12 Days of Christmas Music: 8th Day, “Hamildolph”

I often resist trends. I never read gossip magazines. I don’t really follow clothing trends. I pointedly avoided getting on the Serial podcast bandwagon until all the episodes were complete. But HamiltonHamilton is a trend I can get behind. Like most popular things I had been warily watching the hubbub about Hamilton from a comfortable distance. I’d even tried to get tickets once before it got to Broadway and gave up when all the shows in the next ten days were sold out.

But then near the end of September 2015 NPR hosted the entire soundtrack for free streaming. The day it came out, my brother-in-law, whose opinion in such matters has never steered me wrong, privately messaged me to say that I had to check it out. I had just happened to find myself stuck for at least an hour and a half at the budget airport in Frankfurt with nothing much to do and free wifi. So I figured I would give it chance at least for a few songs. Needless to say, I was happily blown away. After listening to less than 25% of the album, I knew I would finish the whole thing and listen several more times.

If you’re not into Hamilton, I first recommend that you listen to the entire thing in order before writing it off and second tell you that, although it helps, it’s really not necessary to know the show to enjoy today’s post. “Hamildolph” is a fun mashup of a few Hamilton songs with white guys (Eclipse 6) telling the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. (The white guys really is a notable difference from the show where the only role played by a Caucasian was King George III.) Rudolph’s nose vies with the star marking the Christchild’s birth for the most famous light of Christmas. So enjoy, and take away this lesson from Hamilton that every once in a while something gets popular for good reason.

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12 Days of Christmas Music 2016: 6th Day, “Shine for Me Again, Star of Bethlehem”

Today’s song is a little different musically from what I normally post (largely in that it is more sentimental), but it holds a personal and sentimental place for me. In my family we’ve grown up making music all our lives. We would gather around the piano and sing, and as we got older, we added voice parts and different instruments. I don’t know where she got it, but years ago my mom got several copies of the choral arrangement of today’s song, and it always made its appearance in our Christmas music rotation singalongs. In addition to this song’s place in our impromptu living room performances, many times my brother and I sang it for church services. We worked out when we would take solos and who would sing which parts.

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Photo credit by Walter A. Aue

The song has a lovely melody and, for a Christmas song, a somewhat unusual approach in its message. It’s a spiritual retrospective; it’s not just nostalgia but a recognition that time changes our perspective and is not always kind. Is a symbol, in this case, a star still significant or relevant as it was years earlier? The composer, Dan Carter, talks about this in relation to this song. Originally he had written the tune for a stage musical, but it was never used in the show. Somehow he got the idea of remaking it into a Christmas song and mentioned it to a college friend, Sherri Otteson Bird. She wanted to try writing lyrics for the song, took it, but then Carter didn’t hear from her for several months. Suddenly she and her husband called one night with the news that she had finished writing the lyrics. They dropped what they were doing around 10PM, got together, tried it out around the piano, and felt like it was the right fit.

I like the idea that symbols and songs can shift in their purpose and can still feed us.

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Photo credit by Lawrence OP

12 Days of Christmas Music 2016: 5th Day, “Candlelight”

This year Hanukkah falls on the same day as Christmas! (It starts at sunset on Christmas Eve.) Given that Hanukkah is the celebration of light, and since the theme this year is light, I couldn’t pass up the chance to do a Hanukkah shoutout. The Maccabeats make it easy: this spoof on Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” gives a condensed history of the origin of Hanukkah, and it also features my neighborhood! I was watching along and thought, “Hey… hey, I know exactly where that is! Yep, there’s the George Washington Bridge, and there are the Cloisters, and yep, there’s the Hudson Parkway.” I walked home through the park you can see just days ago.

Enjoy this Jewish/dance club holiday mashup!

 

(Photo credit by Yair Aronshtam.)

12 Days of Christmas Music: 4th Day, “The Christmas Song”

Just about every line in this song captures a standard Christmas image or feeling, but the simplicity and brevity of the song as well as the choice of electronic distortion over syrupy bells makes this song really satisfying for me. Plus, it a favorite of my favorite person. “All the lights are comin’ on now.”

Just a short and sweet post for today, as I’m starting my traveling for the holidays. Enjoy this song from the Danish duo, the Raveonettes.

 

(Featured photo credit by Jenea Medina.)

 

12 Days of Christmas Music 2016: 1st Day, “Santa Lucia”

Hello! It’s that time again. Every year this 12 Days of Christmas Music countdown starts December 13 because that’s how the math works to finish the countdown the day before Christmas. But that means that every year this countdown also begins on St. Lucy’s Day or St. Lucia’s Day. Celebrated primarily in some Catholic and Lutheran traditions, St. Lucy’s Day honors the saint Lucy who was a martyr in Syracuse at the turn of the fourth century.

St. Lucy is known for various things including prizing her virginity which she had consecrated to God. Without knowing about this arrangement, Lucy’s mom tried to arrange for her future and set up an engagement. But Lucy wasn’t having it and started giving the family fortune away to the poor. When the betrothed heard about this, he got angry and tried to talk her out of it, by which we mean that he got the governor to order Lucy to go to a brothel. She stubbornly refused, even when they purportedly hooked her up to a team of oxen to drag her there. They had to try various means before Lucy died, but eventually she did and became a celebrated martyr.

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Santa Lucia, by Domenico Beccafumi, 1521

Since her death, here are a few other stories about Lucy: They say that she wandered into dark catacombs to bring food to Christians hiding there, and she wore a wreath of candles on her head to keep her hands free for schlepping the food. They say that she had her eyes gouged out, hence the mildly creepy image of Lucy holding a pair of eyes on a platter.  (She’s also the patron saint of sight and of the blind). Get this: she was buried but then had to be moved in 1861. Why? Zoning issues; they decided to put in a railway station. But then thieves stole all her bones except for her head in November 1981! And then they found her bones again on her very feast day. So far parts of St. Lucy’s corpse have made their way to at least five cities in Italy as well as Sweden, France, and Germany. Someone should really make St. Lucy into a movie. For centuries St. Lucy’s Day was on winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. This, as well as her name sharing the root of the Latin word for light, lux, has led to St. Lucy’s Day being a celebration of lights.

And that, dear readers, is the theme of this year’s countdown–light.

Let me give you just a few more details about the song for today. The story of the song can basically be summed up like this: a Swede, a Neapolitan, and Elvis walk into a bar… Above in the embedded video you can see a typical Swedish St. Lucia celebration and rendition of the song. But listen to that rolling 6/8 meter! Through the 20+ hours of daily darkness from the Swedes you get a Venetian gondolier. That’s because the song is actually a canzone napoletana like “O sole mio.” It comes from the tradition of songs that Neapolitan boatmen would sing from their boats. So you can bet that the lyrics in the original version weren’t about night walking with heavy step and shadows brooding in our house and darkness taking flight soon, like they are in the Swedish song. Nope. The song’s original lyrics were in praise of a picture-perfect waterfront area of Borgo Santa Lucia in the Bay of Naples, an area that has changed considerably in the 150+ years since the song became more widely known. (You can see images of what it used to look like in the video below.)

First translated from Neapolitan to Italian and published in 1849, the Italian lyrics go something like this,

On the sea glitters the silver star
Gentle the waves, favorable the winds.
Come into my nimble little boat,
Saint Lucy! Saint Lucy!

O sweet Naples, O blessed soil,
Where to smile desired its creation,
You are the kingdom of harmony,
Saint Lucy! Saint Lucy!

So, now you know why the story of the song sounds like the beginning of a joke–Swedes, Neapolitans, and what about Elvis? He recorded it in 1964 for the film Viva Las Vegas. But the song is also popular with Austrian fraternities and is the anthem of Silpakom University in Thailand, whose founder was Italian. It’s versatile like that.

Happy first day of the Christmas music countdown, and Happy St. Lucy’s Day!

Happy Thanksgiving 2016! “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

There is a very bad pun waiting to happen in the title of today’s poem as the final entry for this year’s Thanksgiving countdown. I’ll just leave that much here.

Beyond bad puns, this is a beautiful poem that, I find, expresses something essential about gratitude: “All things…/ Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)/ With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim”–all things. Years ago I was told by a spiritual mentor that if I would notice and be grateful for the small things, that I would be blessed with more. Now, with degrees and jobs and a bit more skepticism under my belt I can feel a knee-jerk reaction to that maxim that mutters something about confirmation bias. But I also know that during times I have felt most irritated with life in general, I take up a gratitude practice, and I see results that defy a straightforward, rational explanation. Sometimes I write what I’m grateful for before sleeping each night. My most common practice has been to set my phone timer for four minutes and just think through things I’m grateful for until the timer runs out. It’s brief. The action is small. For me, the effect, even after just a few days, has been astounding.

So here is a brief, small poem. It finds beauty in the speckled, mixed, cross-colored bits of life that, so often, may be categorized as second-best.

Pied Beauty
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things —
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

 

If you’d like to explore more Thanksgiving poetry, let me suggest this compilation from the editors at the Poetry Foundation. Wishing you a blessed and happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving Poetry 2016, Day 6: “Family Reunion” by Maxine W. Kumin

I’m grateful for socializing over food. So many of my best memories are conversations and gatherings around food. The combinations of lovely people and delicious food are infinite, and I look forward to several more permutations. But beyond the delight and satiation of it, there’s something intimate and bonding about sharing a meal together, especially in a home.

Maxine Kumin captures how a meal seems to melt the divisions between people, specifically family. It’s not a Thanksgiving dinner, but the effect is there. She was a Pulitzer Prize winner and in 1981-82 held the post that would be come Poet Laureate. From New Hampshire, her poetry circled around New England themes throughout her life, and she was often compared to Robert Frost. Also, she broke her neck in an accident with a horse at age 73 and recovered! Kumin passed away in 2014.

Family Reunion

by Maxine W. Kumin

The week in August you come home,
adult, professional, aloof,
we roast and carve the fatted calf
—in our case home-grown pig, the chine
garlicked and crisped, the applesauce
hand-pressed. Hand-pressed the greengage wine.
Nothing is cost-effective here.
The peas, the beets, the lettuces
hand sown, are raised to stand apart.
The electric fence ticks like the slow heart
of something we fed and bedded for a year,
then killed with kindness’s one bullet
and paid Jake Mott to do the butchering.
In winter we lure the birds with suet,
thaw lungs and kidneys for the cat.
Darlings, it’s all a circle from the ring
of wire that keeps the raccoons from the corn
to the gouged pine table that we lounge around,
distressed before any of you was born.
Benign and dozy from our gluttonies,
the candles down to stubs, defenses down,
love leaking out unguarded the way
juice dribbles from the fence when grounded
by grass stalks or a forgotten hoe,
how eloquent, how beautiful you seem!
Wearing our gestures, how wise you grow,
ballooning to overfill our space,
the almost-parents of your parents now.
So briefly having you back to measure us
is harder than having let you go.