Monday, December 22, 2008

A mensch, a virgin, and a God.

It's not that I don't love plenty of the devil's music. Heck, when I first encountered George Michael's Faith album in my tweens, I managed to convince myself it was okay to listen to the naughty title track because it was about faith.* And it's been all downhill from there.**

But as for Christmastime, I have zero use for secular music. If someone said we could only have Christmas with Rudolphish tuneage, I'd opt for no Christmas. I don't care about sleigh rides or jingle bells or roasting chestnuts or frosty nose-nippings -- they do nothing for me. They are the styrofoam peanuts in the Christmas package of my imagination – you're not going to get away from them completely no matter how hard you try, but all you can think from the minute you get your hands on the real present is, “What am I going to DO with all this fluffy crap?? And why does it keep clinging to my *&%!! hands??”

That said, as much as I love the most common religious Christmas music, it does get stale pretty early in the season (Messiah excepted). It's not that I tire of the Baby Jesus – it's that there are so many ways and reasons to be amazed by him, I get tired of doing the same amazement over and over (and over and over). Through the years I've collected some lovely recordings of formal choirs singing beautiful, less common carols and I listen to them all season. But over the last couple years I've also been compiling a list of unusual carols and newly composed Christmas songs performed by popular artists. It's hard to find ones that aren't saccharine or just plain bad, but I've found a few. Or at least I think they're great. Much thanks goes to Sharon for giving me a few of them and putting me on paths that led me to several of the others. Here are some I especially love...

Long Way Around the Sea by Low
One Special Gift by Low
If You Were Born Today by Low
The Coming of Jah by Low
All the King's Horns by Sufjan Stevens***
Holy, Holy, Holy performed by Sufjan Stevens
Put the Lights on the Tree by Sufjan Stevens
Carol of the Birds performed by Joan Baez
Down in Yon Forest performed by Joan Baez
Mary's Wandering performed by Joan Baez
Burgundian Carol performed by Joan Baez
Virgin Mary performed by Joan Baez
Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light performed by the Roches
Star of Wonder by the Roches
Sleep, My Little Jesus performed by Ella Fitzgerald
Praise His Holy Name performed by St. Olaf Choir****
Here's a Pretty Little Baby performed by St. Olaf Choir
Angel Eyes by Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris
Man Is an Island performed by Emmylou Harris
There's a Light performed by Emmylou Harris
Cherry Tree Carol performed by Emmylou Harris*****
Mary Had a Baby performed by Bruce Cockburn
Riu Riu Chiu performed by Bruce Cockburn
Down in Yon Forest performed by Bruce Cockburn
Shepherds performed by Bruce Cockburn
Jesus Ahatonnia (The Huron Carol) performed by Bruce Cockburn
Travellin' on for Jesus performed by Kate and Anna McGarrigle
Seven Joys of Mary performed by the McGarrigles (et al.)
Old Waits Carol performed by the McGarrigles (et al.)
Rebel Jesus performed by Lily Lanken and Martha Wainwright
Some Children See Him performed by Rufus and Martha Wainwright
Spotlight On Christmas by Rufus Wainwright
Wise Men by Kate and Anna McGarrigle
The Holy Babe performed by Mahalia Jackson
A Star Stood Still (Song of the Nativity) performed by Mahalia Jackson

I know this list is very gospel-music-poor, and I want to fix that without getting all Aaron Nevilly or cheesy-overwrought-piano. What am I missing? (Yes, I realize that "unusual religious Christmas music sung by popular artists" is a very artificial category, but humor me!) I'd love to hear what you've got. It's never too early to start hunting it down for next year.

Happy Christmas, all. The Baby Jesus loves you. He really does.

* That he'd get more action sometime soon. (Very soon, or he'll lose faith again.)

** Will someone PLEASE sort out the idiom “all downhill from there” for me? I can't tell if it's supposed to be positive or negative, and I've heard it used both ways. On one hand, going down is usually perceived negatively, at least in a figurative sense – a decline, a falling apart, a slumping toward DEATH. On the other hand, going downhill is easy, the reward for having climbed the hill – it can be perceived as well-earned coasting. Which is the correct meaning? Is there a correct meaning? Please don't leave me languishing in linguistic limbo – I need answers! I need GUIDANCE!

*** I also love Sufjan because he shares my obsession with "O Come O Come Emmanuel" – it makes three appearances on his Christmas collection. I love him it.

**** Okay, so St. Olaf's isn't really a popular group. But they know how to rock, so they made the cut.

***** A Holy Family marital spat and a talking fetal Jesus commanding cherry trees to bow down – gotta love those apocryphal baby Jesus stories! But it's not so far from things we know happened, you know -- Joseph was suspicious at first and Jesus looked out for his mother. So listen to this odd one without fear of lightning. Plus it's got banjos and mandolins, and all good Christians love banjos and mandolins.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Dear "friends"

...who have or are planning to abandon me for life on one or other coast. One day soon the ocean levels will rise, and vast hordes of bedraggled urbanites will flee inland, to the mountains. You will be one of them. Please do not pester me with your pleas for shelter -- for you abandoned me.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Dead can hula.

Tonight on KBYU I caught the first part of a new program produced by BYU about the history of the LDS church in Hawaii, which is one of Mormonism's most successful missionary stories to date. Today there are a large number of Mormons whose ancestors were from Hawaii and other Pacific islands, and in Hawaii the Church has built two temples (Laie and Kona), a university, and the Polynesian Cultural Center, which is the most popular paid attraction in the Hawaiian islands. The part of the KBYU show I saw had very low production values and the hostess was a bit cloying at times, but the content was quite interesting. I hope to see the rest of the show someday....(did anybody record it?).....

I've never been to Hawaii, but this show, as well as the upcoming visit of a friend who's been living in Hawaii, reminded me of a Memorial Day four or five years ago. My ghost-towning itch always gets fierce on Memorial Day.* That evening I decided to head out to one of my favorite Utah ghost towns, the remnants of the Hawaiian village of Iosepa, which was founded in Utah's aptly-named Skull Valley. (There are many other good ghost towns in the Utah west desert -- check out this fantastic ghost-towning website to find ghost towns in a backwater near YOU! But try not to fall down any mine shafts, okay?)

Anyway, in order to have access to a temple before one was built in the islands, Hawaiian converts to the Mormon church uprooted themselves from paradise in the late 1800s and planted themselves in a parched and treeless land many miles west of Salt Lake City. They named their Utah home Iosepa, which meant "Joseph." All that remains of the town is their cemetery -- a real tearjerker -- and a single fire hydrant. Why did they settle there? The white Mormon rank-and-file of the time, many of them racist, had made living closer to Salt Lake City difficult for these transplanted Saints, and so Church leaders had thought it best to settle them at a distance. They lived there, and many died, until the Hawaiian LDS temple was built a few decades later, at which point, not surprisingly, almost every last one of them returned to Hawaii. I expected to get a bit weepy with the dead that night -- tell them that I was sorry they had made so many sacrifices, only to be met with poor land and a cold welcome. (Steer clear of me on Memorial Day -- I get moody.)

But as I approached the place, which had been completely deserted on my prior visits, there was light and music and bright colors. In the middle of nowhere. In the dim evening. I was sure I was hallucinating. As I got closer, I could see dancers and eaters and singers. They were wearing leis. The gravestones were also wearing leis. There was much eating of pork and running of children. I got out of my car and wandered into the middle of the party, one of only a few white people. They welcomed me, and asked which island I was there to celebrate. It turns out they were the members of the BYU Polynesian Club, which apparently was holding its annual ancestral celebration that night. I explained that I had just happened by, that I wasn't part of the club and I hadn't paid for food, but I was welcomed anyway. Sit down, they said. Eat, they said. Sound warm and fuzzy? It was.

Seeing the show about Hawaii and being reminded of the resilience and warmth of these island cultures made me think of that night in Skull Valley. I had more than a couple epiphanies about history and ghosts and regret and healing, but I won't press them on you. You probably already know what they were, more or less. I do love ancestors, though. Especially ancestors who leave behind happy babies who grow up to be happy hula dancers who feed brooding howlie strangers, wandering alone in the desert.

* One Memorial Day I drove to Logan alone just to track down and photograph the gravestones of all of my great-grandparents, then was actually surprised when no one was interested in looking at the photos. This is why you don't want to be my friend. And if you are my friend, dump me before Memorial Day. Really.