Christmas music (9)–Best English folk/indie/whatever Christmas album

Actually, for the country that invented the Christmas carol, you’d expect there to be a pretty wide range of choices, and you wouldn’t be disappointed, but still, you’d expect more. That’s probably because the folks who would be making these albums are perfectly happy down at the church caroling away. Why hasn’t June Tabor put out Christmas albums? Thankfully, Kate Rusby did one last year, and it’s a treat. But the clear winner here is the Albion Band, or The Albion Christmas Band. They have several albums out, and they’re all very English and very folky, including the brand new one this year, Traditional. Which means simple songs simply presented, with a modicum of accompaniment, but with great gusto.

The Albion band has been trundling along for over thirty years now. It was founded by Ashley Hutchings, who was the original bass player for Fairport Convention, including the fabulous Liege and Lief album. Anyway, they do more English folky stuff than Fairport does these days. In fact, Hutchings has been involved in multiple projects over this past decade, one of which was based on Cecil Sharpe. Sharpe was the guy who went around England and America at the turn of the century collecting folk songs, thousands of them, in fact, and they are all lodged in the Cecil Sharpe Center for Folk Dance and Song, not too far from where I live. Well, the collection is still used extensively by singers and dancers (he also collected dances!). Kate Rusby goes there two or three times a year to look up Yorkshire songs, for example. Anyway, the point here is that Hutchings, who is now in his early sixties and is also a pretty good actor, was touring the country a couple of years ago with a Cecil Sharpe show, along with several other musicians, doing some of the songs (and the occasional dance), and Hutchings reciting selections from Sharpe’s journals. Just delightful. If he should come your way at some point, go–it’s great fun. Actually, this year’s tour was fun too—Hutchings revisited the Larkrise Revisted program he originally developed in 1978, a collection of local English village songs at the end of the 19th century, when the world was changing. A marvelous show.

Now, when the English talk folk, they mean it. This means lots of traditional instruments—not just the fiddle, but also accordions—often lots of them—and whatever else may be laying around. You rarely here accordions in American folk music—you often hear them here. So the music right away sounds a bit different just because of that. In fact, on one of the Albion Christmas albums you find a polka. And when you listen to this music, it’s clear where so much of American folk music came from—it’s the same musical tradition. And the other thing to keep in mind is the locality of the songs. Americans are used to regional difference across great distances—New England to Mississippi, for example, represents a dramatic difference in musical temperaments and styles. In England you can find that in villages forty miles apart.

The other point is this—as was mentioned earlier, carols are simply folk songs that have been adapted to a religious or celebratory occasion. And in the case of Christmas carols, these were often carols for some other occasion before they became Christmas carols. There is a long tradition, especially in Northern Europe and England, of this process. It shows up dramatically in a marvelous album by Waterson/Carthy, the venerable old family of English folk (and Eliza Carthy as well) called Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man, a collection of traditional carols, some for Christmas, some not. In fact, for the real deal, Topic Records (which brings us The Watersons, June Tabor and a whole slew of other greats) has issued a 5-CD set called MidWinter, which is an amazing collection of all sorts of English songs and poems for the solstice, Christmas, the turning of the year, and the those long winter nights. The long list of artists is impressive (too many to mention), and the music is interspersed with various readings, some of which you will be familiar with, some not. How about Robert Frost reading Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, John Fahey playing a waltz, Jen Ritchie, Ledbelly singing one of his own Christmas songs, lots of Watersons, Shirley Collins, and Ewan McColl—and that’s just part of the first CD. Delightful, although much of it is pretty raw, so it may take some getting used to.

There are others that come to mind as well–Maddy Prior Prior and Steeley Span have some holiday albums that are worth tracking down, and some less familiar groups with great names–Magpie Lane and Sneake’s Noyse—have recently put out a couple of CDs worth a listen. It’s Christmas music, not as we know it perhaps, but you’ll hear quite a few roots in all this.

I am deliberately excluding that weird category know as “Celtic Christmas”, by the way. This is that awful category dreamed up by record companies once they discovered that Windham Hill records had hit a gold mine with their first two Celtic Christmas albums. Most of this stuff is noodling and soporific, although Windham Hill’s second one (which actually had some singing on it, as opposed to all the others) was actually pretty good. Still, that’s no excuse for the dozens and dozens of Celtic Christmas albums that now clutter the Christmas music bins in music stores, with generally dreadful noodly new age musicbabble. If you want to hear some real Celtic Christmas music, check out the real thing–Noels Celtiques, on the Green Linnet label. It’s music from Brittany, sung by the Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde (what a great name!), and sung in Breton, which is, unsurprisingly, a Celtic language.

There’s something of a Celtic revival going on again, by the way. These crop up every couple of decades. The recent one, it must be said, is partly in response to the book by an English (of course) historian a while ago who claimed that the entire Celtic thing is a myth dreamed up by the Victorians, and latched on to by rabid Scottish nationalists. But there were real Celts, who started out in what is now Switzerland, and noodled around Europe until they ended up in places like Northern France and Western Britain, where they still are. Except for the ones in Northern France, who got pushed out to the edges of Brittany by the Normans, who were Vikings who thought they were French. Anyway, there’s a big annual Celtic festival in Brittany, which I keep meaning to go to, because it sound like fun. Lots of fiddle music.

Speaking of France, how’s the French-bashing going? Is that still going on? It’s hard to keep track of who Americans hate, aside from each other, these days. People here are still confused by this. Especially now, since the French turned out to be right about the whole thing. So are people mad at them now because they were right, or what? No one there seems particularly mad at Bush, even though it’s fairly clear that he lied through his teeth, although the level of disgust with Tony Blair keeps rising, especially with the more recent testimony coming out of the Chilcot commission. I note that Congressman Walter Jones, the guy responsible for changing the names of the fries sold in the Congressional cafeteria from “French fries” to “Freedom fries”, later came out in favor of a withdrawal of US troops, and co-sponsored legislation to that effect. Times change.

Blair might actually be in some trouble here. You may have noticed he spends a lot of time in the US these days, far more than he does here. Well, he may have to. We are now into our third inquiry into what led up to the invasion of Iraq. (I notice the US does not actually appear to have had any yet. Just sayin’ is all). And the first two infuriated people so much because of their whitewash nature that this one looks like it may actually get somewhere. So far what has come out pretty clearly implicates Blair and his government in at least one key area—preventing the UK military from preparing for an occupation. The Blair government was so intent on camouflaging its intent to support the US invasion that it prevented the UK military from stocking up, as it were. Which was one of he principal reason why the first couple of years of the Iraq occupation was such a disaster. So while the US was unprepared for an occupation because of the willfulness, arrogance and stupidity of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Feith and Wolfowitz, the UK was unprepared by design. It’s hard to know which is worse, actually. This is apparently a potential war crime under the Geneva conventions, I am told in the UK press, according to testimony from senior UK military figures. And while the US is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court, the UK is. There is a perfectly plausible scenario her where what comes out of this inquiry could implicate Tony Blair as a war criminal. Of course, if he stays in the US, he’s not likely to be arrested.

Blair’s fascination with, and obeisance to, Bush was always something of a mystery here. There were the large marches of course, in which yours truly participated as a veteran. But the oddest episode of all came in 2004 with Bush’s state visit. This was a complete disaster, although I suspect it wasn’t played that way in the US media. They had to keep canceling events that he was supposed to do. Like a joint address to the House of Commons and the House of Lords, because too many people would have been yelling at him. And then there was the meeting with the families of British soldiers who have died in Iraq–they had to work really hard to find some who were prepared to be civil. Most families simply refused to meet him (although quite a few of them would still really like to sit down with Mr. Blair for what would undoubtedly be a lively discussion). Actually, a few weeks before he showed up there was this spirited dispute between the palace and the foreign office over who had actually invited Bush–each denied it. So that’s still a little mystery. Actually, it looks like it was set up between Bush’s first ambassador, who was referred to as “The Invisible Man” in diplomatic and press circles since no one had ever seen him (hint–he usually wasn’t even here, but back in Kentucky), and the Queen, since they’re apparently friends from being horse people.

It’s not clear what the Queen thought of all this, but some hint was provided by the seating at the State dinner, which was frankly bizarre–she seated Karl Rove next to Charles Kennedy, the former head of the Liberal Democrats, whose opposition to the war was long, loud, and, as events have borne out, quite justified. They must have had quite a conversation. Much was made, by the way, of the size of the entourage Sparky brought with him–three jumbo jets, 700 people, both his limos (he always travels in a group of limos so that no one knows which one he’s in–that will certainly fool those wily terrorists), and an extraordinarily large secret service detail, who astonished the Brits by requesting diplomatic immunity for shooting demonstrators, and who wanted to set up missile launchers for crowd control. And who wanted to close the London underground for the days Bush was here in the area Bush was going to be, and all the main shopping streets. No wonder people here think Americans have lost their minds.

Then there was the £5 million cost to the city of London, which then-Mayor Ken Livingstone requested the national government help out on, only to be turned down by Tony “suddenly there’s no money” Blair. Ken’s comment was that it was costing every Londoner £2 for Bush to come (his math isn’t too good), but that they would probably all pay £4 for him to stay away. There was indeed a considerably beefed-up police presence around the places where Bush was hanging out–so much so that crime rose 20% everywhere else in London while Bush was here. There was also some lively discussion in the press of the last time Sparky met the Queen–at a White House reception in 1991 or thereabouts, when Pop was president, and Sparky showed up drunk in cowboy boots, and started chatting up the Queen with that great line, “So, do you have any black sheep in your family?” before Barbara stormed over and dragged him out of the room. True story.

Bush’s more recent visits weren’t any better, really. There was July, 2005, of course, for the G-7 (or G-8–I get confused) summit of world leaders, hosted at Gleneagles (where I have been known to get a very occasional par) by Mr. Blair. And, of course, that was the time of the London underground bombings. Tony looked pained, as well he damn well should. Bush just looked like, well, Bush. He waited until he got back to Washington to go to the British embassy there to sign the condolence book. What a putz. No one here (even Blair, I suspect) wanted him back. But come back he did, although he was pretty much ignored in subsequent visits.

Actually, maybe I’m a little hard on Bush. It is Christmas, after all. Just because I thought he was an unelected draft dodging chickenhawk insider trading convicted drunk driving ex-cokehead willfully (and boastfully) ignorant rich boy adolescent bully who will turn out to be the most destructive president in American history doesn’t mean he hasn’t done some good things. Or one, anyway.

This was the proposal to make fund-raising for terrorist organizations a capital offence. Punishable by the death penalty. Personally, as someone who has no philosophic objection to the death penalty, I think this is a splendid idea. Obviously, the thinking here is probably concerned with, you know, dark-skinned people with funny headgear. But this is much too limiting. The problem with this proposal is that it wouldn’t be enforced broadly enough. If you raise money for people who you know are going to use it to blow up innocent women and children (among others), you should be prepared to face the consequences.

Consider representative Peter King, of Long Island, who is, by pure chance, a Republican. King has enjoyed a reputation as a maverick–he voted against Clinton’s impeachment, and ran John McCain’s campaign in New York in 2000. He’s one of those really stupid American politicos that the BBC invariably finds when they want a comment on something. But King, who appears to be in the “not the sharpest tool in the box” category of politicians, spent much of the early part of the decade in vigorous French-bashing, actually accusing France of supporting terrorism because of its lack of support for Sparky’s well-thought-out plan in Iraq. You know, kind of like Fox news, which when it first showed up here delighted everyone because the English all thought it was a brilliant satire—a version of The Daily Show in the daytime. More recently, King has shown alarming signs of being consumed by an unhealthy interest in Michael Jackson. King was also responsible for accusing President Bush of wanting US ports to be exposed to terrorists, and during the 2008 presidential campaign agreed with John McCain when McCain called New Yorkers elitists, indicating that age has not diminished his facilities one bit.

King is less well known for his support of various Irish organizations since the early 1970s, and he has spent quite a lot of time and effort during the past two decades decade bashing the English for their history of human rights abuses in Ireland (a claim that is not without historical foundation, frankly, but since England is the only real ally the US has at the moment, this seems a little ungenerous on King’s part). However, King also has some dodgier connections. He has regularly received money from a group named the “Friends of Sinn Fein”, a well-known IRA front organization, and has been a strong supporter of a group called Noraid. Noraid claims to raise funds for families of victims killed in “the struggle”, and is surprisingly still quite active in fund-raising. Check out their website. One might think that “the struggle” was mostly over at this point, but one would apparently be wrong. In fact, the Department of Justice required Noraid to register as an agent of the Provisional IRA. Now, Noraid has denied raising funds for the IRA or, more recently, the Real IRA (those gents responsible for bombing Omagh in 1998, killing 30 or so, mostly women and children, on a crowded Market Saturday). But the FBI is apparently not convinced, and, you know, these guys get their money from somewhere. A couple of years ago, King decided that he no longer wants to be associated with the IRA. What are King’s views on the Bush proposal, one wonders?

So, my fellow Americans, the next time you’re in some Irish pub on the east coast, like Boston or New York, listening to some nice Irish fiddle band (or a Celtic Christmas show!), and someone passes the hat for “the country” or “the struggle”, think again.

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