Sounds of the 2012 Christmas Season: Reverence for the Season – Bob Dylan and Jim Cole

886975732326Any friends or family of mine know that I am a what might be called a Christmas music enthusiast. My library of Christmas music grows by leaps and bounds each year and it’s already large enough to take several days to get through without listening to the same track twice. In this post I’d like to feature a couple of albums that have risen to the top in my Christmas rotation so far this season. I think both are worthy of your consideration if you’re looking for a couple of decent albums to provide the score to your holiday season.

Bob Dylan’s CHRISTMAS IN THE HEART, in the past couple of years, has become a staple Christmas album for me. Those not familiar with him usually, at least, raise an eyebrow at the first sound of voice as it drops on top of the lush, warm background arrangement. But, it doesn’t take long to find the groove and begin enjoying the album which comes across as a nostalgic remembrance of classic Christmas music of years ago. From “Here Comes Santa Claus,” to “Silver Bells,” and “O’ Little Town of Bethlehem,” the album is, indeed, a heartwarming collection.

Jim Cole’s UNTO US A CHILD IS BORN is brand new in my collection this season and, while it is a different direction than Dylan’s Christmas album, it also treats the holiday season and the notion of a Christmas album with an intentional respect that comes through clearly in each song. While Dylan’s album focused on popular Christmas songs, both sacred and secular, Cole’s album focuses on the sacred center of Christmas with traditional favorites such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” and “What Child Is This?,” in addition to other tracks such as “In Bethlehem Tonight,” that, while lesser known, are just as carefully crafted and performed. The folk music tone of the album is reflective and quiet and Cole’s masterful guitar work provides a common thread throughout the duration of UNTO US A CHILD IS BORN. It isn’t as widely circulated as Dylan’s Christmas offering, but, certainly, just as worthy of your ear during the holiday season.

The Holly and the Ivy

My family’s notably-sized Christmas music library has been the soundtrack providing the backdrop to family activities, whether hanging around the house or driving to work and school, since at least a week before Thanksgiving. One of the tracks from one of the first couple of Christmas albums that we owned as a married couple came on the other day and I was struck, for the first time for some reason, by the beautiful intermingling of imagery and lyric in “The Holly and the Ivy,” as performed by Roger Whitaker. While Mr. Whitaker’s music is certainly not typical of my tastes in general, my appreciation of Christmas music accommodates a much wider circle of musical styles than during the rest of the year.

I’ve been finding myself much more appreciative of the simpler decorations of the holiday season as I’ve grown older. Driving by a house that is neatly decorated in green garland and red ribbons with simple candle lights in the windows strikes up an entirely different sentiment than the Griswold-like Christmas displays which, while I also appreciate them in a different way, seem to land further away from the true spirit of Christmas.

Like holiday decorations, my appreciation of Christmas music focuses a little bit more on the center of all that’s out there each year. It is the traditional songs, the old hymns set to music, church choirs, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and Johnny Cash ring true far more than the latest contemporary version of  “Happy Christmas (War Is Over).”

“The Holly and the Ivy,” uses simple language and image association, arranged in a beautiful manner, to focus on the core message and beauty of the holiday season:

The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in wood,
The holly bears the crown

The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet savior

The holly bears a berry, as red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good

The holly bears a prickle, as sharp as any thorn and Mary
Bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas day in morn

O the rising of the sun, and the running
Of the deer, the playing
Of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir

My hope in posting this bit on “The Holly and the Ivy” is simply to shed an extra sliver of light on the beauty of an old, old Christmas carol that seems to get lost in the mix of the overwhelming pile of contemporary holiday music that exists in 2012. I hope you will seek it out this year and, perhaps, enjoy it just a bit more than you would have before.

A great resource with some interesting historical perspective on the imagery in “The Holly and the Ivy”

Holiday Soundtrack Part 2: HOLY NIGHT – Kevin Max

Holy Night is a delicious change of pace when compared with the bulk of what is released in the category of holiday music. There is tremendous consistency in style, quality, and vision from the first track to the last. The general spirit of the album is one of respect for the original historical contexts in which many of these classic Christmas songs were written and an apparent desire by Kevin Max to present Christmas music as art as opposed to pre-formatted, Christmas pop. He seems to have intentionally shunned the crowded commercial sound often employed by artists when they decide to record a Christmas album. Many of the tracks adopt a darker and more mysterious mood. For example “Joy To The World” seems closer to David Bowie than it does Mahalia Jackson. Yet reverence for the focus of the lyric is maintained and the quality and craftsmanship of the music is remarkable.
While a consistent thread of lonesome reverence is injected into each of the songs on Holy Night, a few of the tracks are hung on an up-tempo frame that, while continuing to maintain a level of intimate, personal sincerity, also breathe a sense of spirited optimism rooted in the birth of Jesus Christ. While songs like “What Child Is This” employ lush strings and the taste of a full orchestra for the musical backdrop, the basic, quick-tempo of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is much simpler, yet, equally infectious and undeniably mood-lightening. Both songs have a character that grabs the heart of the listener and makes it feel just a little bit more than it did before.
A personal favorite from this album include “O Little Town of Bethlehem” which opens treading lightly with a particularly lonely sounding piano, but, soon unfolds into what I can only try to describe (and perhaps not accurately) as some kind of Soviet/middle eastern kind of rhythm. Max’s unique and lush vocals inject an often-heard and under appreciated song with a sense of renewal that draws the listener in.
The lowest point of the album in my humble opinion (if there is one on this album) is “Greensleeves” which seems to be thematically out of place. But, one blip isn’t enough to darken the bright light that is the quality of this album from front to back. The fantastic match between Max’s unique and piercingly powerful voice and the understated, yet masterfully present musical backdrop that blankets each track on this album is indeed magical if not, at least, worth a listen.
Holiday Soundtrack Part 1: Come On Christmas by Dwight Yoakam

(post originally appeared 12/8/08)

In The Bleak Midwinter

Of all of the Christmas songs that I’ve heard throughout my life, none have ascended to the heights that this one has in terms of my appreciation for its beauty and lyric. This year the grace of this song is more evident than ever before to me.

A Christmas Carol

Alternate Title: In The Bleak Midwinter;Words by Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894), 1872; appeared posthumously in The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti, Poem #426,  1904. Source: “The English Hymnal,” p. 44, 1916;

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother1
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

Holiday Soundtrack Part 3: Old Time Christmas by Randy Travis

Because Christmas day was a day that was rightfully focused on family as I grew up, I have bright and beautiful memories of my family driving around on Christmas Eve admiring Christmas light displays and the way their colorful lights reflected off of the most-often snow-covered ground in rural upstate New York. Because my parents both prefer country music, the local country radio station 98.1 WHWK, and their 24-hours of straight Christmas music that started annually on Christmas Eve at 6 PM, was usually the soundtrack on such drives. OLD TIME CHRISTMAS by Randy Travis is an album that was brand new around the time that I was in ninth grade and by the time I was in college and only had a couple of Christmas albums that actually belonged to me alone, OLD TIME CHRISTMAS was one of them. It is as thoroughly traditional, conservative country as one can get and, by comparison, certainly fits into a different genre than what populates country airwaves in 2009. But, that is one reason that I like it so much. A few of the tracks such as “White Christmas Makes Me Blue,” and “Oh, What A Silent Night,” neatly wear what many expect a country song to include: loss and misery. However, tracks such as “Meet Me Under The Misletoe,” and “How Do I Wrap My Heart Up For Christmas,” take an entirely different direction with an upbeat tempo and celebratory attitude, while still maintaining the context of Randy Travis’s reserved, country demeanor. Versions of traditional Christmas favorites such as “Winter Wonderland,” “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” and “The Christmas Song,” all please, but, my favorite tracks are the title track and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” With the former Travis sings about memories of a nostalgic country family Christmas setting which has a lot in common with the finer points of my own memories and moves me in a way that most Christmas songs don’t. His version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” is simply a beautiful rendition of the classic hymn. I can remember the first time I was really taken in by the beautiful simplicity of his version in 1994 and I haven’t found another version that is better since. As with many other vocalists who have such richly distinctive voices (e.g., Dwight Yoakam, Michael Stipe, Kevin Max), Travis and his undeniably country style are not for everybody. But, for those willing to take a listen and give this album a fair shake during the holiday season they may be surprised at just how wonderful OLD TIME CHRISTMAS is.

Other recommendations for the holidays:

HOLY NIGHT by Kevin Max

COME ON CHRISTMAS by Dwight Yoakam

Holiday Soundtrack Part 2: Holy Night by Kevin Max

Holy Night is a delicious change of pace when compared with the bulk of what is released in the category of holiday music. There is tremendous consistency in style, quality, and vision from the first track to the last. The general spirit of the album is one of respect for the original historical contexts in which many of these classic Christmas songs were written and an apparent desire by Kevin Max to present Christmas music as art as opposed to pre-formatted, Christmas pop. He seems to have intentionally shunned the crowded commercial sound often employed by artists when they decide to record a Christmas album. Many of the tracks adopt a darker and more mysterious mood. For example “Joy To The World” seems closer to David Bowie than it does Mahalia Jackson. Yet reverence for the focus of the lyric is maintained and the quality and craftsmanship of the music is remarkable.
While a consistent thread of lonesome reverence is injected into each of the songs on Holy Night, a few of the tracks are hung on an up-tempo frame that, while continuing to maintain a level of intimate, personal sincerity, also breathe a sense of spirited optimism rooted in the birth of Jesus Christ. While songs like “What Child Is This” employ lush strings and the taste of a full orchestra for the musical backdrop, the basic, quick-tempo of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is much simpler, yet, equally infectious and undeniably mood-lightening. Both songs have a character that grabs the heart of the listener and makes it feel just a little bit more than it did before.
A personal favorite from this album include “O Little Town of Bethlehem” which opens treading lightly with a particularly lonely sounding piano, but, soon unfolds into what I can only try to describe (and perhaps not accurately) as some kind of Soviet/middle eastern kind of rhythm. Max’s unique and lush vocals inject an often-heard and under appreciated song with a sense of renewal that draws the listener in.
The lowest point of the album in my humble opinion (if there is one on this album) is “Greensleeves” which seems to be thematically out of place. But, one blip isn’t enough to darken the bright light that is the quality of this album from front to back. The fantastic match between Max’s unique and piercingly powerful voice and the understated, yet masterfully present musical backdrop that blankets each track on this album is, indeed, magical if not, at least, worth a listen.

Holiday Soundtrack Part 1: COME ON CHRISTMAS by Dwight Yoakam

Holiday Soundtrack Part 3: OLD TIME CHRISTMAS by Randy Travis