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.


Anonymous said...

Me again. I apologize up front for the long entry. I have been on a similar quest for several years myself. Here are few from my collection.
As for some Christmas gospel tunage, I'm not that well acquainted with it, but I like the Blind Boys of Alabama doing "I pray on Christmas" and a very blues version (blasphemous?-I don't think so) of "Away in a manger." They have great soul and a great organ.
Natalie Merchant does a white gospel version of "Children go where i send thee" that's pretty good.
I like Loreena McKennitt (okay, she's popular around the world, not necessarily the US) and she does some very interesting version of old carols like "Let us the infant greet" or all The Stockford/ Wexford/Coventry Carols or "Balulalow" or "Let all that are to mirth inclined." As well as an awesome version of, though the song is overplayed, "God rest ye merry gentlemen."
Jewel doing an awesome duet with her mother on "I wonder as I wander." (possibly her songs "Face of love" or "Gloria" if you're into Jewel-I'm skeptical about/don't like the rest of the album)
Eric Whitacre's "Lux aurumque" about the nativity scene.
Dave Matthew's "The Christmas Song"-no it's not about chestnuts:)
Peter, Paul, and Mary's Holiday Celebration that has "A Soalin'" and "The Cherry Tree Carol"
John Gorka's version of "I heard the bells on Christmas day."
The Monkees doing "Rui, riu, chiu."
This might be borderline but Fiddlesticks doing an Irish Christmas on the album Cold Fusion. They combine secular Irish tunes with some carols like "Gloucestershire Wassail" or "Baloo Loo Lammy" or "The Wexford Carol" and a really cool version of "Joy to the world" though that is obviously a well known song.

Marie said...

Bless you! I love living in the era of single-song downloads so I can check out all of these without breaking the bank.

I listened to part of the Blind Boys' Christmas album at the Virgin Megastore a few years ago and remember liking it, but need to give it another spin. And my aunt sent me songs from a Loreena McKennitt Christmas record (on tape, back in the day) and it was lovely -- I"m sure anything she recorded for Christmas would have that same druidic-pagans-meet-believing-Christians Solstice ambiance. I'm unfamiliar with the rest you mentioned, but not for long. Thank you!

So, Masked Internet Stranger -- have we ever met in the so-called "real" world? I'm pretty sure I know no one with the initials MEH, unless it's Meredith Ebeneezer Hannigan, the voice in my head who likes to play tricks on me. So maybe you're just a voice in my head? Who's learned how to sneak out at night and leave comments on my blog? I really hope not, because it sounds like the premise of a dumb Jim Carrey vehicle. And it's a lot less fun than having a real mystery friend.

Happy Christmas to you, whoever you are!

Meredith Ebeneezer Hannigan said...

Yes, Loreena does have that pagan-Christian twist. She has another song on one of her Christmas ones that I wasn't sure qualified but it is one of my top favorite songs any time of the year: Snow. It has no religious references, but also no Rudolph/Santa references. A bit of that pagan nature worship, though updated.
And to the question of have we met... once and it was a brief encounter and a couple years back, hence you would probably not know my initials. It was through a mutual friend I knew when I lived in Salt Lake, and that is also how I discovered your blog and have been a fan ever since. I feel a "sympathy" with you as they would say in the 19th century (doing my thesis on Hawthorne-he dwells excessively on the subject), and since you have such a talent for expression, I'm hooked.
I wish my name was Meredith Ebeneezer Hannigan, not that I hate my name, but that is such a cool one. I used to want to be called Anne after my Danish grandmother, but I guess that will have to wait for a daughter, if I ever have one (still waiting for my version of Gerard Manley Hopkins).

Anna Maria Junus said...

I'm going to hunt some of these down.

I confess, I like Christmas music even the snow ones. (although the only version of Rudolph I ever liked was by Bing Crosby and Judy Garland who added a lot of extra stuff to it.)

But I like to hear something different too.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I'm anon. Not a NON, but anon.

I found your blog the usual way when I'm wasting time and I like your Christmas music list, so I'll contribute to it:

*Carol Of The Bells by The Bird and the Bee (very splendid)

*Little Donkey by The Boy Least Likely To

*Lo, How A Rose E're Blooming by Feist

*We Wish You A Merry Christmas by Weezer

I also really like the Low ones.

Jessica said...

Check out "A Ceremony of Carols" by Benjamin Britten. I sang them with a choir last year - very tough stuff, but fun and definitely different.

Grandma Marshall said...

Can't wait to check out your recommendations. Did you know that Jenn and I performed on stage with the Roches in their December 2007 Christmas concert in Seattle at the Paramount Theatre? I am crappin' you negative here. I must say that I did have drag her up onto the stage with me. She did not go willingly, but I like to think she was glad I did, after it was over.

Marie said...

Anonymous MEH -- What nice things to say! I too have blogs I rarely comment on but read faithfully because I feel a kinship or "sympathy" with the blogger, as you say. I have racked my brain, trying to puzzle out who you could be and it is all for naught. It's not like I go to many shindigs (and I was an even bigger hermit a couple years ago...) I love mysteries -- this is fun. Though if MEH aren't your real initials then I hope you feel good and guilty when my brain explodes from the strain of trying to connect the nonexistent dots. As for Loreena, I bet my aunt, who's a few comments down, has that song. Maybe I can get her to send it to me. Good luck finding your very own dead poet lover. I'd offer to share mine, but I think going from complete celibacy to two wives might do him in a second time.

Anna -- It's not that I hate all the non-religious ones -- I just wish we could leave them until after Christmas. That would be perfect, actually -- we still need some cheer and music after Christmas to get us through the remaining winter -- we could just save all those let's-try-and-convince-ourselves-we-like-being-cold songs until the Baby Jesus has had his time and then pull them out as a sort of post-Christmas consolation. Because that's sort of what they are, when you think about it -- they're songs that do for non-believers what Jesus is supposed to do for Christians -- give comfort (in this case, hot chestnuts, yule logs, figgy puddings) in the midst of death. And there's nothing wrong with that, but it's just not the same as singing about someone who literally reverses death.

Anon -- Welcome! This posting seems to be a favorite of the Nameless Ones. I'm a bit embarrassed that I'd not heard of the one by the Bird and the Bee, seeing as I'm two degrees of separation from Mr. Bee (Greg Kurstin) and have one of their records. I will download that one as soon as the ol' computer's back alive. And I'm also surprised I'd not heard of the Feist one, as I consider myself a fan. And I've never even heard of The Boy Least Likely To -- I will investigate....thank you!

Jess -- I love Ceremony of Carols, and I'm hearing it popping up more often in collections of more common carols which makes me happy, because it's just one of my favorite things about Christmas. The Bululalow is becoming especially popular. I'm jealous you got to sing it -- I'd love to have a chance to try (we did Deo Gracias in my high school choir, but that's it for me). The Cathedral of the Madeleine's choir does a couple performances of Ceremony each year. Gorgeous.

Auntie Marshall -- SHUT UP. I'm so jealous! I love the Roches! And in addition that makes you and Jenn two degrees of separation from Paul Simon and the McGarrigles and Wainwrights! Holy cow! What did you get to sing with them?? On an unrelated topic, I really hope that when I'm a grandmother I can still pull off "I am crappin' you negative" with the full authenticity you achieve. Timeless sassy -- why can't they put THAT in a bottle and sell it to me for a ridiculous price? I'd be way more interested in purchasing that than in eliminating the dreaded "fine lines and wrinkles." Bah.

wynne said...

I know I read this a long time ago--why did I not leave a comment? Was it because I had no Christmas songs to suggest? Yes, I think that was it. (I admit, I LIKE Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" and Nat King Cole singing "The Christmas Song." Don't think less of me.)

Anonymous said...


You're welcome for the suggestions and thanks for welcoming me to your blog. I forgot to check it out for a few months.

I especially like your recent entry about the secret journal and why we travel afar and forget about the beauty that's close. It made me think about some writings I read and discussed in an early American lit class that really hit on this. This was years ago, so I need to figure out if it was an essay or a poem and find it. I think you might enjoy it, so I'll look for it and post it on that entry as a comment when I find it. Thanks for provoking my thoughts.