Christmas Cornucopia – Tenth Day

Let’s pull our Sleigh up again. Today I think it’s time to remember that Christmas is a time for celebration. A time to meet up with old friends and make new ones. A time to sing and dance and laugh. A time to shake our fists in the face of the dark, cruel winter as we affirm our faith in the inevitable restorative power of the light.

For many years I did much of my celebrating in bars, pubs, Honky Tonks and Road Houses soaking up the music and the booze as the nights progressed. The music choices today reflect that biblious spirit.

First, the Boss Of The Blues – Big Joe Turner. Big is no empty boast; Joe was over 6ft 2 and weighed more than 300 pounds so when he arrived in a room you knew he was there! You would also know Joe was around because his voice could break through walls and wake the dead. Joe had to develop his shouting style when he worked in the hectic, heaving bars of wide-open Kansas City in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Even though the joints Joe worked in such as the Kingfish and the Sunset would have been rammed to the doors with free spending, free fighting customers Joe never had any problem getting heard from behind the bar. As, ‘The Singing Barman’ he formed a famous partnership with pianist Pete Johnson immortalised in the standard, ‘Roll ‘Em Pete’.

If I had been a customer I would have ordered (in honour of the Rudy Toombes song) One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer – knocked them back and settled in for a night of peerless blues.

Joe’s career lasted some 60 years and he was variously styled as a bluesman, a jazz singer, a Rythmn and Blues stylist and a pioneer rock ‘n’ roller – whatever the label the big man went his own sweet way launching every song into the stratosphere with the immense power of his vocals.

From the moment, ‘Christmas Date Boogie’ opens we know we are in good hands. Big Joe is very much the master of ceremonies marshalling the instrumental forces around him. They are all fine players given their chance to shine but there is no doubt who is the star of the show! You can just imagine the big beaming smile of Joe as he tears into this Christmas frolic. Resistance is useless – where’s the Bourbon?

I’ll let the very fine Irish poet (I think you may have guessed by now that I am somewhat well disposed to Irish poets) Michael Longley introduce the next music Titan:

‘He plays for hours and hours on end and thought there be
Oases one part water, two parts gin
He tumbles past to reign, wise and thirsty, at the still centre of his loud dominion -
THE SHOOK, THE SHAKE, THE SHEIKH OF ARABY’.

The subject of the poem and the artist featured in our second music selection is, of course, the one and only, one man musical encyclopaedia and indefatigable party starter: Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller. A short list of his accomplishments would have to include his very considerable prowess as a pianist, organist, singer, songwriter, composer and comedian.

Yet any list of talents and achievements would undersell Fats impact on his contemporary artists and his audiences. Fats was beyond category – he was Fats Waller and The Lord of any room he chose to light up. He could in the course of a single number go from being rollickingly rumbustious to wistful gentle melancholy.

Sadly his early death meant that the true depth of his talents were never fully sounded but nevertheless he leaves a unique legacy of wondrously entertaining recordings. If you ever need cheering up and reminding of how good it is to be alive just press the button next to Fats name and you will feel a whole lot better – I guarantee it.

Today’s poem is, ‘Mary’s Song’ by Charles Causley.

‘Warm in the wintry air
You lie,
The ox and the donkey
Standing by,
With summer eyes
They seem to say:
Welcome, Jesus,
On Christmas Day!

Sleep, King Jesus:
Your diamond crown
High in the sky
Where stars look down.
Let your reign
Of love begin,
That all the world may enter in.’

Christmas Cornucopia – Ninth Day

After yesterday’s stop to gaze reverentially heavenward it’s time to turn to more earthly considerations. The Greeks, as you might have expected, had different words to describe the varied forms of love we express and experience. Yesterday we were concerned with Agape – the love of God for man and man for God. Today we will find sings that express Eros – sensuous, sexual love and the appreciation of beauty and Philia – the love expressed in affectionate regard and friendship.

Our first song today is a tremendous southern soul sermon from a master and mentor for the genre, Joe Tex. ‘I’ll Make Everyday Christmas (For My Woman)’ glows bright with Joe’s gently enveloping passion. Joe’s forte was telling stories in song using humour and homespun wisdom so that you felt he was gifting you the hard won lessons of a richly lived life.

Joe had a country preacher’s sense of the hunger in the audience for parables that would make sense of the roadblocks and confusions assailing them in their lives and provide a route map for the way ahead.

They knew that Joe didn’t pretend that he had never been a rounder and a rogue as well as a true romantic and love disciple. We often, rightly, pay more attention to the testimony of someone who admits to failure and frailty than those in their whited sepulchres who are quick to admonish our every fault.

Joe sings the song with a steadily growing intensity almost as if the promise he was making was as much to his own better self as to the woman it was made to. When the record finishes its hard not to say, ‘Amen! Brother, Amen!’ and vow to make sure you too take care to make everyday Christmas for your own woman or man.

Next, the delightfully cool Miss June Christy with, ‘Christmas Heart’. June was a veteran big band vocalist who followed Anita O’Day as the singer with Stan Kenton. As a solo artist she made a magnificent album, ‘Something Cool’ which should be on the shelves of anyone with an appreciation of the art of jazz singing.

I have always found something deeply engaging in the understated, wistful tone June Christy brings to a song. It seems she has stripped out all unnecessary flourishes so that we hear the essence of the song as she steers us gently to understanding through her embrace of the melody and lyric. The lack of hectoring or self regard in, ‘Christmas Heart’ makes its dreamlike plea for Christmas to be a day when all the wounded find rest and balm all the more affecting. You never really need to ask who is your neighbour – just look around you.

Today’s poem is, ‘Carol For The Last Christmas Eve’ by a favourite poet of mine, Norman Nicholson from Millom in England’s rural Cumbria. Never fashionable NIcholson’s work will endure.

‘The first night, the first night,
The night that Christ was born,
His mother looked in his eyes and saw
Her maker in her son.

The twelfth night, the twelfth night,
After Christ was born, the Wise Men found the child and knew
Their search had just begun.

But the last night, the last night,
Since ever Christ was born,
What his mother knew will be known again,
And what was found by the Three Wise Men,
And the sun will rise and so will we,
Umpteen hundred and eternity’.

Christmas Cornucopia – Eighth Day

Today’s music comes from two countries: Russia and Ireland which share a reverence for poets and prophets, visionaries, bards and shamans. Both have produced more than their fair share of saints, scholars and wayward genuises.

In both lands a sense of the numinous pervades the air and prayers ascend unceasingly heavenward – even in the increasingly secular modern age.

Of course, both countries are filled with a hundred times the number of would be writers to actual page blackening writers and both have to deal with the drunken consequences of frustrated spirituality encountering the demon drink.

Still, veil-piercing poetry and song are central to the cultural life and achievements of Ireland and Russia. Both peoples love to carouse until they are stupefied yet both are capable of being stilled to silence and tears by a simple lyric or an exquisite slow air.

My first choice today is, ‘The Wexford Carol’ performed by the veritable custodians of Ireland’s traditional music, The Chieftains (here accompanied by a Texas rose, Nanci Griffith).

The Wexford Carol may well date back to the twelfth century though it’s widespread popularity is due to the work of William Gratton Flood, who was musical director of Enniscorthy Cathedral in the late 19th century.

The Chieftains play with an authority born of thousands of hours of perfecting their craft as traditional musicians – always respectful of the source material while being alert to each other’s role in bringing a tune to shimmering life. The Chieftains, led by Piper Paddy Moloney, who has proved to be a natural born networker, have recorded many inspired collaborations with leading artists in many musical genres (though their greatest collaboration is probably with an artist from their own island – Van Morrison).

Here, Nanci Griffith sings the carol with a beguiling gravity befitting the immensity of the events portrayed. Listening I feel as I were marching in a torchlit devotional procession with the same moon that shone over Bethlehem above the sentinel trees of the forest around me.

Next, from a powerhouse of Otthodox Russian monasticism, ‘The Song Of The Magi’. The choir is from the Trinity Lavra (monastery/hermitage) of St Sergius in Sergiyev Posad some 50 miles from Moscow. This has to be the sound of the breath of the Russian soul. Russian Othodox services provide doorways to contemplate the divine – an opportunity in stillness to be lifted into a different realm of being. Giving ourselves over to such an experience can be profoundly uplifting and over time transformative.

Russian spirituality opens itself to mystery and awe accepting that grace cannot be willed but only gratefully accepted. The Magi travelled long miles in search of a new kind of King and gave their gifts to a babe in a manger. Perhaps, listening to this work we could learn to give the gift of an attentive soul.

The poem today, ‘A Christmas Childhood’ is provided by one of the great figures of 20th Century Irish Literature, the sage of Iniskeen, Patrick Kavanagh.

‘Cassioepeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon – the Three Wise Kings.

An old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk -
The melodian’. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade -
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse’.

This post dedicated to the deceased members of The Chieftains:
Fiddler Martin Fay, Tin Whistle and Bodhran player Sean Potts and the mystical doyen of the Irish Harp, Derek Bell.

Christmas Cornucopia – Seventh Day

Well our Sleigh has travelled more than halfway now on our journey to celebrate ChristmasTide. Yesterday’s choices put me in something of a wistful contemplative mood and led to today’s selections by Chris Isaak and John Prine. Christmas is a time when we often turn our minds to reflection on the health of our relationships. Relationships with our parents, our siblings, our children and our spouses or partners.

And, we remember bitterly or with rueful affection the relationships of old which are now part of our history – part of the person staring back at us in the mirror. Christmas can be a healing and nurturing time for relationships it can also be the occasion for exhausting, tearful sunderings which will sully the season for years or decades to come. As in all things some will say you get the Christmas your life through the preceding year has mapped out for you.

First up a ballad of loss and longing from the golden boy out of Stockton, California – Chris Isaak. It’s not his fault that he looks like a matinee idol and that the microphone loves him almost as much as the camera. ‘Christmas On TV’ tells the sorry tale which Isaak sings without over emoting of a bereft husband with his nose pressed to the window glass watching the Christmas celebrations of his ex-wife and her well heeled new beau. Though he’s only across the street from the happy pair (or so they seem to him) he might as well be a million miles away. It’s so easy to be all alone in the midst of the crowd as the carols play and the lights twinkle. Sometimes only fortitude, a good whiskey and a ballad in blue will get you through.

Merry Christmas to the lost and the lonely, the abandoned, the abused and the outcasts.

Next John Prine who sits at the top table of American songwriters leaning back in his chair with either a rueful smile or a goofy grin depending on the circumstances of the day. Prine has a glorious gift for examining the human heart and it’s myriad joys and travails with a the precision of a tender surgeon. It seems as if he has watched carefully and listened closely as he has moved through life – building up a store of experiences he can hone into humorous shaggy dog stories, touching love songs or heartbreaking tales of misspent or misshapen lives.

John Prine has wisdom which he wears lightly – we can all learn a lot from leaning in when he speaks.

Very few songwriters could match the songwriting carpentry Prine demonstrates in, Christmas In Prison’. I remember my intake of appreciative berth when I first heard the lines: ‘I dream of her always even when I don’t dream – her name’s on my tongue and her blood’s in my stream’.

The Big House searchlight spotlights the snowflakes like dust in the sun and the prisoners aching for those they love outside the walls make do with Turkey and pistols carved out of wood. They’re all homesick waiting for eternity to release them. In the meantime nothing to do but sing up and hope the homesick blues fade away for one night at least. John Prine has a heart as big as any goddamn jail and if I’m ever in Prison it’s his songs I would sing as the doors clanged shut each night.

Today’s poem, ‘The Carol Of The Poor Children’ is by Richard Middleton.

‘Are we naked, mother, and are we starving-poor
Oh, see what gifts the kings have brought outside the stable door
Are we cold, mother, the ass will give his hay
To make the manger warm and keep the cruel winds away
We are the poor children, but not so poor who sing Our Carols with our voiceless hearts to greet the new-born king
On this night of all nights, when in the frosty sky A new star, a kind star is shining on high!’.

Christmas Cornucopia – Sixth Day

Our Sleigh has been travelling for 6 days now rushing towards its destination on Christmas Eve. So, for today’s post we will apply the breaks to give ourselves and our willing reindeers a much needed rest.

Sometimes the preparations for Christmas can overwhelm us as we worry about all we have to do in such a short time. We can be in danger of falling into the trap of speeding through the season without stopping to savour its true joys and meaning.

Perhaps we should remember that at the heart of this event is a birth. A birth much awaited and anticipated by the contemporary family at the centre of the story and by the wider human family of time past, time present and time future. At this birth time and eternity merged to create a new beginning of hope and promise for all of mankind.

Mothers have to learn to be still and patient as they wait (especially for their first birth) for the great day, the great moment, to arrive when they will no longer be a mother-to-be but a mother. There comes a miraculous moment, a moment, when after all the waiting and worry that the baby, her child! who has been knit together in the safety of their womb emerges into the world as a unique new creation. This is a moment for stillness and awe and for gratitude.

The first recording featured today is achingly filled with stillness and awe. The Unthank Sisters from God haunted Northumberland perform Christina Rosetti’s, ‘In The Bleak ‘Midwinter’ with startling calm and grace allowing the song to breathe and bloom into something truly marvellous. I imagine we all hold our breath throughout this performance as we are held in the spell of the poet’s striking images and the heart piercing intensity of the siblings vocals.

Next, a recording by one of my favourite 50s vocal groups The Larks. The sound here is hushed, seemingly suspended in time. Listening to, ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ I feel as if I were a snowflake caressed by gentle drafts and surrounded by millions of other snowflakes falling slowly, slowly, slowly to the earth below.

It would be perverse today to showcase any other poem but Christina Rosetti’s masterpiece, ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’.

‘Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air-
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss

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 I can, I give Him-
Give my heart’

Christmas Cornucopia – Fifth Day

Our Sleigh is picking up a very special passenger today. He’s here to sing and play on a Christmas song, ‘Zat You, Santa Claus?’ that has the effervescence of a fine champagne. Of course, I’m talking about Louis Armstrong.

If they ever get round to carving four heads into a mountain to celebrate musicians in the way that Presidents are celebrated at Mount Rushmore there can be no argument among men and women of reason that the first head to be carved must be that of Louis Armstrong.

I could set out an exhaustive list of his astounding achievements as the preeminent musician of the 20th century with special reference to his role as the pioneer genius who transformed a past time into an art form and who influenced everyone with open ears who ever had the good fortune to hear him play. But, others far better qualified than I have written major scholarly tomes on the subject.

So, I will limit myself to a few remarks on the effect hearing the great man has had on me. When I hear Louis play (at every period of his career) I hear the sound of a master musician revelling in the sheer joy of making music. It was as if he lived and breathed through playing his horn – singing a song of exultation; using without reserve the wondrous gifts of imagination and creative daring yoked to technical brilliance that made him a such a unique musician.

Add to that his personal warmth and ebullience and you have a musician and a man who simply made everyone who encountered him feel better, more human and more glad to be alive. Isn’t what Santa Claus is supposed to do too?

Zat You, Santa? Zat You, Louis?

Next a singer, Kay Starr, who knew how to swing and who the chops to share a bandstand with the finest musicians of her era. Born on a reservation in Oklahoma with an Iroquois father and an Irish/Native American mother she was as American as you can be. Maybe that’s how she could sing the hell out of any song in any genre of American popular music.

Kay had an inbuilt sense of rhythm and the ability to musically inhabit and sell a lyric. Listen here to how she brings out the drive and the humour of, ‘Everybody’s Waitin’ For The Man With The Bag’. One of the co-writers of the song was Dudley Brooks who featured earlier in the list featuring Elvis Presley.

I can’t honestly say I have done everything I should this year (extra special good) but I can recognise an extra special good singer when I hear one and Kay Starr must be one of the best and merriest we ever did have!

Today’s poem is, ‘Advent: A Carol’ by Patric Dickinson a writer who revered and translated the Clasical poets while looking at the world himself with a sharply individual measured intelligence.

‘What did you hear?
Said stone to echo:
All that you told me
Said echo to stone.

Tidings, said echo,
Tidings, said stone,
Tidings of wonder
Said echo to stone.

Who then shall hear them?
Said stone to echo:
All people on earth,
Said echo to stone.

Turned into one,
Echo and stone,
The world for all coming
Turned into one.’

Christmas Cornucopia – Fourth Day

Our Sleigh cuts a deep track through the falling snow as it’s carrying a whole heap of presents for all the good boys and girls all around the world (the list has been checked twice and we surely know who has been naughty and who has been nice).

Our first song is, ‘Old Toy Trains’ by the one and only Roger Miller. He wrote a hatful of hit songs, was a multiple Grammy winner and admitted to the Country Music Hall Of Fame. In addition he also had a theatrical Tony Award in his trophy cabinet for his score for the hit Broadway musical, ‘Big River’ which he based on the writings of Mark Twain.

Despite all the above he has always seemed to be to be under rated with many damning him with the faint praise of describing him as a writer of, ‘Novelty Songs’. Certainly there is humour in his songs but as anyone who is any kind of honest writer will tell you it is much harder to write comedy than it is to write tragedy.

The key to understanding Miller’s very real eminence as a songwriter lies in the sharpness of his observations expressed in language that is simple in nature but complex in impact. Roger Miller had a poor upbringing but as he said words became his toys and you can feel that in the playfulness and delight with which he uses the resources of the American language as spoken by the everyday working man and woman. Roger Miller liked people and liked telling stories that would resonate with their common experiences. Listening to him you do feel spoken to by a ruminative and intelligent man who has seen enough of life to be slow to judge and quick to smile – there’s often a metaphorical raised eyebrow in the tone of his language and vocals but never a raised fist.

‘Old Toy Trains’ is a simple song that catches the magic of Christmas Eve – a magic that it is easy to lose or forget as we grow in supposed sophistication. Miller taps into the time- suspended feeling as we approach a great event and the hope we all have that all will be calm and all will be well. Most of us will look back on a present we received when we were young children and reflect that no later gift has ever so perfectly matched our dreams than the toy train, drum, doll (or in my case) a cowboy outfit we received and cherished all those years ago.

Next, Billy Eckstine with the luxuriantly romantic, ‘Christmas Eve’. Mr B was a pure class act. A handsome dandy who knew how very good he was as a singer and a bandleader. Billy’s rich, burnished voice lent dignity and drama to every song he ever recorded.

Listening to Billy here you are swept into a world where the brandy is five star and the Christmas lights twinkle all night on your perfect tree as you and your loved one dreamily dance by the flickering firelight. I love the slow motion control of Eckstine’s vocal and the intoxicating musical arrangement curtesy of Lionel Newman. Time to take the top off your favourite bottle and lean back to sink deep into this one.

Today’s poem extract comes from, ‘Christmas Day’ by Christopher Smart – an 18th Century English poet who pursued his vocation steadfastly despite spells in an asylum and prison.

‘Spinks and ouzles sing sublimely,
We too have a saviour born,
Whiter blossoms burst untimely
On the blest Mosaic thorn

God all-bounteous, all-creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade,
Is incarnate and a native
Of the very world he made.’