In the good old days, the Firestone tire store was the place you got your holiday music. The display of vinyl albums sat on the counter, next to the road flares. Bing Crosby might be beaming out from the cover, wearing a red stocking cap. Or you might find a collection of classic holiday tunes sung by a faceless Caucasian choir. But at 99 cents, it was hard to go wrong.
Nowadays, it's not that simple--but it's definitely more interesting. Slide guitars, fingerpicking, penny whistles, and mp3 sampling remind us that the holidays are another occasion to recognize and experience different traditions and infinite variations on a theme. Here's a small sampling of releases and re-releases for the holidays.
You know you're not in Kansas anymore when a five-member African-American outfit can sing "Dreidel dreidel dreidel, I made it out of clay" against church-style bass runs and wailing steel guitars. But that's what you'll find on The Campbell Brothers' Sacred Steel for the Holidays (Arhoolie), a CD that highlights the slide guitar traditions of the House of God churches.
While Denise Brown lends some light jazz vocals to gospel numbers like "Go Tell it on the Mountain," and traditional Christmas tunes like "Joy to the World" and "The First Noel," it's the guitars that really do the talking here: Chuck Campbell and Dan Tyack's pedal steel, Darik Campbell's lap steel and Philip Campbell's guitar and MIDI guitar. In their able hands, these instruments speak with an eloquence and sensitivity that more than matches the sacredness of numbers, which include "Rock of Ages," "Silent Night" and "The First Noel."
To Shorten the Winter: An Irish Christmas with Tommy Sands (Green Linnet) is a remarkable accomplishment: At once complex, multi-layered and a delight to hear, it's also a political statement--Sands chose to record in Northern Ireland--that makes no bones about calling for hope, peace and a better world for our kids, whose "childhood was stolen by sad and troubled times."
Musically, the CD begins innocently enough: A children's choir sings "All I want for Christmas is a land of love and peace." But an accordion, playing counterpoint to a bouncing camel ride of a percussion track on "The Bushes of Jerusalem," quickly tips us off that Sands has some tricks up his sleeve. One of them is using uileann pipes to recreate the classic organ riff on his rendition of "A Whiter Shade of Pale," which could be interpreted as a surreal recounting of a Christmas ceilidh.
Another pleasant surprise is Sands' wistful reading of poet Paddy Kavanagh's Christmas memories over an improvised tune, "A Call to Hope." And "The Mixed Marriage," his duet with Dolores Kean, is a lighthearted tribute to individuals who manage to stop fighting--even if the world can't.
Although he's remembered as being eclectic, eccentric and innovative, the late John Fahey was also brilliant when it came to performing the simplest and most familiar holiday tunes on solo guitar. They were also his most successful commercial recordings, and their re-release on CD reminds us why.
Fahey said he got the idea for making 1968's The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album while standing in a Winston-Salem record warehouse as a teenager. That's when he noticed a 4-foot stack of White Christmas albums by Bing Crosby, and was informed that the record had sold out every year for the previous two decades. His album's instant success led to a second release, 1975's Christmas with John Fahey, Vol. II, and both are combined here on one Takoma CD.
The first release covers the hits: "Joy to the World," "The First Noel," "Silent Night," along with lesser-known numbers like "Go I Will Send Thee" and "Lo How A Rose e'er Blooming." On the later recording, Fahey is joined by Richard Ruskin for longer and more adventurous turns on numbers like "Russian Christmas Overture," "Oh Holy Night," and the 12-minute improvised "Christmas Fantasy--Part II," all signs that the restless Fahey was never willing to stay inside the box for very long. This combined Takoma reissue is a vivid reminder of Fahey's power and grace, and deserves a place in everyone's holiday collection.
If Santa didn't leave you that hit of acid you wanted in your stocking last year, A Mutated Christmas (www.detritus.net/ illegal art), might be the next best thing. Sponsored by RTMark (pronounced Art Mark), an organization "dedicated to channeling funds from donors to workers for the sabotage of corporate products," this collection of traditional holiday tunes is pieced together from hundreds of recordings taken from mp3 sharing, thrift store vinyl, films and other sources. "What better way to re-educate the world on the true meaning of musical sharing," says Illegal Art, "than with a snappy version of 'White Christmas' sung by Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Diana Ross and The Supremes." In fact, there's only one actual credit given: "Voice on 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town': Lori Holloway, recorded in Georgia, circa 1970." It's a home recording of a little girl singing the song, only this time it's mixed over drum loops and feedback.
This thoroughly trippy sonic experience was conceived by New York artist Corporal Blossom, who enlisted other underground musicians like DJ Olive, Fognode, Lovecraft Technologies and No-L to remix and reassemble classic tunes like "Silver Bells" and "The Little Drummer Boy" into something odd, eerie and terrifically fun. As they say on The Simpsons, this one will have Jesus spinning in his grave.
Are you a fan of The Thistle and Shamrock, the weekly radio program based in Charlotte and hosted by Fiona Richie? Then you'll probably enjoy the collection of high-energy, percussive and largely instrumental recordings found on A Thistle & Shamrock Christmas Ceilidh (Green Linnet). Cutting-edge Celtic artists from the label's catalog, including Altan ("The Snowy Path"), Liz Carrol ("Sevens/Michael Kennedy's/The Cup of Tea"), Touchstone ("Garcon A Marier/Orgies Nocturnes/Dans Fisel") and Cherish the Ladies ("The Cat Rambles to the Child's Saucepan/Maire O'Keefe/Harry Bradshaw"), fill out 17 hardcore Celtic tracks on this compilation, which could easily pass for one of Richie's radio shows.
An unexpected pleasure is also found inside the CD case: a rambling, written recollection of Richie's own village Christmas ceilidh in Ireland. You can almost hear "the rhythmic crunch of footsteps on the crusty dusting of last night's snowfall" and see "the small boy who was body surfing at speed along the polished dance floor." But you don't have to imagine "Mrs. Walkinshaw's Dundee Cake," because the whole recipe is included.
In troubling times, music reminds us that tradition, memories and expressions of love can be powerful balms for bittersweet feelings: "As the white horse of hope slowly draws the cart of reality to better times," sings Tommy Sands, "I hope that for you this is the best Christmas yet."