“The Seven Joys of Mary”

I continue to make my way through the carols in “Songs from the Hill Folk,” a medley in this year’s Boston Pops program (see my write-up about Jesus, Jesus, rest your head from a few days ago). If “Jesus, Jesus” found John Jacob Niles conflating the roles of song collector and songwriter—as he also famously did with “I Wonder as I Wander”—then “The Seven Joys of Mary” finds him more firmly in song collector territory.

I’ve written before about English ballads and ballad collectors, and “Seven Joys” (also called the “Seven Blessings of Mary”) is one of those. The tune that Niles found in Cherokee County, North Carolina in 1933 is quite unlike other tunes for the song, but hews closely to the traditions of the “number song.” There were many earlier known versions, including “The Ferste Joye, As I 3ou Telle” from the fifteenth century in England. Later versions included the African American teaching song “Sister Mary’s Twelve Blessings” (published in the Tuskegee Institute Collection in 1883).

Coming back to “The Ferste Joye,” I note two facts with some delight. The first is that it (and its fellow fifteenth century variant “The Ferste Joye as I Zu Telle” are both full-on Middle English carols. The second is that the Hymns and Carols of Christmas site, from which I drew some of this research, recommends using the Junicode font for optimal viewing of the text. That font is created by none other than University of Virginia professor Peter S. Baker, who taught me Old English, and helped me read through Beowulf, more than twenty years ago.

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head

The Boston Pops is performing a medley of Appalachian Christmas carols this year. Called “Songs from the Hill Folk,” it includes the predictable (“I Wonder as I Wander”), the unexpected (“Kentucky Wassail”), and the in-between—namely “Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head.”

Though I’ve heard performances of this song over the years in the classical idiom, and sung more than a few of them, I never realized that the original was “collected” by folklorist John Jacob Niles. I put “collected” in quotes because the sources I’ve seen for the work put two dates of collection, 1912-1913 and 1932-1934. The implication is that the song was collected multiple times, or more likely, that it was put together from multiple collected songs that were originally separate.

Indeed, the chorus and verse seem as though they are two different songs, with the first two lines of the verse sounding as though they would be at home in the Southern Harmony and the chorus coming from somewhere else entirely. In fact, biographer Ron Pen notes that Niles collected “Jesus, Jesus, rest your head/You has got a corn shuck bed” with his mother—that it was in fact his first ever collected song—and a 1906 notebook sketch shows words and music for the chorus separate from the verse. Another source notes that Niles often based original songs on fragments of melody or lyric collected from traditional sources, which increased the songs’ acceptance among folk enthusiasts but greatly complicated the problem of establishing authorship when the songs became hits later.

More surprising is the location of one of its early performances, in 1912. Apparently Niles, like other musicians of the era, accepted a paying musical gig at a house of ill repute, and on Christmas morning 1912 performed ten songs a cappella including “Jesus, Jesus” for the madame and her “girls”!

It seems appropriate that this beautiful carol should have a complicated origin. Like “Jesus, Jesus,” Christmas combines the folk and the artistic, the tender and the rough, and the complex figure of John Jacob Niles is a perfect synthesizer for it.

We need a little Christmas

If ever there were a year where we needed a little Christmas, this is it. This song’s appearance on this year’s Holiday Pops got me thinking about my relation to it and curious about its origin.

My family’s normal ambient music ran from classical to easy listening. Though my mom had a few Simon and Garfunkel records in the basement, they weren’t in the rotation; instead you were more likely to hear Neil Diamond (via that one cassette that we had) or something classical on the LP. But in the car it was easy listening, and at Christmas we had the stack of favorite records that got played over and over again. Julie Andrews, the Boston Camerata, the Muppets with John Denver. And Percy Faith.

I didn’t really realize that Percy Faith was a pioneer of easy listening; I just thought this was what music sounded like in the 60s. That bouncy string section; the female singers who sounded as though they were about to break into a dance number.

I finally looked up the original song. Turns out it comes from Mame and was originally performed by Angela Lansbury. Who knew? But it explains something of the damn-the-torpedoes flavor of the lyric, that desperation behind the brassy melody and sense of top-hat-waving that seems to lurk in the background of most performances of the song.

How Americans implement a class system

After years of flying for work, I have to things that I’ve never had before: pre-check clearance and status on an airline. That means I’m suddenly on the other side of a divide that casual travelers see, but often don’t understand. 

What do these things get you? Not much individually in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but put them together and you get:

  • To go through security without having to undress, or unpack, or wait in line behind someone who has no idea how it all works and takes three times as long, and therefore:
  • To clear security feeling civilized and without sweating through one’s shirt
  • To have a lottery ticket that gives you a shot at a seat in first class
  • To board early and therefore never have to worry if there’ll be room for your bag

That’s a whole different travel experience. And yet I’m conscious that it’s more like flying twenty years ago than anything else (though of course we ran out of overhead storage then too).

But it casts the annoyances of travel in a new light. The security theater is clearly not optional, unless you trade your money and privacy to avoid it. (The questionnaire for Global Entry isn’t arduous, but it gives the government a lot more information about your travel than it would otherwise have.) And the undignified conditions of flying in coach are unavoidable, unless you grit your teeth and stick with a terrible carrier long enough to earn your way past some of them. 

You don’t have to be born to class in America. You just have to trade a tiny amount of your birthright of freedom and choice to acquire it. 

Recent writing elsewhere

I’ve written a series of blog posts on the Veracode blog about application security. Check them out, if that sort of thing floats your boat, or if you just want to see what’s up in my professional life.

Note that I don’t generally write my own headlines, so I don’t claim responsibility for clickbaityness or comma splices. 🙂

The Year of Jubilo

Two streams of media combined for me in the last few days. I finished reading The Underground Railroad last week, and I found The Year of Jubilo on Dust to Digital. Both brought an immediacy to some of what I’ve been thinking and learning about my country and the South in the years before (and during) the Civil War.

The Underground Railroad dramatizes the already-dramatic-enough role that some Southerners played in helping escaped slaves to safer (but not safe) destinations in the North, by mythologizing it. Sort of.

Colson Whitehead preserves a lot of things that really happened in the Underground Railroad, such as concealing runaways in attics and under haybales in wagons, but mythologizes the motivating spirit by envisioning a vast, mysterious underground network of tunnels with real trains running beneath barns and sheds. When Cora the runaway slave asks in astonishment “Who built it?,” the reply comes “Who builds anything in this country?” “Who do you think made it? Who makes everything?”

The unspoken secret: We built it. We built everything in this country. As Whitehead’s messianic Lander says later in the book, “Black hands built the White House.” The secret Whitehead tells is that the Underground Railroad wasn’t made up of well meaning whites with their attics and trap doors; it was built by the slaves themselves who decided they would fight for their freedom.

The flip side of that self determination? “The Year of Jubilo.” This is a Civil War song, written in 1862 by Henry Clay Work as “Kingdom Coming,” and familiar to fans of Tex Avery by its inclusion as the tune whistled by the “Confederate wolf” in “The Three Little Pups.”

Knowing it’s a Civil War era tune doesn’t exactly prepare modern ears for the lyrics. Even without the dialect, lines like “Say, darkies, have you seen the massa with the moustache on his face” are jarring to modern ears. But listening closer, the inversion that the song depicts, with the master running away from the arrival of the “Lincoln gunboats” and pretending to be a runaway slave himself to await capture, while the slaves avail themselves of his wine, is a different facet of the Civil War experience and captures part of the feeling that the world was turning upside down.

End of an era: no more AirPort routers from Apple

Bloomberg: Apple abandons development of wireless routers. End of an era. I just bought a new AirPort router a few months ago and love it, but the handwriting was certainly on the wall with this product that hadn’t been refreshed in three years.

As much as I’ll miss the AirPort brand, this move is consistent with Apple’s product strategy. Contrary to popular opinion, they don’t always insist on making every bit of gear in the ecosystem—only the ones where the existing options aren’t satisfactory. They haven’t made a printer in almost twenty years and got out of external displays earlier this year; dropping out of the wireless business is a logical next step.