Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn comments in the liner notes to his 1993 album Christmas about the realization that numbingly familiar seasonal standards “are still songs, written by songwriters, with lyrics that often make sense and are beautiful.” He refers to his own creative process of retrieval in terms of discovering that “a little nudge in one direction or another would help to revive their ‘songness’.” The notion of reviving their “songness” stuck with me, and he’s clearly not the only artist who has felt this while listening to Christmas music. The combination of curiosity, lament, and hope that is implied in his comments strikes a chord with me at this time of year. It may well be some defect in me, but the fact is I struggle to appreciate Christmas music. Much, perhaps most of it evokes for me neither warm nostalgia nor childlike faith, but something more akin to the taste of plastic. To my ear, a lot of what I hear at Christmas is testimony to the tragic fact that it is possible to take a memorable and enduring tune, combine it with a lyric deserving of profound meditation (no, I’m not thinking of Rudolph here), and through a potent witches’ brew of forced jollity, mall marketing, kitchsy, schmaltzy arrangements, and sheer over-exposure kill it deader than the slow-moving squirrels whose remains I occasionally pass on my walk to work. For Christmas music to work, it has to contain a hint of resurrection. Here are a few recordings that I think meet the mark – not new releases, but rather musical friends old and new that continue to make Christmas musical.
Cockburn’s album is a good place to start. It gets aired every year in my household and has no trouble holding on to its “songness”. It includes moments of simple celebration, such as the happy-go-lucky, folksy clatter of Mary had a Baby and the robustly joyous guitar of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. It resuscitates some over-familiar songs by tweaking their tunes – the comments on reviving “songness” were occasioned by an effective reworking of O Little Town of Bethlehem. Unlike kitschier Christmas releases, it also remembers the darkness into which the light shines. Iesus Ahatonnia, for instance, is a soberly compelling recording of a Huron carol from the early 1600s, sung in its original language and set in the liner notes against the background of inter-tribal warfare, missionary martyrdom, and colonial violence within which it arose. I read in the newspaper last week that a nearby church is running an annual “blue Christmas” service for people who are not feeling particularly merry and bright at Christmas. There’s a song or two here that might work for them, though the next album might be even more useful.
The refusal to perform jollity is even more marked on Over the Rhine’s first Christmas album from 1996, titled The Darkest Night of the Year. The album is rooted in memories of Christmas in small-town Ohio, memories in which coal trains are as prominent as choirs of angels, and neither can quite displace the other. Linford Detweiler writes in the CD booklet:
“There is a white wooden church in the grey town of Fairpoint, Ohio where my father was minister for four years. Every Sunday morning at about 11:25, the coal train would rumble by, all whistles and steel to shake our faith. While the train cars rolled not fifteen yards from the front steps of the church, off to stoke the fires of the world, my father was inevitably silent for a while.”
The story adds a fresh twist to Silent Night, which is also given an evocative new tune and two separate renditions – the duet version, with its languid piano and bass, is for me the album highlight, a gentle, honest, and grounded piece for late-night listening. It’s also a perfect example of rescued “songness”.
Over the Rhine have added a fine second Christmas album since, Snow Angels, with a higher proportion of original compositions. The smart, wry lyric of the standout opener, All I Ever Get for Christmas is Blue, knows how to win me over with its melancholy piano and confession that “it would take a miracle/to get me out to a shopping mall.” Check out a great live version here:
Later in the album, the jazzy, sexy One Olive Jingle even comes remarkably close to pulling off the startling feat of rescuing the “songness” of Jingle Bells. But I’ve still got a soft spot for the earlier album and the way it manages to be nostalgic for Christmas while also staring sooty life in the face.
Not that it all has to be bleak midwinter or determined revisionism. Sean Smith’s solo guitar version of Silent Night plays it straight, letting the original tune shine through sheer patience, giving each note, each transition its resonant place before moving on. The rest of the album on which that track occurs, simply titled Christmas, exhibits the same virtues. Oscar Peterson’s riotous God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, on the other hand, sparkles with joyful virtuosity without overstaying its welcome. Hark the Herald Angels Sing by Remedios the Beauty, from a Sonic Trout Records Christmas compilation, is just over a minute of light-hearted, playful bass and scat singing, but has more than its share of “songness” and brings a carefree tone that is, I think, not an entirely unfitting response to the original.
There are also pieces that have kept their power by not getting sucked into the modern Christmas machine. Just last week, on the recommendation of Bad Thoughts, I was introduced to Jordi Savall & Montserrat Figueras’ exquisite recording of the timelessly beautiful Song of the Sibyl, performed annually on Christmas Eve in Catalan churches since medieval times and surely destined to be pouring through my house this Christmas Eve and on many to come. That one never needed rescuing.
And so my modest collection of music that survived Christmas keeps on growing, in spite of the odds. I hope that some time this Christmas I’ll remember to toast all those artists on musical rescue missions to revive the “songness” of songs that were in danger of being bleared and trampled beyond recovery. I need the same rescue, and their efforts keep me able to listen with hope as Christmas music takes its seasonal place.
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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