by Stewart Hendrickson

Christmas time is here by golly/ Disapproval would be folly/ Deck the halls with hunks of holly/…/ Even though the prospect sickens/ Brother, here we go again (Tom Lehrer,  A Christmas Carol ). Tired of the same old Christmas music?  Forget Xmas Muzak in the malls, even the traditional ‘top ten’ (Hark the Harold Angels, Joy to the World, Silent Night…) sound a bit trite, and I have sung Handel’s Messiah too many times. In this column I will explore some alternative traditional Christmas and winter solstice music that may brighten an otherwise tired musical season.

Beginning with the presumption that “in music, local is best” (Dan Roberts, open mic MC) I just purchased a couple of CDs by local musicians: Off the Beaten Track by Telynor, and When I See Winter Return by Pint and Dale. The former is a collection of unusual traditional Christmas music, while the latter contains more seasonal music along with some specifically for Christmas.

Off the Beaten Track by Telynor is a collection of unusual christmas songs from the British Isles, France, and America, which “offers an alternative for those who’ve heard the ‘top ten’ yuletide hits a few times too many.” These are taken from different  folk and early-music traditions and are arranged in the eclectic contemporary sound characteristic of Telynor. In addition to Anna Peekstok’s energetic and clear voice, hurdy-gurdy, and recorders, and John Peekstok’s masterful cittern and guitar, they play other instruments such as crumhorn, mountain dulcimer, celtic harp, octave mandolin, bass guitar, synthesizer, fiddle, bells, tin whistle, jew’s harp, and “scrap lumber” (?). This would be great to play on Christmas day with the family around the tree as well as other times of the year when you’d like to listen to something of an early-music tradition.

William Pint and Felicia Dale in recent years have taken part in Philip and Pam Boulding’s Magical Strings Family Celtic Yuletide concerts. When I See Winter Return is a collection of seasonal songs they’ve sung at these concerts. The January Man, an English song by Dave Goulder sets the tone for this collection. Christmas songs include Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day, Lo How A Rose, I Saw Three Ships, Over the Hill And Over The Dale (J. M. Neal’s beautifully-crafted song of the three kings), and the Cooper Family’s The Trees Are All Bare. Other songs are of a seasonal nature such as The Woodcutter’s Song (with information for those who use wood stoves), Quant Je Voi Yver Retorner (When I See Winter Return, about a wandering musician facing winter). It closes with a beautiful arrangement of Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne. William’s and Felicia’s voices blend well together along with their instruments which include hurdy-gurdy, whistles, guitar, octave mandolin, and bodhran. Again this is a CD that can be enjoyed any time of the year, but particularly during winter.

Another local group Magical Strings is the Celtic harp and hammered dulcimer duo of Philip and Pam Boulding who perform their unique blend of Celtic roots music. Each year they reunite with their family and special guests to present “a grand Yuletide gala to celebrate the return of light after winter’s longest night.” This year’s 24th annual Celtic Yuletide Concert will be performed in Portland (Dec. 7), Olympia (Dec. 14), Tacoma (Dec. 20), Seattle (Dec. 21), and at other locations. This gala includes “a joyful procession of musicians, Irish dancers, jugglers, storytellers and a children’s choir in a beautiful sanctuary listening to songs of the season with the Boulding family and friends on Celtic harps, hammered dulcimers, violins, cello, whistles, concertina, percussion, Irish pipes, hurdy-gurdy, and more.” This is guaranteed to put you in the proper musical spirit for the Christmas and winter solstice season. If you can’t make it to this concert or just want to hear more you could listen to their recordings of earlier concerts – Yuletide Live, and Good People All – a Celtic Tradition.

A Winter’s Talisman is not by a local group, but one that I heard locally at the Tractor Tavern last November (2001). It features songs by Irish singer Susan McKeown in English and Gaelic of strange Scots traditions and curious Irish customs, interspersed with original tunes and poetry by Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham, backed up by guitarist Aidan Brennan.  Johnny’s poems A Winter’s Talisman  and An Urbane Scotsman in Alaska illustrate his dry wry wit in a style reminiscent of Robert Burns. Susan's singing is beautiful and moving in songs about wauking the cloth (a Scottish winter occupation), the beautiful Mal Bhan Ni Chuilleannain, a Wexford Mummer's Song, and others. Johnny’s fiddle playing includes a 4-part jig Unfortunate Snow Incident and a melancholy air As Warm as Winter Snow. Another poem A Christmas Childhood by Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh is the only selection specifically about Christmas. It closes with Auld Lang Syne sung by Susan beginning with the original words and tune. This was one of the most moving moments at their concert as the whole audience joined in on the latter verses. This is one of my favorite winter seasonal CDs evoking a Celtic experience of winter. Again, it can be enjoyed any time of the year.

I recently discovered two other CDs on the Internet. Although I haven’t listened to them in whole but only sound clips, I think they are worthy of consideration. These come out of the English Christmas tradition.

Coope, Boyes & Simpson are an award-winning male a capella trio from England with roots firm in rural Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. A Garland of Carols traces “the musical history of Christmas carols, from a time when they were banned by the church as being ungodly and sung riotously on the streets at Yuletide, to the 20th century when war stopped for a day in the trenches of France.” It is a fine example of England’s carol-singing tradition.

Another example of English carol-singing is English Village Carols: Traditional Christmas Carolling from the Southern Pennines. “In the village pubs of small towns around Sheffield, England, enthusiastic singers continue a centuries-old tradition of secular Christmas carol singing.  Older than the more familiar Victorian conception of carols, and excluded from the church services, these village carols are performed unaccompanied or with only a few instruments.  Recorded live in the pubs, filled with the spontaneous joys of singers, the clinking of glasses, and murmur of the other patrons, these are a unique and beautiful form of holiday cheer and community expression.”  These amateur singers recorded in their natural environment sing unusual little-known carols of rural England.

To close with the words of Tom Lehrer’s Christmas Carol, So let the raucous sleigh-bells jingle/ Hail our dear old friend Kriss Kringle/ Driving his reindeer across the sky/ Don’t stand underneath when they fly by. Best wishes for the holiday season.

Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus  University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar; Reprinted from The Victory Review, December, 2002.