Sorry to hear about the death of jazz critic and free speech advocate Nat Hentoff. Ninety-one is a good run, by any measure, but we need his contributions more than ever.
I’ve been writing about Christmas carols and songs embedded in a Boston Pops arrangement called “Songs from the Hill Folk” that ends the first half of this year’s Holiday Pops program. Unlike the other songs in the medley, the final one, “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” was not collected (or written) by John Jacob Niles, but it was collected—by the first African American folk song collector, John Wesley Work, Jr. (And probably partly written by him too; it’s hard to tell with these things.)
Work was born after the Civil War in Nashville, Tennessee, and graduated from Fisk University. He did post graduate work at Harvard and the University of Chicago, but in between returned to Fisk as a professor. In 1907 he published New Jubilee Songs and Folk Songs of the American Negro, which contained the first publication of “Go, Tell It On the Mountain.”
He was also active with the Fisk Jubilee Singers and other singing groups, leading a concert tour through the south. Some credit the Jubilee Singers’ at-first-reluctant embrace of public performance of spirituals (which were then thought to be a shameful product of slavery) with the financial survival of the university.
The song’s text has proved elastic over the years, as some of these alternate verses illustrate:
When I was a seeker
I sought both night and day.
I ask de Lord to help me,
An’ He show me de way.
He made me a watchman
Upon the city wall,
An’ if I am a Christian
I am the least of all.
But it has been Work’s stanzas, based on the Christmas story in Luke, that have proven the most resilient.
Except during the Civil Rights era. Then, protesters replaced “Jesus Christ is born” in the song’s chorus with “Let my people go,” and added entirely new verses to the song, such as “Who’s that yonder dressed in red?/Let my people go/Must be the children Bob Moses led/Let my people go.” So the song that once helped to save Fisk University, that historic center of African American culture, was pressed into service to help save the whole race from segregation and racism.
As I’ve written about other Christmas songs featured by the Boston Pops this month, I at first left off “Kentucky Wassail” because there didn’t seem to be as much to say about it. But on reflection it’s worthy of a note in its own right.
Like “Jesus, Jesus, rest your head” and “The Seven Joys of Mary,” “Kentucky Wassail” was collected by Appalachian singer-songwriter and folk collector John Jacob Niles (his performance is here on Spotify). Folk songs vary from region to region and tend to drift in melody and lyric, but even so, as Hymns and Carols of Christmas notes, there are points of resemblance to the “Somerset Wassail” and the “Gloucestershire Wassail.”
The family resemblance is likely due to the nature of the wassail song. It wasn’t performed in parlors or churches, but was sung out in the cold by revelers visiting from house to house. While wassailing may have originated as a pagan rite of propitiation to encourage the apple trees to bear fruit for cider (no, seriously!), its more well known use was by villagers while making their “luck visits.” The verse in the Kentucky Wassail about the “good man, good wife, are you within… think of us singing in the muck and mire” has its roots in a song from Jacobean England that might have been heard by Shakespeare: “Good master and mistress,/While you’re sitting by the fire,/Pray think of us poor children,/Who are wandering in the mire.”
The tradition of the luck visit was part of the overall English tradition of the Christmas misrule, in which the poorer villagers went to the houses of the wealthy to drink them a toast from the wassail-bowl and wish them good health with the expectation of a tip. The well-wishing is the linguistic origin of “wassail,” from the Old English wæs (þu) hæl (“be you healthy or whole”). But woe betide the wealthy gentleman who did not give generously to the wassailers! Hymns and Carols notes:
“the practice of wassailing has degenerated into nothing short of armed home invasions. The banning of Christmas altogether in both England and the American colonies by the Puritans and Pilgrims were, in small part, a reaction to these and other excesses (certainly larger theological issues were at work which led to the English Civil War)… In the early 1800s in New York, prominent citizens were very concerned about such practices (which also featured such actions as gunfire, drunkenness, sexual licentiousness, excessive gambling, and riots…). It was their desire to take Christmas off the streets and into the homes. The evolution of Christmas practices in those years was a direct result. One change was from ‘wassailing’ (and a wassail bowl containing alcoholic beverages) to ‘caroling’ (which was more likely rewarded with hot chocolate, cookies, and the like).”
The important question: what was it like? Apparently the earliest wassails were spiced hard cider, but over time ale-based and wine-based varieties evolved. I like this version from Alton Brown which uses ale, apples, spices, and some eggs for body, and also this “lambswool” variant.
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.
There’s a starman waiting in the sky. He’d like to come and meet us but he thinks he’d blow our minds.
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.
Aquarium Drunkard has links to all the Beatles Christmas fan club records.
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.
Here’s what I had queued up in my Fresh Cuts playlist for this trip:
- De la Soul “And the Anonymous Nobody”
- Donnie McCaslin, “Beyond Now”
- Hoops, “Hoops EP”
- Jungle Brothers, “Done By the Forces of Nature”
- Mark Hollis, “Mark Hollis”
- Sting, “57th and 9th”
- A Tribe Called Quest, “We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service”
- XTC, “Nonsuch”
You’d almost think I was planning ahead.
An assortment of selections from Doom and Gloom from the Tomb that I’ve been meaning to check out for a while. In reverse chronological order (of posting, not of recording).
Sonic Youth, Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro, North Carolina, August 5, 2000 – falling neatly in between the first show I saw of theirs and the next two, squarely in the middle of their NYC Ghosts and Flowers period. Be ready for beat poetry.
Pharoah Sanders – Festival de Jazz de Nice, Nice, France, July 18, 1971 – Live Pharoah? Yes please.
Bill Evans Trio – Pescara Festival, Italy, July 18, 1969 / Vara Studio, Hilversum, Holland; March 26, 1969 – two live Bill Evans dates that sound worth checking out.
Yo La Tengo Does Dylan – of course they do. Curious about the cover of “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” which is on the short list of Dylan songs that I’d consider singing in public.
The New Yorker: Billy Bragg’s Railroad Songs. Splendid write-up of Bragg’s new album, and its connection to America in the year of Clinton vs. Trump.
An odd grab bag of stuff for an odd grab-bag of a day. But as the morning fog and rain burns off before the afternoon clouds roll in (feels a little like Seattle!), it’s a good day to strap the headphones on for a little Random 5.
Radiohead, “4 Minute Warning”: A song from the “Disk 2” companion to In Rainbows, it’s like a lot of the songs on that masterwork: pretty and conventional on the surface, shot full of existential dread underneath.
Nick Drake, “Know”: Speaking of existential dread, this bare guitar-and-voice track from Pink Moon carries the same emotional payload as Drake’s devastating “Black Eyed Dog,” without the comforting John Fahey-inspired solo guitar work. The repeated guitar figure comes across as accusatory and mocking as the narrator sings “You know that I love you/You know I don’t care/You know that I see you/You know I’m not there.” Is the narrator accusing? Stalking? Dead? A great track for Halloween.
PJ Harvey, “Hanging on the Wire”: Another pretty song of despair, this one from the battlefield. The technique is offputting for me, which may be why I never cottoned much to this album.
Nada Surf, “Here Goes Something”: Lovely, optimistic track from an album I’ve slept on a bit. Lucky isn’t as unabashedly brilliant as Let Go or The Weight is a Gift but there’s some really good stuff on it.
The Chieftains & Kevin Conneff: “The Green Fields of America”: No, I know. But come back. This isn’t the typical Chieftains track, heavy with tin flute and bonhomie (though I like a lot of those tracks too). This is a solo song by Kevin Conneff about the Irish immigrant experience, and it’s totally devastating. Must listen.
This performance of the Brahms Requiem was unique in a lot of ways for the TFC: luminous piano and pianissimo singing, intricate moving lines, and of course our hashed formation. I thoroughly enjoyed singing Saturday but had some difficulties on Thursday and Friday; I think the novelty of singing hashed made it challenging for me to relax sufficiently to provide the right level of vocal support for piano singing, and as a result I had tightness of the voice that affected my high range. But all’s well that ends well, right?
Review time! Generally the reviewers were receptive to our hashed approach, with one significant exception.
David Weininger for the Boston Globe, “BSO stages fruitful dialogue between past and present“:
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by guest conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, generated plenty of power but didn’t exhibit the kind of precision and command evident in previous performances. There were messy entrances, unsteady pitch, and blurry diction. The dynamics were mostly limited to loud and soft, without much middle ground, and balances between chorus and orchestra were sometimes askew.
Georgia Luikens for the Boston Musical Intelligencer, “Widmann and Brahms Obsess Over Death“:
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, expertly prepared by Lidiya Yankovskaya, brought out this humanism. From the opening “Selig sind…”, the propulsive certainty of faith and hope kept growing. This nuanced take included polished solos from baritone Thomas Hampson and soprano Camilla Tilling. The special qualities are rather difficult to quantify; it goes beyond great musicians making great music. Rather, there was a meditative quality to the more circumspect passages. While the first half of the fourth movement was glorious, the true range of the TFC emerged in the sixth movement, “Oh death where is thy sting?” where the full power and force of this mighty chorus came into full cry. Any choir can sing loudly, but even in the most fortissimo passages, this choir enunciated with precision and control, yet they never lost sight of the narrative.
Aaron Keebaugh for Boston Classical Review: “Nelsons, BSO explore contrasting takes on the eternal from Widmann and Brahms“:
The heroes of this performance were the singers of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Prepared by Lidiya Yankovskaya, the ensemble found the soft elegance and stirring emotionalism of Brahms’ score. There were a few tentative moments in the final chorus “Selig sind die Toten,” where the soft passages suffered from some unfocused attacks. But elsewhere the ensemble sounded at its full, resonant best, singing with warm buttery tone in the most famous movement, “Wie lieblich sind die Wohnungen,” where the serpentine lines crested and broke over one another like waves.
Jonathan Blumhofer for Arts Fuse Boston: “Concert Review: Boston Symphony Plays Widmann and Brahms at Symphony Hall“:
The biggest reason for this owes to the excellence of the TFC’s singing throughout the evening: it was warm, focused, and perfectly blended. Excellently prepared this week by Lidiya Yankovskaya and singing with the music in front of them (a departure from the John Oliver days of total memorization), the Chorus sounded notably confident and, even if enunciations of certain words (like “getröstet” in the first movement) were, to begin, questionable, the group gained in Germanic fluency as the piece progressed.
I learn something different each time I perform the Brahms Requiem. This time, what I’ve learned is that singing hashed is wonderful in the chorus room and slightly scary on stage. But once you get past the fear of exposure, it’s still pretty darned glorious.
We’re singing this one with Thomas Hampson and Camilla Trilling. Some of us caught Ms. Trilling singing the sixth movement fugue with us, quietly, from memory. Some pieces are made to be internalized.
New Yorker: David Bowie, celebrated by his friends. That’s a concert I’d love to have seen. I’m a huge fan of Blackstar and of McCaslin and his band.