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Posts Tagged ‘folk’

Midwinter Music

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.

Nowell Sing We Clear

Nowell Sing We Clear | The Best of Nowell Sing We Clear, 1975-1986

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

Last Month of the Year - A Celebration of the Solstice

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

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!

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After a storm, there are reasons to grieve and reasons to be thankful.

Last month Hurricane Sandy left entire communities devastated, destroyed homes and shorelines, sparked fires in some homes and left many more in the cold for weeks into November.  A great many – some of whom were on the edge to begin with – are still suffering.

There are far too many reasons to grieve.

Yet it is often at times like these that neighbors discover one another and people help each other with the basic needs of life.  The divisions of ideology, which seemed so important only days before, mean little when placed against the basic needs of survival.  People help one another.  Sometimes we do it through religious communities, sometimes through charities and sometimes through government assistance – but very often it’s far simpler than that.  People see other people struggling, and offer what help they can.  Communities come together.

Thanksgiving always brings these kinds of thoughts to my mind, because essentially it is  a day about community – families sharing a meal together, volunteers at food banks and soup kitchens making sure that the poorest among us can enjoy a good meal, friends invited to each others’ Thanksgiving tables.  There are no gifts and few decorations – just a quiet meal shared with others.

That’s what I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving Day – people who help one another when there is need, and who reach out to neighbors in community.  What a better world it would be if we all remembered to be thankful, first and foremost, for each other.

Big Bill Broonzy said that Joe Turner Blues was the oldest blues song he knew, but the story remains as current today as it ever was.  It tells of a man whose giving saved many a poor family after the floods came – and of a community who turned toward each other in thanksgiving.

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Passing the Music

Last weekend, at the tender age of five, my son was one of the featured performers at a folk festival workshop.  The workshop was “Families That Sing Together,” and when we asked him if he wanted to sing anything with us, he answered without hesitation, “I’ll sing ‘Freight Train.'”  So for a group of about fifty dyed in the wool folkies, with me playing guitar, my son sang the sweetest version of “Freight Train” you ever heard.  He had learned the song from an old Libba Cotten album, so he knew it cold, the way it was written:

Freight train, freight train
Run so fast
Freight train, freight train
Run so fast
Please don’t tell what train I’m on
They won’t know what route I’ve gone.

It was a poignant moment for me, the more so because this is a festival I had been attending since I was his age and younger.  With his grandma singing with us, three generations of our family joined together in that workshop.

What we are doing is, in a sense, not that different from what many families do.  Every family has its own traditions.  It could be a certain kind of cooking,  art, sports or politics.  We pass them down not through insisting on lessons, or through a system of careful education, but by doing things together, enjoying being together while we are doing them, and taking delight in seeing someone new learn a piece of what we love.

The rest of the weekend, my son ran around with the other kids, playing games, but with music all around, under every tree and in every corner – just like his father and his uncle used to do when we were his age.  With all the excitement of the game, I wondered if he’d forgotten all about the singing, but he asked me that night to read him Elizabeth’s Song, a wonderful children’s book by Michael Wenberg about how Elizabeth Cotten wrote “Freight Train” when she was a little girl.  He listened intently, eyes wide.   The book ends with the song, and I sang it to him quietly, huddled with him in the cabin’s upper bunk.   He smiled and listened, his eyes growing smaller, until, at the very end of the song, he fell fast asleep.

It was a moment I will treasure for the rest of my life.

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Henry Spaulding – Cairo Blues

In a post yesterday I mentioned Henry Spaulding, a blues man who sang in St. Louis in the 1920s. Spaulding only recorded two songs in his life, and this is one of them. It remains one of my favorite recordings of all time.

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