We tend to get our Christmas tree early in our our household – this year we set it up on the first day of December. We do this partly because we love the decoration, and want to make it last as long as possible, but also because of the nature of my work – I need to get myself in the spirit of the season as early as possible. With our son, we talk about the solstice, the many different holidays celebrated this time of year, and those wonderful words from Sophia Lyon Fahs – that “every night a child is born is a holy night.”
We also listen to Christmas and solstice music – lots of it. Or at least I do – I spend a lot of time driving alone, so my family gets to avoid being inflicted with wall to wall seasonal joy.
Now, my idea of Christmas music may be a little different from some – I grew up with the music of Nowell Sing We Clear – traditional English midwinter songs and carols, often with deep roots in the old pagan solstice traditions, Mummers plays, and sword dances to fiddle and concertina. It has given me an intense and lifelong interest in the traditions and folklore of the Midwinter holidays, as well as the wonderful new songs still being written.
There is some fantastic music out there – some old, some new, some celebrating Christmas and some celebrating the season itself. Here is some of the best.
This is where it all began for me. Nowell Sing We Clear is John Roberts, Tony Barrand, Fred Breuning, and Andy Davis (Steve Woodruff in the earlier years) are now in their 38th year of touring together, and they continue to make fantastic albums of Midwinter songs and carols. Nothing can beat fun of seeing them live (if you have the chance, GO), but the CDs are a great second best. There are many, but perhaps the best value is the compilation of songs from the first three albums, The Best of Nowell Sing We Clear, 1975-1986.
Magpie – Last Month of the Year
Many years ago, my good friends Terry Leonino and Greg Artzner of Magpie sent me a home recorded tape they had made as a holiday gift for their friends. Most of the songs were traditional, but a there were a few new gems as well, including their own powerful “No Room at the Inn” and a Chanukah ballad written by none other than Woody Guthrie, which tells the original story with a level of detail most of us have never heard. Eventually they re-recorded the album and released it as one of the best seasonal albums I’ve ever heard.
Folk Legacy Records – ‘Twas On a Night Like This
Having grown up with the music of Folk Legacy Records, I admit to some bias in this, but I think Folk Legacy’s Christmas collection is my favroite. It is simply a gathering of friends making wonderful music, and the warmth shines through on every track. I’m not sure whether “Kentucky Wassail” or “The Chocolate Burro” is my favorite, or whether it’s something else entirely. There are so many good songs on this album that you could listen to it again and again without getting bored.
Jean Ritchie – A Kentucky Christmas
Speaking of Kentucky – some of the best American Christmas songs have come to us through the great Kentucky singer, Jean Ritchie. Jean says that “Brightest and Best” – a traditional carol sung in her family – is her personal favorite song, and she knows thousands. My favorite is one of Jean’s own, which goes by teh refreshing title of “Wintergrace.”
John McCutcheon – Winter Solstice
Master singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and hammered dulcimer player John McCutcheon has any wonderful albums to his credit, but this time of year I tend to gravitate to Winter Solstice, a quiet and restful alternative to the generally ebullient music of the season. The most famous song on the album comes from a true story which John wove into a song – the now classic “Christmas In the Trenches.”
Jennifer Cutting’s Ocean Orchestra – Song of Solstice
The most recent addition to my family’s Christmas collection keeps its roots in tradition, but extends its wings far beyond. Jennifer Cutting is a folklorist, songwriter, accordion and keyboard player, singer, and talented arranger. Her Song of Solstice – which celebrates the season with a more pagan orientation – combines Celtic and English folk music with trad-rock and steampunk. Some of my favorite songs on this collection are Jennifer’s own – especially “Light the Winter’s Dark,” which celebrates the light brought into the world by the leaders of many of the major world religions, and the light we bring to each other’s lives. This album is alternately meditative and electrifying.
This just a small list of my favorites – but the best kind of Midwinter music is the kind you make for yourself, in families, in groups of friends, and at gatherings. Enjoy the music of the season!