Merry Christmas from 1953

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Part of the 1953 Virginia Spectator Christmas issue (previous posts here and here) was a set of mildly off-color Christmas woodcuts showing the life of the Baron Soppenscotten, who appears to have had a good deal in common with the students at UVa during the period. This is definitely the most elaborate art published on the theme in any UVa magazine I’ve seen. And what is Christmas, after all, without a little gluttony and drunkenness? (I know: it’s Christmas.)

“… or, I saw Donner Kissing Santa Claus”

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I first wrote about the questionable treasures and pseudo-carols locked within the December 1953 “Misplaced Mistletoe” issue of the Virginia Spectator back in June, but with Christmas only a few days away it seems high time to revisit the book. Having gotten the clean carols out of the way early, here’s one of the more questionable numbers, “Sexual Misbehavior of a Female Reindeer, or I Saw Donner Kissing Santa Claus.”

…Enjoy?

I saw Donner kissing Santa Claus
It was really Mommy dressed to kill
Dear Mother looked so queer
In the costume of a deer,
With furry antlers from her front
A tail from out her rear!
Then I saw Donner licking Santa’s paws,
Mommy’s eyes just never had that look.
It wasn’t mother, costume-clad,
‘Twas Donner deer seducing Dad!
Doctor Kinsey, where in hell’s that book?

“Go tell it on the mountain”

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. 

“Kentucky Wassail”

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.

“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.

Christmas in June: the December 1953 Virginia Spectator

 

Cover, 1953 Virginia Spectator
Cover, 1953 Virginia Spectator

In the 1940s and 1950s, the former Virginia University Magazine / University of Virginia Magazine, the literary magazine at the University founded by the Washington and Jefferson Literary Societies, had become a men’s magazine in the mold of Esquire. Jokes, dating advice, and parodies ruled. But I’m not sure they ever exceeded the conceptual brilliance of the December 1953 issue (volume 115, number 4), also known as “The Misplaced Mistletoe Issue.” Featuring woodcuts (which we’ll look at another time), a Christmas story, and a suggestive cocktail themed cover, the whole package provides a humorous, if sexist, dose of holiday mirth.

The best bit of all is the eight page carol book, “A Treasury of Yuletide Song,” stapled into the center. Featuring such titles as “Lament of a Reindeer at Christmas Time,” “Advice to All Those Who Think That Being a Civil Engineer is the Greatest Form of Life, or Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Wahoo,” and “Sexual Misbehavior of a Female Reindeer, or I Saw Donner Kissing Santa Claus,” the apex (or nadir, depending) is “Wreck the Halls, Carouse, and Volley,” which ends with the admonition “Neck with molls and fraus of folly … Don’t forget to use protection / Oui-oui-oui, oui-oui-oui, oui-oui-oui! / Or you’ll get a bad infection, / V.D.D.D.D.D.D.D.D.” Besides making “Rugby Road” look tame, the songbook confirms that the early 1950s at Virginia were a different time.

Below is a relatively presentable excerpt from the songbook, showing that bourbon was not always the exclusive tipple of the Cavalier. Enjoy.

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A dream of Christmas: the Glee Club Christmas Concert’s first ten years

Oldest known Glee Club Christmas Concert program, from 1943

This year marked the 74th annual Christmas concerts of the Virginia Glee Club. Started during wartime in 1941 by Glee Club conductor Harry Rogers Pratt and continued through to the present day without interruption, this concert series has been the longest running musical tradition at the University of Virginia. I thought I’d look back and see what we know about these concerts and their evolution.

The first Glee Club Christmas concert was held in 1941 under the direction of Harry Rogers Pratt. We don’t have any documentary evidence of this concert; somehow no one associated with the University saved the program, at least not that we’ve found. But we have a College Topics (forerunner of the Cavalier Daily) article documenting the existence of the second concert, in 1942. The concert was to include a procession down the Lawn, “several Wassail songs,” and an audience singalong.

The 1942 concert was Pratt’s last performance as Glee Club director; he resigned the following spring to focus on war efforts. His successor, Stephen Tuttle, continued the tradition during wartime and arguably made the Glee Club Christmas concert what it is today, with a mix of audience carols, familiar and new holiday music, and interesting collaborations. We have the program from the 1943 concert, and it’s interesting reading. Arguably a little heavy on Holst and Bach, there are a few jewels among the items chosen, including a Tuttle arrangement of the Spanish carol “Hasten, Shepherds” that would show up performed by the Virginia Gentlemen in the 1967 Christmas performances. While composer and music department head Randall Thompson was accompanist for the performances, none of his works were programmed; that would change in years to come.

The other noteworthy thing about the 1943 performance is the inclusion of the Madrigal Group. Comprised of women associated with the University community, this group of thirteen women appears to have been UVa’s first women’s chorus! (I previously wrote about the Madrigal Group in 2011; sadly nothing came of my appeal for information.)

We don’t have a program from 1944, but the performance is attested in College Topics, including a roster of the Madrigal Group (which included a few members who had sung in 1943). 1945 continues in much the same vein, including a performance of Randall Thompson’s Alleluia (first performed by the Glee Club in its fall concerts that year).

The postwar years saw a massive swell of membership in the Glee Club, but the Christmas Concert formula remained remarkably stable, albeit with one major change, the departure of the Madrigal Group — there’s no attestation of the group’s existence after Christmas 1945 (save for a brief revival of the name in 1957). Over time, as Tuttle’s tenure in the directorship lengthened, his influence on the repertoire increased, with Renaissance composers like Orlando di Lasso and Josquin appearing alongside the customary Bach in 1947. This concert was also the oldest for which a recording survives, according to the UVA Special Collections library.

In 1948, during Tuttle’s Harvard sabbatical, Henry Morgan stepped in and delivered a fine entry in the canon, with a program that differed in specifics (a new Peter Warlock carol, a new carol by Morgan himself) but overall fit the general formula that was by now well established. I don’t have the 1949 program in the Glee Club archives, but 1950 continued along the same track, with new carols (“How Still and Tiny,” a Polish carol, makes its first appearance this year) joining the well established English and French numbers.

In the first ten years, the formula for the Virginia Glee Club Christmas Concert was well established: audience carols, familiar and unfamiliar tunes, larger works, guest groups, and lots of reflective holiday works. That you could take any of these programs from the first ten years and perform them without modification today suggests the longevity of the formula, and helps to drive home why these concerts became an annual tradition.

Random 10: Week Before Christmas Edition

As one of my friends observed on Facebook recently, I haven’t posted anything in quite a while; either my life is too boring or insanely busy. I am trying to work on driving down the “too busy” factor as we get into the holidays, but so far about the only thing I can manage is to sneak in Christmas carols and music at every opportunity. Hence this random 10, generated by shuffling the Holiday genre on my iPhone (a relatively short list this week, hence the repetition). What’s your holiday music playlist look like?

  1. Boston Camerata, “The Heavenly Courtier” (An American Christmas)
  2. Julie Andrews, “Angels from the Realms” (Christmas with Julie Andrews and André Previn)
  3. The Beatles, “1967” (Fan Club Christmas Records)
  4. Boston Camerata, “Pretty Home” (An American Christmas)
  5. Maddy Prior with the Carnival Band, “In Dulci Jubilo” (A Tapestry of Carols)
  6. Theatre of Voices, dir. Paul Hillier, “Susser die Glocken” (Carols from the Old and New Worlds)
  7. Tewkesbury Abbey Choir, dir. Andrew Sackett, “The Truth from Above” (Christmas Carols from Tewkesbury Abbey)
  8. The Beatles, “1963” (Fan Club Christmas Records)
  9. Elvis Presley, “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (The King of Rock’n’Roll: The Complete 1950s Recordings)
  10. Elvis Presley, “Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me)” (The King of Rock’n’Roll: The Complete 1950s Recordings)

Watch out, Rudolph

We haven’t taken down our Christmas tree yet. Sometimes I fantasize about just sticking the whole thing away, decorations and all, and hauling it out next year ready to go. But these guys did one better: they launched it. On 32 model rocket boosters (Estes D boosters, to be exact). Watch:

(Okay, it’s not really a tree, but who cares? It’s still one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time.)

Magret a la Mad Elf

Christmas dinner has come and gone, and brought some unusual triumphs.

First, the side dishes: alongside the usual boiled parslied potatoes and green beans, I slipped in a dish of glazed turnips. The turnips were so young and soft that I was afraid to really brown them for fear of turning them to mush, so they were just kind of boiled. But delicious. Like a potato and a radish made sweet, forbidden love. I never had turnips growing up, but they are certainly growing on me now. I suppose that increases my New Englander score a bit.

Next, the main dish. As already noted, I seared duck breasts — four Muscovy breasts and a Magret — then popped them in the oven to rest while I worked on the sauce. I poured out all but a thin film of duck fat on the bottom of the pan, dumped in a diced shallot, and scooted it around a bit while it sizzled. Then a few tablespoons of flour to thicken the roux while I pondered the deglazing. I steeled my nerves, opened a Troëgs Mad Elf—and poured the whole thing into the pan.

An aside on the Mad Elf. I try to find a holiday beer every year–sometimes it’s been a standby like the Harpoon Winter Warmer, sometimes Belgians like the Kerst Pater Winter Ale. Some of the selections have not lasted, and I’m still sad that Orchard Street Brewing Company’s Jingle Ale went away when the brewery did. This year’s holiday beer was the Mad Elf from the Troëgs Brewing Company in Harrisburg, PA. An astonishingly subtle 11% ABV, the cherries and honey mask the heat until it’s too late, as a rule. Well worth snapping up a few sixes if you come across it.

At any rate, I thought, if I was going to do a cherry sauce for the duck but had no cherries, why not use a beer brewed with cherries instead? The answer became clear after I had deglazed the pan and cooked it for a bit: the bitterness from the hops threatened to swamp the other flavors and make the sauce inedible. I desperately cast about for something to fight the bitterness and found a bottle of pure cranberry juice in the fridge, and added about 3/4 cup, tasting after each splash. The cranberry juice did wonders: without totally removing the bitterness, it added a deep sweetness and redness to the sauce that made it piquant and splendid. I added dried thyme and sage, cooked it through, and we were ready to go.

And it was excellent. The flavor of the magret breasts was gamier than I thought, but the sauce carried it through. Definitely a keeper.

Christmas 2009

Things have been a little quiet on the blog, even on the linkblog, this month. That’s because things have been anything but quiet in the rest of my life.

We have all but finished the addition project; I’ll be posting pictures of the finished work later. I’ve been insanely busy at the office, running from a web platform release (our seventh this year) to a couple of large projects to budget meetings. Then there’s been Holiday Pops. I still have a couple more concerts to sing for that…

Christmas itself has been a little challenging this year. My father-in-law fell on the second night of his visit. Originally we thought he was OK, but his pain was getting worse, so we took him to the hospital. Turns out he had a compression fracture of one of his lumbar vertebrae. So he’s spending Christmas in the hospital (that’s a seasonably snowy picture from the hospital window above), and we’re not very festive at the house. He seems to be getting better; hopefully we will have some time with him here at home soon before everyone has to go back to work.

Not that being home isn’t work–what with putting together Christmas presents and moving into our new bedroom, I’ve been a busy beaver indeed. But I’ve still taken time out to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas (on one of our Christmas presents–a new bigger flatscreen, so that we can put the old one in the basement guest bedroom). After all, I need to thank Mr. Schulz’s creation for driving a ton of traffic to my blog–the number one search term since Thanksgiving around here has been “charlie brown christmas tree,” leading to an old article about Urban Outfitters’ replica of the tiny real Christmas tree from the show (and amazingly, they still make it).

Ah well. The rest of the family can nap. I’m off to figure out how to cook the duck breasts we got for Christmas dinner. Maybe we’ll give the recipe with the cherries and port sauce another go. Or shall we just do a sweet cherry sauce? A pomegranate-wine sauce? Balsamic and apricot? The blood orange sauce I made for Valentines Day in 2005? Or maybe I’ll just punt and do a pan sauce. We’ll see. I like having these kinds of dilemmas.