'It Came upon a Midnight Clear,' and more.
But, mixed in with these somewhat popular songs are the lesser known carols of old, the ones that, at one time, were very well-known throughout out Europe and early America, such as 'The Gloucestershire Wassail,' 'The Holly Bears a Berry,' 'A Virgin Unspotted,' 'Riu Riu Chiu,' 'The Boar's Head Carol,' 'All You That Are Good Fellows,' 'In The Bleak Mid-Winter,' 'Bring A Torch Jeannette Isabella,' 'Past Three O'Clock,' 'On Christmas Night,' 'Seven Blessings of Mary,' 'Cherry Tree Carol,' 'Wexford Carol,' and so many others.

When one mixes in the known with the unknown what you get is a wonderful mix of traditional carols that you never tire of hearing, hence the reason I begin listening to the music in mid-November.

I have been collecting these once popular traditional Christmas carols for over twenty years. It began at (naturally) Greenfield Village when my girlfriend (who I eventually married) and I were there for an evening's Christmas meal at the Eagle Tavern. While waiting for the carriage to take us to the Inn, Christmas music was being piped into the room. Imagine, here we were, sitting in a shadow-filled old fashioned room, fireplace a-blaze, candles glowing, greenery placed strategically about, and a Christmas Tree decorated traditionally setting in the middle. Heard in the background were the beautiful sounds of the hammered dulcimer playing the sounds of the season - some familiar and some not so familiar. I told my date that it just didn't get any better than that. I knew I wanted to replicate the look and feel of that moment and, in order to do that, I would need to find the music they were playing.
Since I worked in a record store, I searched for anything hammered dulcimer or traditional sounding. What I found was "On This Day Earth Shall Ring," by Anne Hills and her group of vocalists. I bought it just from the description on the back cover of the album (CD's were just coming out at that time - albums were still the product of choice).
The first song was, of all things, a round called 'Christmas Is Coming.' Following this was a beautiful hammered dulcimer instrumental rendition of 'What Child Is This.'
This was a great album!

It also included a capella versions of 'God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlmen,' and 'We Wish You A Merry Christmas,' and wonderful instrumentals that I had not heard up until that time, such as 'Blessed Be That Maid Mary,' 'Kommet Ihr Hirten,' a medley of old carols played on a guitar.
This was a great album!
I was hooked - I had to find more. Unfortunately, it was nearing the end of the Season so it was nearly impossible to find and order any more.
The next Christmas...well, it was right after Hallowe'en, I began my search, remembering the fine LP from the previous year. This was 1984 and this instrumental group I was not familiar with put out a collection of Christmas music like no other: Mannheim Steamroller Christmas. I must admit, the first cut - a very modern sounding 'Deck the halls' turned me off. But, what followed was amazing: very pure and European sounding versions of 'We Three Kings,' Bring A Torch Jeannette Isabella,' 'Wassail Wassail (Gloucestrshire Wassail),' and a modern plus a traditional rendition of 'God Rest Ye.'
Oh, man! This was so cool!!
From there, each year I began to search earnestly for more - I couldn't get enough of this stuff! I found one called "An American Christmas" by Folk Like Us, Liona Boyd's "A Guitar For Christmas," "A Victorian Christmas" by Robin Petrie - nothing but hammered dulcimer instrumentals - The Chieftains' "Bells of Dublin" (where I first discovered 'The Boar's Head Carol' and "Holly Bears a Berry') and on and on. I eventually amassed over a hundred CD's of this old world style carols - I never knew there was so much great unheard Christmas music! It was much better music, I felt, than the mostly secular tunes of the 20th century, although I do love 'Do You Hear What I Hear,' 'Little Drummer Boy,' and some of the other more contemporary songs. And, yes, I do like the secular tunes as well - "Santa Coming To Town' (but not by Bruce Springsteen - ugghhh!), 'Winter Wonderland,' 'White Christmas,' 'Tennessee Christmas' and even the Pogues "Fairy Tale of New York' and The Ramones 'Merry Christmas I Don't Want to Fight Tonight.'

But, what you will hear most often in my house are the old world carols as described above. These are the songs my kids refer to when asked about Christmas music. Of course, they usually get a resounding "HUH???" when they tell their friends what their favorites are. And I think it's pretty cool to hear my seven year old daughter sing

"The boar's head in hand bear I

Bedecked with bays and rosemary
And I pray you my masters be merry
Quot estis in convivio

Capri apri defero
reddens laudis domino"

Here are some of my favorites that can still be purchased (except for one) through

. On This Day Earth Shall Ring: Songs for Christmas
by Mannheim Steamroller
The Bells of Dublin by The Chieftains
American Christmas by Folk Like Us
A Victorian Christmas by Robin Petrie
A Victorian Noel by Robin Petrie
Christmas at The Eagle Tavern by Opera Lite (Greenfield Village singers!)
Celtic Christmas by Katie McMahon
Colonial Christmas by Linda Russell
A Scottish Christmas by Bonnie Rideout
Sounds of the Season, Vol. 1 by Maggie Sansone
The Christmas Revels by Various Artists

There are so many more that I haven't listed: Madeline MacNeil, Holiday Nights by the Greenfield Village Carolers (only available through the Village), Joemy Wilson, Silently the Snow Falls, Un-Reconstructed's "Christmas 1864,"...

So when you find yourself bored and tired of the same old same old, yet you enjoy Christmas music, you might want to experiment a little on something new/old. I don;t think you'll be disappointed.

(I do not know why this blog entry has gone haywire with my font sizes. If anyone knows and can tell me, I would certainly appreciate it. Thanks.)

No comments: