Christmas Cornucopia 2016 : Second Day

Second Day featuring:

A Painting by Fra Angelico (1395 to 1455)

A poem by U A Fanthorpe (1929 to 2009)

Music by Eartha Kitt, Harry Fontenot and Gustav Mahler sung by Kahleen Ferrier.

 

Today’s painting by Fra Angelico has long haunted my imagination since I first saw it in The Convent of San Marco in Florence.

It is a representation of an epochal event, The Annunciation, which holds human time and eternity in perfect balance.

fra-angelico-annuncition

When Kathleen Ferrier recorded, ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ the shadow of death was looming over her.

This is music making of the very highest order.

Here Kathleen Ferrier does not so much perform a song as become the song.

The rare emotional reach of her extraordinary voice bringing flesh and spirit to Mahler’s masterwork touches something very deep and unnameable within humanity.

 

Our sleigh moves on from yesterday sliding us forward on our Christmas journey.

Today we start with a song from an authentic show business legend – Miss Eartha Kitt and her classic, slinkily sensuous 1953 recording, ‘Santa Baby’.

Eartha performs the Springer brothers and Joan Javitt’s song in her trademark knowing style. As the song progresses Eartha makes a series of increasingly outrageous demands on Santa’s generosity.

All she wants is a sable, a convertible (light blue), a yacht, the deed to a platinum mine (gold being so common), a duplex, Tiffany jewellery and a ring (64 carat for sure).

Eartha’s vocal here supported by Henri Rene and his orchestra is a study in practiced come hither allure. The cynical lyric is caressed as she reels in our attention.

Seeing her perform the song live is to see a siren setting a song ablaze with the flames licking around the mesmerised audience.

Everything Eartha did carried a charge of the exotic – she looked, moved and spoke like no one else building on her black, Cherokee and White heritage and dance training to create a unique image that demanded the audience’s deference and worship.

Orson Welles famously called her the most exciting woman in the world and while others of her era like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor might have taken issue with that claim they too would surely have admired the sheer dramatic daring of Eartha’s regal performance of, ‘Santa Baby’.

Come on Santa – hurry down the chimney and don’t forget the sable.

Fr Josef Mohr wrote a poem in 1816 he called, ‘Stille Nacht’. Two years later on Christmas Eve 1818 with a midnight mass in prospect he decided to visit his friend Franz Gruber a choirmaster and organist to see if there was any chance of turning, ‘Stille Nacht’ from a poem into a carol to perform that night.

Mohr had to walk several kilometres to se his friend who set to work with such vigour and inspiration that an arrangement for guitar and voice of, ‘Stille Nacht’ was ready as the two set off to Fr Mohr’s church in Oberndorf.

So, in the cold of an Austrian night on Christmas Eve 1818 the carol, ‘Stille Nacht’ or, ‘Silent Night’ as it is known in the English speaking world was sung for the very first time.

Neither of the writers or the congregation could possible have known that the heartfelt simplicity of, ‘Silent Night’ contained a spiritual power and attractiveness that would go on to make it perhaps the most loved of all church based Christmas songs.

Congregations all over the world this Christmas Eve will echo the words and melody created nearly two hundred years ago and find that it’s magic never fades.

There is no counting the number of versions available of, ‘Silent Night’. The one I have chosen to showcase here is by a gorgeous Cajun version by accordionist Harry Fontenot.

I love the rustic simplicity of this version – it seems to me the kind of sound that would not have sounded out of place in a stable with animals and shepherds gathered around to witness an event that was at once entirely commonplace – the birth of a child.

And yet all present had the sense that this birth was something very special that would remake the world for all eternity.

‘Silent Night, Holy Night, All is calm, all is bright ……….

The poem providing our extract today is the short but immensely wise, ‘BC : AD’ by the much under rated U A Fanthorpe.

‘… And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect

Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.’

Sugar Bee: A Saturday Night Cajun Drunkard’s Dream (Cleveland Crochet)

‘Well, it’s Saturday night and I just got paid
Fool about my money, don’t try to save
My Heart says go, go! Have a time … ‘.

(Little Richard – ‘Rip It Up’ Bumps Blackwell/John Marascalso)

‘Saturday morning, oh Saturday morning All my tiredness has gone away
Got my money and my honey And I’m out on the town to play
Sunday morning, my head is bad
But it’s worth it for the times that I’ve had’.

(Fats Domino – ‘Blue Monday’ Dave Bartholomew/Fats Domino)

‘When I get off of this mountain, you know where I want to go?
Straight down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico
To Lake Charles, Louisiana, Little Bessie, girl that I once knew ..’

(The Band – ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ Robbie Robertson)

As dawn broke one morning during Christmas holidays I found myself suddenly, startlingly awake with the refrain:

‘Sugar bee, Sugar bee, Sugar bee, Sugar bee,
Sugar bee – look what you done to me’

looping over and over in my head.

While there is nothing approaching the orderly majesty of the Dewey Decimal system about my filing system for songs and song lyrics I am pleased to report that before the refrain had looped ten times a light bulb in my mind had illuminated the name, ‘Cleveland Crochet & Hillbilly Ramblers’ and presented me with a picture of a neon yellow Goldband Records 45 that was securely stored in my collection of essential Cajun singles.

Fifteen minutes later the record was spinning on my old portable deck and the whole house, guests and all, was dancing at a Surrey Woods Fais do-do! (Cajun dance party).

Now it’s only fair that you should have the opportunity to cut a rug and set this classic looping in your head too (and once it’s in your head I have to tell you it’s there for life!) So without further ado:

Sugar Bee was, in 1961, the first slice of pure Cajun music to break into the Billboard top 100. So the whole nation had the chance to catch up with the Saturday night delights that the Lake Charles patrons of The Shamrock and Moulin Rouge had been dancing and carousing to for over a decade.

It’s hot and humid in Lake Charles and when you’ve spent all week breaking your back working construction or in the oil fields you sure as hell need to go out to spend your money on Saturday night somewhere you’re guaranteed to have a whirling fine, fine time drinking and dancing, drinking and dancing – with a side order of flirting and fighting until itstime to fall down or be carried home.

And if that’s what you’re looking for a Cajun dance hall with a Cajun band like Cleveland Crochet and The Hillbilly Ramblers can’t be beat!

Cleveland’s up there on the Bandstand setting that fiddle on fire while Shorty Leblanc is cutting through the layers of smoke and befuddlement with his wake the dead accordion licks.

cleveland crochet

Keeping that dancing rhythm always alive is Charlie Babineaux on guitar and gliding over the top on the Steel guitar and laying down the vocals we have Jesse ‘Jay’ Stutes. Allons -y!

Sometimes the songs are sung in Cajun French sometimes in Cajun English – either way the message of loves won and lost and of a proud people celebrating their uncelebrated culture comes through loud and clear.

As Sugar Bee plays you can practically feel the hardwood floor bouncing up and down as the couples foot stompingly circle the dance hall.

This is gloriously rough and rowdy music with the kick of over proof corn liquor. And, the more you have the more you want – don’t worry about Sunday’s hangover it’s going to be more than worth it for the times that you’ve had! Ah! Lets get it man.

Cleveland was a 1919 born native of Hathaway, Louisiana who found, like so many, that Lake Charles offered regular work and all the luridly promised temptations of the city in full measure.

He had formed the Ramblers by 1950 and began recording for Folk-Star and Leader for the local Cajun market. Hooking up with Eddie Shuler’s Goldband Records in 1960, amplifying their sound and singing in English led to their great breakout hit (of course the record business being a cut-throat Business meant that Cleveland wasn’t exactly able to retire on the proceeds of his hit!).

But, he had made an immortal record that would go on to become a Cajun anthem and there are riches in Heaven for that.

And, I hear you ask – is the B side any good?

Damn right it is! ‘Drunkard’s Dream’ is for that time of the night when you and your dance partner are really in step and in tune (and likely more than three floors drunk!).

Now, you’re floating over the floor and the lights are gleaming like jewels and you don’t know or care what time it is and what time, if ever, you will get home. All you really know is that you wish this dance would never end. And the words of the song waltz and waltz around your mind ;

‘J’ai arrive hier au soir (z)a La maison
J’ai cogne, j’ai crie, j’ai pas de reponse
J’ai connu, (z)au moment que t’etais pas la
Quel espoir, quel avenir mais moi j’peux avoir?’

Monday morning, Blue Monday, will, as it always maddeningly does, come around and you will have to sweat and strain through another week of loveless labour. Yet, just at the limit of your vision is always the promise of another Saturday night when the Sugar Bee will fly again and all the drunkard’s can dance and dream to their hearts content.

Notes:

The hard to find Cleveland Crochet compilation on Goldband is well worth the search. Individual Hillbilly Rambler tracks are scattered across many fine Cajun collections.

I recommend versions of Sugar Bee by Canned Heat, Wayne Toups, Jimmy C Newman (live on the excellent Marty Stuart TV show), Jo-El Sonnier, Dr Feelgood and The Interns and Gene Taylor.’