I’m cognizant that it could be considered a little odd to pen an appreciation of an appreciation, but here I do so anyway (just in case, I suppose, someone might appreciate it).
The multifaceted writer Mark Steyn recently reposted on his website an audio tribute he made to the late songwriter Hugh Martin (who died in 2011). Martin is the composer of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” surely one of the most poignant popular songs of Christmas. That was written for the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland, and for which Martin also wrote “The Boy Next Door” and “The Trolley Song.” Continue reading A Merry Little Christmas with Hugh Martin and Mark Steyn→
‘Tis the season to remember three of our very favorite Christmas albums, all of which have been reviewed at greater length in these pages in the past. So, in capsule form here and now:
Christmas in the Heart ~ Bob Dylan
Many groaned when they heard Bob Dylan had recorded a Christmas record, and many still think that he himself groans his way through it, but they’re the ones missing out. Immaculately produced in what might initially seem a cheesy fashion but actually features exceedingly smart and classic stylings, it sets the smooth instrumental and vocal backing against Dylan’s hoarse singing, and brings to mind nothing so much as Louis Armstrong in the latter part of his career doing “What a Wonderful World.” The voice is so lived in, the owner of it has seemingly seen it all, and yet at the end of it all can guilelessly sing lines like: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” It counts so very much coming from that place. And, as expounded on at (likely) painful length in my original review, Dylan’s Christmas album manages to blend the secular and religious songs of Christmas together in a startlingly effective way, finding a spirit that unites them. It’ll surely make you laugh and at times it ought well make you cry. You must have it.
(And Dylan’s proceeds in perpetuity go to providing food to the needy.)
A Jolly Christmas ~ Frank Sinatra
Set down right amidst the high water mark of Frank Sinatra’s career and talent in the mid-1950s, this sensitively-made long playing record, arranged by Gordon Jenkins, provides posterity with essential Sinatra readings of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Jingle Bells, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and others. Essential because Sinatra remains the greatest male popular singer to ever lift a microphone to his lips, and he is heard here as the great musician that he was and not the caricature too often present in the popular consciousness. And, as expounded on at (possibly) painful length in my original review, this Christmas album by Sinatra is one particularly apt for listening to when one is alone during the holiday season: not necessarily lonely, but simply by oneself. It’ll take you places. You must have it.
Knew very little about Welsh chanteuse Cerys Matthews when we first encountered this album (the most recently-released on our list) but have become consummate fans since, finding that her work over many years combines remarkable spirit, talent and taste in an especially uplifting fashion. Here, in recordings that possess that spark of genuine live performance, she and her merry band perform such traditional chestnuts as “We Three Kings Of Orient Are” and “Ding Dong Merrily On High” and seem effortlessly to conjure what must have been their original joy and mystery. Indeed, as expounded on at (relatively) brief length in my original review, as well-worn a song as “Go Tell It On The Mountain” is performed here “as if it was composed yesterday, with a fairly overflowing spirit of gladness and urgency. That’s no small thing.” And truly, Christmas is not a small thing, after all. That’s what this album will remind you of, and it will get you singing along too. You must have it.
Under-promise and over-deliver, that’s always our motto here, so here’s two more essential Christmas picks:
Christmas with the Louvin Brothers ~ The Louvin Brothers
The aforementioned Bob Dylan once picked this as possibly his favorite Christmas album, with good reason, as the Louvin’s transcendent harmonies can transport you to a higher place from which you may return with reluctance. Originally it contained only hymns, but the modern edition includes two secular Christmas tunes as well. Ira Louvin was a troubled man, but it sure seems at least he knew where he should be looking for the light.
A Christmas Gift for You ~ Phil Spector (and various)
Is there anyone in the world who hasn’t heard these great tunes, by the Ronettes, Darlene Love and the Crystals? Yet their very ubiquity might make us take them for granted. They evoke Christmas as intensely as a deep snowfall on the evening of December 24th. The producer of all of these amazing sides, Phil Spector, is spending this Christmas in jail, and likely the balance of his life, but it’s worth remembering that there were moments in which he followed his better angels and made music as beautiful and as cheering as this.
Yesterday I griped cantankerously about BobDylan.com daring to make some kind of video for his song “Like a Rolling Stone.” Today I’ve become aware of further new visuals for a Bob Dylan song, courtesy of the U.S. discount department store chain known as Kohl’s.
There are some differences. It is not one of Bob Dylan’s versions of the song, but instead a simple cover version by a female singer with a guitar. And it is about thirty-three seconds long. As commercials go, it is tasteful, not pushing the sale of anything in particular but just trying to create a general good feeling. One may understandably recoil from being manipulated, but Lord knows there are worse ways of being manipulated. You can watch it below, embedded via YouTube. Continue reading “Forever Young” in Kohl’s Commercial (Bob Dylan)→
Before this Christmas season draws to an official close (there are twelve days of Christmas, y’know), I thought it worth noting one new addition to the already-gargantuan and ever-increasing library of Christmas albums. (I love great Christmas music and am known to listen to it in July.) It is a record titled Baby, It’s Cold Outside by a lady singer named Cerys Matthews, who emanates from the nation of Wales. She is little known west of the Atlantic Ocean, though she’s had quite an interesting and eclectic career, leading a rock/pop band by the name of Catatonia during the nineties, later going to live and work in Nashville for a few years and producing more folky/countrified kind of work, and in more recent times recording and releasing her renditions of traditional Welsh songs (and this album features one titled “Y Darlun”).
Similarly, “Go Tell It On the Mountains”—surely about as hackneyed a folk-hymn as one could name—is performed here as if it was composed yesterday, with a fairly overflowing spirit of gladness and urgency.
With a title like Baby, It’s Cold Outside, one might well assume that this was a swinging Dino kind of Xmas record, but that track is very much the exception, and in more ways than one; in fact, it’s probably best to circle back to it at the end of this little review. In actuality, this is an album of traditional and predominantly religious Christmas carols, performed in a sparse, folk-like context, albeit pretty far from any idea of folk purism. The central success of the album is in enlivening and refreshing these old tunes, like “Good King Wenceslas” and “We Three Kings Of Orient Are,” with live-in-the-studio performances that are just off-center enough to be interesting to the ear (with the odd exotic instrument thrown in), and which at the same time communicate an infectious sense of joy and mystery. Even “Jingle Bells,” which to me is probably the most annoying song to have to hear again and again during the holiday season, is performed winsomely enough here with banjo and sleigh-bells to raise a fresh smile. Similarly, “Go Tell It On the Mountains”—surely about as hackneyed a folk-hymn as one could name—is performed here as if it was composed yesterday, with a fairly overflowing spirit of gladness and urgency. That’s no small thing. Continue reading Cerys Matthews – Baby, It’s Cold Outside (Christmas Classics)→
Below, a photo of our little mutt, Billie, posing cooperatively and carefully amidst some very breakable Christmas ornaments (recycled from a previous Christmas photo session, in case anyone remembers).
There were reports in the media earlier this year regarding a new book from Pope Benedict, the current commander-in-chief at the Vatican, titled “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.” It was said that he had debunked some traditional notions regarding Christmas. One of those had to do with the specific year in which Jesus was born, to the effect that it was likely not in the year 1 AD, but rather in the year 5 or 6 BC. This fact is really nothing new (although it must have caused no end of confusion for calendar-makers back then: “Well, is he here yet or isn’t he here yet? We can’t cancel another print run!”)
I just checked the U.K. Top 40, and the song “Fairytale of New York,” by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, is at number 18, having fallen three spots from last week. That might sound like a weak performance, but not when you consider that it was originally released for the Christmas of 1987 (when it reached number 2) and that this is the tenth year since then in which it has charted. This also happens to be the 25th anniversary of that original release. (Oh boy.)
“Fairytale of New York” is assuredly a unique Christmas classic. It fairly dripped with greatness and with resonance on the day it was released, and the years that have passed have only magnified the resonance, till I daresay there are many tender souls out there who waste no time and begin their crying as soon as they hear the opening piano notes. Yours truly wouldn’t be one of them, not at all. I’m made of much tougher stuff, although I have little trouble relating to some of the major touchstones of the song, such as Ireland (having grown up there from about age 7 to 20) and New York City, where so many people come with their dreams, it being my favorite city in the world (despite everything) and the one I’m currently blessed to be able to live in.
The record “Fairytale of New York” has been pondered at length and talked about and documentary’d-about, probably to excess, as I’ve recently discovered, but I feel the urge to pay it some tribute and I’ll therefore do so regardless, although briefly. I think that one of the key elements of its magic (aside from the beautiful tune and great performance) is the absence of too much narrative detail in the lyric. There are just enough words used and images dropped in to evoke this couple, arriving as immigrants to New York in a bygone decade, wide-eyed and floating on their dreams, dreams which have then crumbled and left them in the worst kind of decrepitude, snarling bitter insults at one another through their drug and/or alcohol haze. Yet, in the end, they seem to know that they have nothing to hold onto but one another, and some kind of strange hope that still hovers over them, and is incarnate in the sound of those bells that are “ringing out for Christmas Day.” As a piece of songwriting (with which Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer tinkered for two years before finalizing) it’s an exquisitely-balanced exercise in the bittersweet, bringing the profane and the transcendent right up against one another and forcing them to shake hands. Continue reading Fairytale of New York→
Happy Chanukah to Jewish friends and readers, that festival having begun yesterday evening and continuing until next Sunday. Here in New York City one can have a tangible sense of the holiday being celebrated without being Jewish, due to the make up of the population, a sense which I must assume is pretty uncommon elsewhere. It is one of the nice things about this city.
Although (judging by appearances in the stores) it seems that Christmas began sometime in October, it is still weeks away. Yet, many Christians do continue to observe at least some of the traditions of the season known as Advent, a time of anticipation of the arrival of Jesus. It encompasses roughly four weeks in advance of December 25th, today counting as the second Sunday of this year’s Advent season. I’m far from being the religious historian or theologian to attempt to fully explain the tradition, which has many rich and varied aspects, but on a very basic level I would judge its purpose is to help in nurturing and recalling a sense of longing for the Messiah. This is a strange thing, and maybe all the more worthy of cherishing for that reason. People who grow up as Christians, whether in actuality or merely nominally to one degree or another, are naturally prone to taking the birth of Jesus for granted. It’s old-hat, even. Yeah, Jesus was born, whether it was 2012 years ago or a few years earlier. But we’ve moved beyond all that now. We’ve got other problems.
Advent offers a means of stepping back and remembering why the arrival of such a Savior was something for which to yearn. Then, the celebration of His arrival can be something more than rote and something more than just a religious holiday that coincides with the zenith of the retail year. It can rather be something that gives genuine relief to souls badly in need of it.
Advent has its own songs. Tunes like “Jingle Bells Will Be Ringing Soon” and “Santa Claus Is Beginning to Make Plans to Travel.” But those are just the secular ones. An Advent hymn heard at church today was “On Jordan’s Banks the Baptist’s Cry.”
On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
announces that the Lord is nigh;
awake and hearken, for he brings
glad tidings of the King of kings.
Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
make straight the way for God within,
prepare we in our hearts a home
where such a mighty Guest may come.
The reference is to John the Baptist, who didn’t actually foretell the birth of Jesus (as he was a contemporary) but foretold His ministry. The Gospel reading in many churches today would have been from Luke, chapter three, and also concerned John the Baptist. It struck me in one particular way this morning. A slightly abridged version:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar … the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
What happened to strike me this morning was this concrete example of why all Christians at least ought to be extremely dubious of anyone who claims they know how any biblical prophecy will actually be fulfilled. The evangelist Luke is indicating pretty clearly that the passage from Isaiah (chapter 40) is a foretelling of the ministry of John the Baptist. (In the Gospel of John, this same assertion is attributed to John the Baptist himself.) A Jewish exegesis of this passage would inevitably be different. But when one piece of Holy Scripture (of the New Testament) characterizes another piece of Holy Scripture (of the Old Testament) in this way, believing Christians pretty much have to take it as, well, the Gospel truth. What does it mean to accept that this prophecy was fulfilled in this very specific way?
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low …” Is that what John the Baptist did? It is glorious language from Isaiah, poetic and powerful and rightly stirring. Yet, on the most mundane level, what John the Baptist did was to preach repentance from sin, which was something that prophets had done often before to the people of Israel, and in his way he inspired a kind of spiritual revival amongst those who listened to him. He wasn’t saying anything so dramatically new—I don’t think—but instead was reminding people of the urgency of repentance and of following God’s law. Although very few of his words have been recorded (only those few that are in the Gospels) he was apparently very inspiring to those who heard him. Even King Herod of the time, a decadent and corrupt man by all accounts, was intrigued and compelled by things that John the Baptist preached. However, John didn’t literally fill the valleys and level the mountains. The physical geography remained unchanged. What he did was inspire people and gather followers, and when Jesus began his public ministry he found a ready audience in people who had already been following John. John was a warm-up act, one might say. Perhaps in a certain sense he did the spadework, helping to enable Jesus to work at a higher level in his own preaching. Continue reading Advent Musings→
In 1945, a tradition was begun in New York City by a group of families led by one Mrs. Stephen C. Clark, to illuminate fir trees up and down the median of tony Park Avenue to honor members of the military who lost their lives in World War II. It is continued to this day as a memorial to those who have lost their lives defending the nation, and is accompanied by the singing of Christmas carols, with the throngs gathering in front of the Brick Presbyterian Church at 91st St. and Park Avenue. It takes place on the evening of the first Sunday of December, which was today. Park Avenue in the vicinity is closed to vehicular traffic and the crowds stream in on foot from the south and the north.
It just struck me that this is a great Christmas song, but strictly in the religious sense. It’s “Who Cares?” by George and Ira Gershwin. I was listening to Ella Fitzgerald’s immaculate version (from her unmatched collection of Gershwin tunes)but that’s not available on YouTube at the moment. Anita O’Day’s rather excellent rendition is, however, and that’s below. Continue reading Who Cares?→
A holy and merry Christmas to all who will be celebrating, and a very happy Chanukah to those observing that festival.
The small group of close relatives, friends and world leaders on my snail-mail-Christmas-card list received a custom made card this year featuring the photograph of our dog Billie below, and the Bible verses beneath it.
“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you;
or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the LORD has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of all mankind.”
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We are all searching, and ultimately — whether we know it or not — we are searching for God. Ultimately, we are searching for the Ultimate, and the Ultimate is God. It is not easy, searching for God, but maybe your reading this book is part of your own searching. The fact is that we do not really know what we’re looking for or who we’re looking for. Almost a thousand years ago, St. Anselm of Canterbury said, “God is that greater than which cannot be thought.” Continue reading Earth: The Story So Far→