Hey! I haven't been blogging at ALL. Sorry! It's been a weird few months but I'm feeling back in the groove again.
I'd have to say that tied with decor and food, music is my favorite part of the Christmas season. My tastes in Christmas music have shifted a bit over the past two years, from more classic genres of Motown, Big Band, or pop, to a more bluegrass and mediaeval choral arena. Of course I'm happy to hear most all Christmas music (though some song featuring Larry the Cable Guy came on the radio the other day and I became eager to offer whatever help I could to any of the south's renewed attempts to secede), but when I'm especially wanting to feel connected to the holiday both spiritually and nostalgically, the bluegrass and choral music has been just the ticket.
All of the following songs are one's I've only just discovered (or really begun to appreciate) this year. You may have loved them for ages, which makes me jealous, because they're only now in constant rotation for me.
1) First up is "Light of the Stable." Written in 1975 by Steve and Elizabeth Rhymer. The version I discovered was on Ricky Scagg's album, A Scagg's Family Christmas, Vol. 2. I'm not sure who does the vocals for it, but when I first heard it I was not super impressed with their voices. But the more I listened to it, the more the song felt homey and cozy in its non-grandeur. It feels like a song I would like to sing around a campfire at a non-crazy Christian camp. Like an awesome, progressive, hippie-dippie Christian camp. I came to find out that the most famous version of this song is probably the one by Emmylou Harris, who even named her Christmas album after it. When I found out her backing vocals are by none other than Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Neil Young, I thought, "Oh, this version must be the best." But honestly, the backing vocals don't feel warm and close to me, instead they feel ghostly and distant. I want to hear this song sung in a casual, intimate space, not in a cathedral. So here's Ricky Scaggs' family version, my preferred:
2) Next up is "The Wexford Carol," a traditional Irish carol. Technically I've heard it for years sung by Julie Andrews, but it wasn't until this year that I feel I really heard it for the first time, and now I'M OBSESSED. I've scoured iTunes for as many versions as possible, and hum it to myself regularly. Julie's is gorgeous, but I've found more covers that leave me just as thrilled. I adore The Chieftains with Nanci Griffith (stirring) as well as Judy Collins (glorious), but the one I'm posting is no shocker--it's the #1 downloaded version on iTunes. It's Alison Krauss with Yo-Yo Ma, and I swear it's like her voice was made to sing this carol. It feels powerful, ancient and mystical.
3) I love the Nutcracker Suite, and always love to have it in my Christmas mixes. About a month ago I heard a Bluegrass-jazz version of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. I never knew I needed a banjo playing this song, but now I don't know how I ever lived without one.
4) Perhaps the most modern song I've adopted into my playlist is a cover of a Melissa Manchester song by The Indigo Girls: "There's Still My Joy." Every Christmas I hope to find a new "Blue Christmas" song--one that embodies the grief and heartache that this season can hold alongside the celebration. Well, when I heard this one for the first time it knocked my socks off like Tracey Thorn's "Joy" did last year.
I brought my tree down to the shore
The garland the silver star
To find my peace and grieve no more
To heal this place inside my heart
5) Finally I end with another carol that I've heard for years, but now listen to as often as I do to, say, "Carol of the Bells" or "O Holy Night." I love it because it's a weird carol, as it follows an apocryphal narrative about Mary and Joseph. It's been called "Joseph and Mary" but I know it as "The Cherry Tree Carol." It tells the story of Mary and Joseph hanging out in a cherry orchard and Mary tells Joseph she's pregnant, and that she'd like him to pick her some cherries. He gets pissed and says, "Let the father of your baby pick you cherries, you slut!" (Ok, he doesn't call her a slut but it's very implied.) Then Jesus the FETUS talks to the cherry trees and tells them to lower their branches for Mary, which she awesomely rubs in Joseph's face by saying "I have cherries at command, you asshole!" (Again, everything but the asshole bit is in there.)
Now, my favorite version stops the story there, but other ones then go on to have Joseph humbled and sit Mary on his knee to ask when the baby's birthday will be (or Mary's birthday? It's not always clear to me), and in a shocking turn of events, the baby replies January 6th instead of December 25th! Is that a pagan thing? I don't know. But I LOOOVE this carol. Some excellent versions include Natalie Merchant's of 10,000 Maniacs with Elizabeth Mitchell and Joan Baez's (I mean, all of her Christmas stuff is gold). But my favorite version is the one I've known the longest, Peter, Paul and Mary's performance from their Holiday Celebration (1988), which of course you've seen, because you've never celebrated Christmas properly unless you've watched it.