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 – 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

Christmas Cornucopia – Third Day

Onward! Onward our Sleigh proceeds cutting its way through the Christmas snow. Travel with me back in time now to Radio Recorders studios in Hollywood on September 7 1957. A small group of men assemble to cut an album of Christmas songs. From Gadsden Tennessee the modestly brilliant guitarist Scotty Moore, from Memphis Tennessee the ever reliable bass player Bill Black and from Shreveport Louisiana the sprung-floor drummer D J Fontana. Huddled together Gordon Stoker, Neal Matthews, Hoyt Hawkins and Hugh Jarrett – collectively the Jordanaires, a gospel quartet filled with the spirit. Today on piano sits Dudley Brooks.

Tuning up and swapping musicians banter they all look in the direction of a quietly spoken, respectful, hooded eyed, devestatingly handsome 22 year old from Tupelo Mississippi who has in the last few years recorded a series of records that seem to have shifted the axis of the planet. In addition through his live shows and TV appearances he has set an entire generation ablaze to the marked discomfort of, ‘sensible’ folks who can’t bring themselves to approve of the shaky-legged, swivel-hipped singer who bears the ridiculous name of Elvis Aaron Presley.

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As usual the group will warm up by accompanying Elvis as he runs through some of the gospel songs that have surrounded him through his youth and adolescence. If there’s one thing Elvis believes in and knows through his own bodily experience it’s the power of music to raise, thrill and sustain the spirit.

Neither he nor anyone else could have guessed when he started out that he would possess an almost unique capacity to supercharge a song, to sing with such relaxed intensity and charisma that the listener felt lifted up and transported whether the song was secular or sacred. Given a half decent song Elvis always sang his heart out and on many occasions the results were and remain nothing short of miraculous.

Like the Beatles and Bob Dylan the best of Elvis’ records are if anything under rated for all the millions of copies they have sold. I really don’t have a fixed position on many of the great political and cultural issues of our times though I’m happy to debate with anyone. What I am certain of and will jump up on any table anywhere, anytime, to proclaim before any audience is that Elvis was, is, and will always remain the King!

Elvis’ Christmas album was a massive success and continues to sell today. The cut featured above, ‘Santa Claus Is Back In Town’ was written by the whip smart pairing of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who couldn’t have write a lifeless song if they had tried. Here they provide Elvis with an opportunity to demonstrate his charm, his rhythm and blues chops and the sheer swaggering physical presence his vocals could embody. I love the tip of the hat to Elvis’ love of the Cadillac and the erotic promise of the whole song incarnated in the line, ‘Hang up your pretty stockings, turn off the light …. ‘. Christmas brings many forms of celebration not least the chance for lovers to share some quality time together. And, I can think of no one better to serenade such times than Elvis.

We move now from a lover’s serenade to a mother’s lullaby. ‘A la Nanita Nana’ is a traditional song from Mexico sung here with characteristic tenderness and care by Tish Hinojosa. Tish (short for Leticia) grew up, the thirteenth child, in a crowded household in San Antonio, Texas. Through her brothers and sisters and the crowded radio waves she absorbed and was inspired by music from her native Mexican culture and the folk, country and rock ‘n’ roll traditions which suffice the very air of Texas. I recommend her CDs, ‘Culture Swing’ and, ‘Frontejas’ for those of you inclined to further listening.

The historical facts of Jesus’ birth remain shrouded in the mysteries of antiquity. However, I think we can be sure mothers nursing their new born child have always sung songs to soothe the babe just exposed to the blooming buzzing confusion of this world of ours. The first sound we hear as we grow in our mother’s womb is the beating of her heart and hers is the first face we come to recognise in those initial hours and days of life.

Similarly, our first sense of the musicality of language comes from the sound of our mother reassuring us that we are loved and all is well. If we are lucky we will carry this message with us throughout the whole of our lives. I have no doubt that Mary, though she had much to ponder in her heart, will have sung to her precious babe a song that could we but hear it would sound very like, ‘A la Nanita Nana’.

Today’s poem is, ‘Christmas’ by John Betjeman a poet who managed to combine popularity with real poetic achievement.

‘ And is it true? And is it true?
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass Window’s hue,
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a child on earth for me?

… No carolling in the frosty air,
Nor all the steeping-shaking bells
Can with this simple truth compare –
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.’

Christmas Cornucopia – Second Day

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.’

Christmas Song Cornucopia – First Day

Christmas comes but once a year. For some of us the very best of times – a reliable pleasure that grows more intense and treasured as the years go by. Sadly,for some others – the worst of times and an ordeal to be feared as it approaches and then endured until all the tinsel has been packed away for another year.

I am firmly in the Christmas is a glorious celebration camp. I love bright stars in dark December skies with flurries of snow dusting the earth beneath my feet. I love the gathering sense of anticipation as the season advances. I love seeing people smiling to themselves as they go about their routine business now charged with a ‘this is the last time I’ll do this before Christmas’ awareness. I love hunting out our well packed away- some would say well hidden – Christmas decorations and wondering if the expensive new lights from last year will work or should I have bought the sets I saw at such a discount only yesterday.

I love firmly deciding that of course only a real needle shedding tree will do with a wreath for the door and a crib for the hearth as well. I love the excitement of the children’s last week at school – what shall we buy for the teacher and this terms best friend? I love remembering Christmases past: the ones when I was a child oblivious to all the work involved in ensuring everyone and everything was thought about and properly looked after. The ones when I was a carefree and careless student carousing through every day and every night certain of my own immortality and soon to be recognised global significance.

The courting Christmases where love bloomed and plans were whispered for the Christmases we would make so magnificent in the years and decades ahead. The just married Christmases freighted with a ‘Are we really in charge now we and can do anything we want?’ thrill. The ‘Now there’s a baby in the house Christmas here really is Christmas’ Christmas and the ones after where we solemnly said, ‘Well, he will expect us to maintain all our family traditions again this year’.

I remember and cherish the Christmas where the star present only arrived late on Christmas Eve packed by demonic elves who ensured only a chainsaw could remove the vacuum packing. This was the star present that came with no assembly instructions apart from a minuscule diagram and a list of 56 parts to be tortured together before dawn broke and we all agreed that Santa Claus had got it exactly right this year too.

I remember the first Christmases after my father and my mother died when their absence was an ache that filled my stomach to bursting point and when I barely spoke their names for fear of breaking down. I remember the Christmas when suddenly I started saying, ‘Mum and Dad would really have loved this’ and realising that I would always share that Christmas and every Christmas with them – for where did I learn to love but from them?

I remember the sound of off key Carollers outside our door somehow making it all the way through, ‘Silent Night’ and the sound of our rehearsed to infinity local church choir hushing the packed congregation with their perfect rendition of the same work and thinking both versions were what we needed to hear at that precise moment. I remember lighting Christmas candles and knowing that my prayer would be answered even if I wouldn’t be able to recognise how or when.

I remember many, many Christmas songs from many different eras in many different styles (as you might expect if you are a regular Jukebox patron) that I resolve each year to start listening to earlier and earlier to get into the Christmas spirit. So, harvesting a selection of personal favourites I propose to share a score or so of these with you over the next fortnight until we all raise our Christmas glasses in celebration of a birth and a beginning that continues to offer a blessed eternal hope for all mankind.

Let’s set this sleigh on its way with a Christmas classic from 1957. Bobby Helms’, ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ always raises good cheer every December (come to think of it the same can be said when we listen to it, as we do, in February, May and August). This song summons up the, ‘I like Ike’ Ozzie and Harriet days of the comfortable blue skies 1950s for me like no other Christmas song. I’m surprised Bob Dylan didn’t include it in his tender and wholly successful homage to the era, ‘Christmas In The Heart’.

1956/1957 was Bloomington born Bobby’s golden time. He had a great country and pop hit with, Fräulein’ followed up with another substantial success in, ‘My Special Angel’. But his pop immortality was sealed with the toe tapping, smile inducing, always coming up fresh and welcome 45 issued just days before Christmas in 1957, ‘Jingle Bell Rock’. Written by Joseph Carleton Beale and James Ross Boothe the song has become a much loved and much recorded staple of the Christmas season.

Under the,’A’s’ alone I see it has been covered by everyone from Chet Atkins to Arcade Fire to Alvin And The Chipmunks (which I think we can all agree is quite a stretch!). Yet, no one has come anywhere near matching the easy charm and relaxed swing of the original. I’m already looking forward to hearing it next year!

Next a very different tone from one of the premier singer – songwriters of the modern era, Mary Chapin Carpenter. ‘Come Darkness, Come Light’ is the Christmas meditation of a schooled professional with a sharp eye and a battered heart.

Mary recognises that the spiritual message of Christmas is that a gift has been granted not to the grand and the deserving alone but to the broken and the wounded,the fearful and the doubting (which is most of us) as well. It is those who know the fell dark who turn most gratefully to the light. So whether you come running or walking slow towards the light know that it was made to shine on you and that the darkness no matter how deep can never extinguish this light.

Mary has the confidence and steadiness of soul to let the song speak with minimal accompaniment. This is the title song of her 12 songs of Christmas CD which comes highly recommended along with her entire cannon.

Each post during this season will also include an extract from a favourite seasonal poem. Today it is, ‘December’ by John Clare a poet who was deeply atuned to the turning of the seasons and the rhythms of rural life.

‘… And some, to view the winter weathers,
Climb up the window-seat with glee,
Likening the snow to falling feathers,
In fancy’s infant ecstacy;
Laughing with superstitious love,
O’er visions wild that youth supplies’
Of people pulling geese above,
and keeping Christmas in the skies.’