Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Merry Christmas, Baby
It's Christmas week. I used to write that word stubbornly as "Christ Mass" just to make sure everyone registered the day of greed and family angst--and sleighloads of love--as a religious event too, something to do with a celebration of the birth of a certain holy man maybe named Jesus. These days, the historically enabled believe that Christ was actually born a couple of decades Anno Domini later, and that his celebration is derived from earlier pagan rites, but what the hey. While I did go to Sunday school and (occasionally) church as a kid and young man, I've never been religious or even modern-day "spiritual." I suppose I qualify as agnostic, but I'd rather be wholly Gnostic, whatever that might mean...
Speaking of "the holiness of the Word" leads us peripherally to the new album by Bob Dylan. Born-again Christian and reform(ed) Jew, plangent poet and songster extraordinaire, and ornery cuss in general, what in the Wonderful World of Christmas is ol' Zimmerman up to? I admit to not having heard his Xmas disc, but much as I love Bob and admire his chutzpah, I really don't want to internalize his take on hymns and secular songs celebrating holly&ivy, baby-in-manger, Santa-in-chimney, and angels harking.
But, back to the main point, I have looked regularly to music as a way to enjoy Christmas without belaboring the religious stuff. Rather than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or Handel's Messiah (hallelujah, y'all), I pull out anthologies of quasi-Xmas Blues, and John Fahey playing hymns on guitar, and certain country singers who make good albums that just happen to be about the season (Vince Gill or Patti Loveless or Emmylou, all of them in partial Bluegrass mode). There are fine records by Ray Charles and Phil Spector's stable of artists, not to mention the Cole and Crosby and Sinatra classics, and we haven't even mentioned Elvis. (Who really nails "Merry Christmas, Baby"? Charles Brown or Santa's Elvish helper?)
But what I really seek out every Christmas are three albums from my college folkie days. They are all wonderful--I'm not just nostalgic for the past--but all have had their ups and downs, forgotten for a decade or two and then revived (resurrected?) for a time again.
Released in 1958, and immediately popular across the U.S., not to mention with my parents and two sisters and me, was Harry Belafonte's To Wish You a Merry Christmas. (I actually preferred his three Caribbean albums, especially Jump Up Calypso from 1961, which even had some titles that vaguely suggested Christmas--"Emanuel Road," "Goin' Down Jordan," "Gloria"--as well as a gentle tune that really was about "The Baby Boy.") Belafonte's Christmas release was beautiful, haunting, a mix of traditional and little-known, anchored by "Mary, Mary" (more familiar maybe as "Glory Be to the Newborn King"), a great version of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," and the very first track, "Mary's Boy Child," claimed by Harry himself, and the one song that perfectly encapsulates Christ Mass for me: "Hark now, hear the angels sing, Listen what they say: That man will live for evermore Because of Christmas Day." Play that one and forget the world of trouble we're all livin' in...
Recorded late in 1960 (so I likely bought it that December or soon after) was the Kingston Trio's splendid collection of little-known seasonal folk songs titled The Last Month of the Year. Originally it was their poorest selling LP over all, but the record's painstakingly polished tracks actually were a highwater mark for the collegial three, offering tricky harmonies and complex arrangements. And a quarter century later, it was the first of their albums to be brought back on CD. (Last Month and Goin' Places are the true fans' definitive Kingston Trio favorites.) The old spiritual "Children, Go Where I Send Thee," the gentle hymn "Bye, Bye, Thou Little Tiny Child," and the little-known gospel gem "Last Month of the Year"--recently revived on a Blind Boys of Alabama Christmas disc--all receive terrific performances, and Dave Guard's banjo and bouzouki get a workout on many tracks. (His death from cancer a few years later robbed the folk world of a neglected great.) Too bad the rock audience wrote off the Trio for so long.
Album three, Joan Baez's simply titled LP Noel, was accused of pretentiousness when Vanguard issued it in 1966, partly because Joan sang in three languages, over Baroque arrangements by Peter Schickele, but mostly because she had begun to voice, and demonstrate, her anti-war activism. While cartoonist Al Capp mocked "Joanie Phoanie," I was hooked on her beauty, her amazing voice, her politics, her relationship with Bob Dylan, and more. So I played Noel enough to get right with it, from "The Coventry Carol" to "Carol of the Birds" (Pablo Casals' peace theme), from "I Wonder as I Wander" to "Mary's Wandering," from "Down in Yon Forest" to "Deck the Halls," and from "Ave Maria" in gute German to the gorgeous French of "Cantique de Noel" ("O Holy Night"). That last number, in fact, was a high-note beauty, with the climax of Joan's vocal actually shattering the vinyl sound on many copies of the disc. Still, in song after song her high, pure, clear soprano voice rained down like manna from heaven, or gifts to the son of Mary.
Belafonte earns a gold record... Baez leaves some Americans frankly incensed... The Trio releases a brilliant album, but buyers demur... Three Xmas stories with happy endings, several decades later on.
Happy Christmas to all who fight the good fight.