Holiday Folk Carols
Christmas music: It transcends genre. It's the only body of music that almost everybody in the United States knows, whether the performer arrives at it through the medium of jazz, classical, pop, rock, rap, folk or blues.Love it or hate it, you can't ignore it, especially now. Not only will canned carols and artificial merriment spew from the malls for weeks to come, but every year brings another groaning sleighful of holiday titles to record stores. Everybody from Lawrence Welk to Boyz II Men has made a Christmas album; but what constitutes a good one?And that question begs another. Just what is it we really want from this kind of music? From a religious standpoint, devotional fervor is undoubtedly the important thing, but that's only one of many purposes the music serves in our culture. It also has to evoke peace, joy and wonder, mark the passage of another year, lighten the December gloom, and provide a musical setting for our family and social life (or the ones we wish we had). For some, the main motivation in buying a particular record may be the fantasy that a favorite artist has just dropped in for some eggnog and Chex mix.These are emotional, highly individual considerations, hard to argue with on an esthetic basis. But it's my contention that, for originality, thoughtfulness, good musical taste and sheer cheer, folk music is the best genre to express the soul of the season.This makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. For many of us, Christmas is when the homing instinct kicks in, and nostalgia has more sway than at any other time of the year. Because it recalls ethnic, historic and cultural roots, listening to folk is the natural way of harking back to the origins of our holiday traditions.Many of the familiar carols were folk songs to begin with (before Muzak got hold of them), and a little careful digging on the artist's part can yield others so old that they're new, at least to most of us. And folk's simpler, less star-driven arrangements tend to counter the deadening hype and commercialism surrounding -- and nearly suffocating -- December 25th.To prove my point, here are some choices of outstanding Christmas folk records, old and new. In picking these, I looked for offerings that combine musical integrity, knowledge of a variety of traditions, a certain youthful freshness, a respect for the past and a knack for connecting to listeners now. Sentiment is okay -- this is Christmas, after all -- but these stop mercifully short of sentimentality.PETE SEEGERTRADITIONAL CHRISTMAS CAROLS (SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS)A brief but essential recording produced by Folkways founder Moses Asch, this is a cycle of plain, reverent songs, most clustering closely around the image of the babe in the manger. Accompanied only by banjo and occasional whistling, Seeger's sincere tenor cuts through all the phony feeling that impedes the season. (It's almost as if the songs are being sung for the first time, but there's careful thought behind the simple delivery.) Far be it from me to anoint him the baby boomer Bing Crosby, but there's a timeless reassurance to the sound of Pete Seeger's voice. For my generation, he's always been there, spreading the message of peace -- and not only at Christmastime. When he sings about hope and redemption, I listen.JOAN BAEZNOEL (VANGUARD)The famous crystal-clear soprano seems made for seasonal uplift. This is Baez in 1967, at the peak of her powers, singing carols in English, French and German with a serene, nunlike conviction that underpins -- even as it seems to contrast with -- her career as protester and provocateuse. The instrumental support (including baroque organ and strings, conducted by Peter Schickele) is ample but restrained, allowing Baez to soar unchallenged above the sturm und drang of that time and ours. Her version of "Down in Yon Forest" has a special chilly majesty.JEAN RITCHIEKENTUCKY CHRISTMAS, OLD AND NEW (GREENHAYS RECORDINGS)Ritchie, matriarch of mountain singers, has gathered friends and family together to create this splendid evocation of Christmas in her hometown of Viper, Perry County, Ky. The youngest of 14 children in the "Singing Family of the Cumberlands," Ritchie has spent a lifetime collecting, singing and teaching Appalachian music. But this recording isn't treated as a relic; in fact, several of the compositions, such as "Holly Tree Carol," "Wintergrace" and new verses for "In the Valley," are her own, blending seamlessly into the traditional offerings. Among these are the classic shape-note hymn "Brightest and Best" and the highly ornamented a cappella version of "Carol of the Cherry Tree" she learned from her Uncle Jason. On the lighter side are the tripping rhythms of "Remember O Thou Man" and "Christ Church Bells."Ritchie plays her mountain dulcimer, of course; assorted family members contribute old-time strings, and a trio called Hesperus adds instruments like rebec, vielle and dumbek. There's just a touch of synthesizer on the bells (not enough to hurt). A perfect example of past and present working together in a tradition that still breathes.ODETTACHRISTMAS SPIRITUALS (ALCAZAR)Like Seeger and Ritchie, Odetta mines the mother lode of Southern hymnody in this collection of African American spirituals; in fact, she all but owns the claim. Her interpretation provides the uniquely poignant perspective of the cultural outsider -- the slaves who, in adopting an alien religion, identified with the homeless, persecuted savior. There's a direct, genuine sympathy in songs like "Poor Little Jesus": "Poor little Jesus, he didn't have no cradle, couldn't find no hotel room -- wasn't that a pity and a shame?" The singers of these songs knew exactly what it was like to be locked out, classed with animals, hunted down. The reaffirmation of faith and self-worth in "If Anybody Asks You Who You Are" bespeaks the strength of those who are constantly challenged to identify themselves by the powers that be. The instrumentation is vibrant, as the singer's guitar is punctuated by acoustic string bass (provided by Bill Lee and Lincoln Goines) and a variety of percussion.This is an important recording; I only wish there were more of it. I could listen to Odetta's bottomless voice for hours.JOHN ROBERTS, TONY BARRAND, FRED BREUNIG, STEVE WOODRUFF & ANDY DAVIS NOWELL SING WE CLEAR, VOLS. 1-4; BEST OF NOWELL SING WE CLEAR (FRONT HALL RECORDS);HAIL SMILING MORN (GOLDEN HIND MUSIC)Though the four-volume Christmas Revels series (now out as a boxed set) and Maddy Prior's albums with the Carnival Band are both strong contenders, this is the best of the fa-la-la-la-la division. Dissonant English harmonies, hearty accompaniment (fiddle, concertinas, piano, accordion, etc.) and puckish good humor mark this series of wonderful albums, drawn from annual holiday concerts held for the last 19 years in upstate New York. Roberts, Barrand and company sing, play, recite and clog-dance their merry way through the huge canon of British Yuletide material, along with judicious borrowings from other cultures. The effect is somewhere between village hall and music hall, but the rollicking performances disguise the careful research behind the selection of both pagan and sacred subjects. If you want to hear every wassail song ever written, plus many other rare, jolly carols, add these to your collection. I have too many favorites to list here, but I have to mention one: "The Bitter Withy," in which the boy Jesus, taunted by rich kids, gets his revenge by drowning them, Red Sea-style. Like any playground terrorist, he gets a whipping from Mom. What's a virgin mother to do?Alas, Volume Two is out of print, but keep an eye out at record exchanges and library LP sales, and you might get lucky.TISH HINOJOSAMEMORABILIA NAVIDE¤A (WATERMELON RECORDS)Another short-but-sweet one. Somewhere between an EP and a full-fledged album, Memorabilia Navide¤a packs more charm into its 30 minutes and 20 seconds than many another holiday record over twice its length.Hinojosa gives Christmas a Tejana beat and a contemporary setting in original songs like "Arbolito (Little Christmas Tree)" -- sung in both Spanish and English--and "Milagro." There's one lovely traditional song, the Spanish lullaby "A La Nanita Nana," which receives a tender, thoughtful rendering. This is balanced by the touching story of an urban madonna and child living in "Building #9." (The only mistake, in my opinion, is the half-hearted chorus of first-graders on "Cada Ni¤o/Every Child.") Like a colorful postcard from south of the border, arriving in the depths of winter, Memorabilia Navide¤a is a good remedy for the heard-'em-all-a- million-times blues.PETER PAUL & MARYA HOLIDAY CELEBRATION (GOLD CASTLE RECORDS)There's a good reason why PBS keeps running the concert video version of this record for its December fund-raisers -- it's an all-ages crowd-pleaser. Admittedly more on the pop-and-schmaltz side of folk, PP&M still know how to work a room with verve. I like their Weavers-inspired take on "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," and it's interesting to compare their all-stops-out version of "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" to the contemplative Ritchie rendition or Odetta's spirited but unstagey one. The New York Choral Society gives moving support, especially on two beautiful settings of Hanukkah songs ("Hayo Haya" and "Light One Candle"). But I wonder--does Dylan know that "Blowin' in the Wind" is a holiday tune?VARIOUS ARTISTS'TWAS ON A NIGHT LIKE THIS (A CHRISTMAS LEGACY) (FOLK-LEGACY)A group of folkies led by New England's Paton family (Folk-Legacy co-founders Sandy and Caroline, with sons David and Robin) perform in a style reminiscent of old-fashioned Christmas gatherings, in which communal spirit and unpretentiousness prevail. Among the voices are several longtime members of the Golden Ring song circle, who help create the relaxed, familial sound that comes from years of close association. Almost all of the selections sound fresh, whether sung a cappella or enhanced by fiddle, concertina, guitar, bones or the starry sound of the hammered dulcimer. Some of my favorites: The infectious "Chocolate Burro," the somber-sweet "Dark December," a pair of rounds and the inspiring "Quaker Benediction" spoken by the deep, resonant voice of Gordon Bok.THE CHIEFTAINSTHE BELLS OF DUBLIN (RCA VICTOR)Celtic Christmas music is the hot property of the moment, but it seems wildly uneven in execution, ranging in tone from the shanty-Irish of Tommy Makem & the Clancy Brothers to the synthesized somnolence of Celtic Heartbeat (get a pacemaker!) and Windham Hill. This is the best compromise I've found yet. Bound together by the inimitable Chieftains sound, this bursting bundle of lively tracks -- including church bells, jigs, reels, traditional choral pieces by the Renaissance Singers and the Voice Squad, an Irish song recited in English by Burgess Meredith, tart originals by Elvis Costello and Jackson Browne, and guest turns by such contemporary divas as Ricki Lee Jones and Nanci Griffith -- conveys a sense of celebration unknown in the New Age universe. "The Wren" medley alone is worth 12 Celtic Christmases. (Another fine entry in the category: The Boys of the Lough's Midwinter Night's Dream.)MAGGIE SANSONE & ENSEMBLE GALILEIANCIENT NOALS (MAGGIE'S MUSIC)My own prejudice, as you may have noticed, is in favor of vocal song; for me that is at the heart of ritual music among us common folk. Besides, it's a rare instrumental Christmas recording that doesn't fade into the background. This one, however, has enough character to come to the fore. An impressive array of instruments -- including recorder, dulcimer, concertina, bowed psaltery, cittern, pennywhistle, Celtic harp and viols -- reminds us that the word "carol" originally meant a dance tune. But most of these selections aren't the bumptious kind; instead, they exhibit stately pavane-like rhythms, peaceful plainchant and little-heard 15th-century Dutch, Basque and Spanish melodies that effectively conjure up solstices past.GARRISON KEILLORNOW IT IS CHRISTMAS AGAIN (ANGEL RECORDS)I debated with myself long and hard before adding this disc to the list. After all, none of the performers (The Plymouth Music Series Ensemble Singers and Orchestra conducted by Philip Brunelle, the Nilsson Sisters Violin Trio, and mezzo-soprano Janis Hardy) comes out of the established folkie stable. But I put it in becausea) many of the selections are traditional Scandinavian songs that have escaped being fed into the annual shredder (till now, anyway) andb) it really doesn't clearly fit any other category either, so folk will do in a pinch. Besides, Keillor has a folk voice, whether he likes it or not. (Face it, Gary -- you'll never be an opera singer, a Broadway star or a lounge crooner. Give it up.) Lake Wobegon fans will appreciate the interludes describing the holiday through the eyes of Father Emil, Mr. Berge and the ornery Norwegian Bachelor Farmers ("They don't reproduce. Why are there still so many of them?") Others will just enjoy the lilting hambos, valses, walking tunes, hymns and processionals, like "Nu Nr det jul igen" (the title song), "Jeg er sU glad" ("I Am So Glad on Christmas Eve") and "NUr jule morgen glimmar" ("When Christmas Morn Is Dawning"). And "White Christmas" takes on a whole new character somehow when sung in Danish.