Christmas music (8)–Best American folk/indie/whatever Christmas album

This is a bit of a mix in terms of category, because I have no idea what music gets called these days, or why. Folk used to have a fairly specific meaning in US music—and it still does in the UK and much of Europe. But lines have gotten pretty blurred the past several decades, and now it seems as if “folk” is applied to pretty much anything that isn’t rock. And even here it gets messy—what genre would one call The Levellers, for example? Anyway, the choice here is pretty straightforward–The Roches, We Three Kings. Since there are three Roches, the title is ironic, I suppose. But it’s a wonderful album–the Roches all have high thin reedy voices, but they harmonize extraordinarily well, and there are some lovely arrangements of all sorts of music, from the usual carols to Handel, and some of their own songs as well–Star of Wonder is a gem. This was my kids’ favorite Christmas album when they were smaller, perhaps because of their definitive version of Frosty the Snowman, sung in New Yawkese. It still gets plenty of play each Christmas. We’ll give this one to the Roches–this album has just brought everyone I know just too much sheer enjoyment.

Running pretty close as a main choice are the two Loreena McKennitt Christmas—or more properly, seasonal– albums, To Drive the Cold Winter Away and A Midwinter’s Night Dream. Again, like The Roches, it’s hard to know how to categorize McKennitt, whose output ranges from straight-up Canadian folk to world music in the broadest sense—the label “Celtic,” if it ever fit in the first place, has long since seemed inapplicable. She has a husky soprano voice and an excellent sense of song selection. Of the two, I prefer the latter, probably because it’s the more recent. For the more druidic among us, Dream’s first half is mostly about the solstice celebration—this fits right in in England, of course. Both albums have a mix of singing and instrumentals, and the arrangements are glorious. An extraordinary artist, and ike all great art, these albums take you somewhere else.

Also in the pack is David Grisman’s Acoustic Christmas. Grisman has been making interesting music for decades, since his early days with Peter Rowan and his 1970s triumphs with his quintet—an elegant meld of folk, jazz, and whatever else comes to mind. It’s designed to be improvisational, but Grisman’s arrangements can also be quite complicated, requiring multiple hearings. For those not familiar with Grisman’s ouvre, this is a good place to start—you’ve got a store. It’s all instrumental, with Grisman firing away merrily on his mandolin

And actually, we need to make a distinction between more traditional “folk” singers like Jean Ritchie and singers like The Roches, or Shawn Colvin or Sara Hickman (both of whom also have Christmas albums, but they’re mostly covers). It’s all a bit amorphous, I know, but America (and Canada too) does have a venerable folk tradition, largely Anglo-Scottish-Irish associated with Appalachia in the case of America, but lots of other more regional traditions as well—the Germans in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Scandinavians in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. They’re pretty much all immigrant traditions, of course. And then there’s a lively Hispanic one as well, but I’m not familiar with that one, at least yet. But these are still eminently worthy of attention (and even adulation). Perhaps most importantly, Jean Ritchie has two remarkable traditional folk albums, Kentucky Christmas: Old and New, and Carols for all Seasons. On both of these, you can hear the direct lineage to the English/Scottish/Irish tradition that pervades Appalachian music, with the American edge they’ve picked up over the years. Kentucky Christmas is mainly traditional Appalachian Christmas songs and carols; Carols for All Seasons is just what it says it is, including Christmas carols. Sadly, as is so often the case, Kentucky Christmas has, as Amazon so discretely puts it, “been discontinued by the manufacturer,” although you can still pick one up. Carols for all Seasons is happily still available.

I should also mention Peggy Seeger and various members of the Seeger family’s American Folk Songs for Christmas, a two disc set with a much broader range than Ritchie’s albums, from all over the country, in fact, collected by Ruth Crawford Seeger (the mother of Peggy and other sundry Seegers). And the album cover is wonderful—just like those great book covers of American chldren’s books of the 1940s and 1950s. Also, sadly, no longer available, but worth tracking down. Ewan MacColl (who was married to Seeger) is along for the ride. This is worth finding not only for the exuberance of the performances, but also for the range and diversity of the songs selection. A classic, and one hopes it will be re-issued at some point. With the same cover! The Pete Seeger Traditional Christmas Carols is pleasant enough, but really only of interest to diehard Pete Seeger fans, since it sounds like any other Pete Seeger album.

This is one of those categories where everyone is going to have a favorite, so these are just mine—I’m sure there are a number that I have missed. I suppose I should mention Shawn Colvin’s album of a few years back, and Sara Hickman’s. Both are great singers and songwriters (especially Hickman), but here they’re mainly engaged in traditional songs, some of which work better than others. I throw them in mainly because they are two of my favorite singers—but, again, in a sense they sound like any of their other albums. As in the rock area, it’s hard to find new Christmas songs that actually rise to the occasion. Dar Williams has written a truly great Christmas song–The Christians and the Pagans–but it’s just one song. I also have to say that I thought The McGarrigle Christmas Hour was dreadful, even though I love the McGarrigle sisters, but I suppose there are enough fans of Rufus and Martha that it was a hit. One listen was enough for me, though–it sounded like a bad junior high school glee club

Actually, the US folk music magazine Dirty Linen every year carries short reviews of the new folk Christmas albums of the year. And I’ve gone back and noted some of the reviews from past years (since I NEVER throw anything away, since you never know), as well as this year. And some look interesting–Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer’s American Noel certainly warrants a look. Not that the past few years’ albums has been all that much better. There’s an obviousness about many of these albums, sadly. What have the past few years brought us? Hey, look, some Celtic Christmas albums–big surprise there–including one by Anúna which might be ok. No Madonna, thankfully–how come she hasn’t done one yet? But there’s Emmylou Harris, who is a lovely singer, but I bet it sounds just like every other lovely Emmmylou Harris album. Ooh, John Denver. John Denver? A re-release. Robin and Linda Williams–that has a certain air of inevitability to it. Lot of Bluegrass collections. And a whole bunch of others. Actually, the Odetta one might be something–what category does that go into anyway? A couple of years ago Jesse Colin Young released one–he’s now a dead ringer for Christopher Walken. And Carly Simon–why? I’m sure Kathy Mattea has one too—I mean, who doesn’t have a Christmas album yet?

Lots of people seem to like Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong. I have no comment. And I haven’t listened to The Burns Sisters’ Tradition, although I like their other albums. Nice title, though.

Finally, two other albums of interest. First, Harry Belafonte has two Christmas albums, both of which are available. It’s hard to know how Belafonte resonates today, but in the 1950s and 1960s he was a revolutionary figure. Since he was from the Caribbean, he managed to avoid much (but not all, obviously) of the stigma that was still associated with black artists who tried to cross over into a white audience. Belafonte was enormously popular not only as an interpreter of Caribbean songs, but also for covering a whole range of other folk music as well. And introduccing a wide range of other artists–particularly Odetta and Miriam Makeba. Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean was the first real album I ever bought—I still remember saving the $3 or whatever it was and wandering down to the record story (as it was quaintly called then) and plunking it down, and going home and playing the album incessantly when my parents weren’t around. Not that they didn’t like it—they just weren’t interested in hearing it 25 times in a row. Anyway, the Christmas albums—Harry Belafonte Christmas and To Wish You a Merry Christmas—are both great, although you really only need the first, since everything on the second one seems to show up on the first one, with some additional songs. The second is the actual CD re-issue of the 1960 original, though. A mix of traditional Christmas songs done with the Belafonte élan and some other songs you’re probably familiar with, but that Belafonte was probably responsible for introducing to a wider audience—Mary’s Boy Child, for example. Required.

And, even though we have a whole separate category for them coming up, let me just mention The Boston Camerata, who have produced, among their many Christmas albums, two that contain early American Christmas music. First, An American Christmas. It’s just that—18th and 19th century Christmas songs that early Americans of that time would have been familiar with, from a variety of religious traditions—Mennonite, Baptist, lots of shape note singing. It will be very different from what you expect, frankly, unless you’re already familiar with this music—but you know what? It’s folk music. Second, Sing We Noel is a collection of English and American Christmas songs from the 12th to the 19th centuries, particularly the English ones. Again, it’s folk music, Jim, but not as we know it. The extraordinary The Midnight Cry shows up on both albums, and Sing We Noel has Fulfillment, a short song that will take your breath away. Each of these alone makes these albums worth owning.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the English Christmas folk tradition.