The Sounding Joy: A Refreshing Timeless Christmas Album

The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs In and Out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook provides a wonderful alternative to the glossy over-used Christmas songs we hear every year. On the 2013 album, Elizabeth Mitchell, with a little help from her friends, provides a refreshing break from the commercialization of the holiday with songs taken from a songbook created by Ruth Crawford Seeger.

The songbook was published in 1953 and used in schoolhouses around the country before it was taken out of circulation. As part of the WPA Federal Music Project during the Great Depression, Seeger worked to help preserve old folk songs. She often worked with her family members as well as John Avery Lomax, Alan Lomax, and Bess Lomax Hawes. Ruth Seeger also worked as a composer in her own right.  And she used her skills in arranging the songs in her songbooks.

The Songbook

Seeger arranged her songbooks for families to sing the folk songs in their living rooms. As she wrote, “These songs grew out of and were used in the old-time American Christmas, a Christmas not of Santa Claus and tinseled trees but of homespun worship and festivity.” Her 1953 songbook, American Folk Songs for Christmas, followed two songbooks she created of folk songs for children.

Ruth Seeger died of cancer the year her Christmas songbook was published. But her children Mike, Peggy, Penny, and stepson Pete Seeger helped continue the American folk revival she helped start. Peggy Seeger is one of the friends who joins Elizabeth Mitchell on two of the carols on the CD.

There are a few songs you will recognize, like a version of “Joy to the World” with lovely banjo and vocal harmonies.  But most of the songs will be new to the casual listener. Some are more religious than many songs usually played today. Yet others capture other aspects of the holiday season like the Winter solstice.

As Mitchell writes in her liner notes for the album, “Through her song choices, Ruth Crawford Singer shined a light on a distinctly American Christmas tradion that might be unrecognizable to us today.”

The Album

Mitchell adds her own touch to the songs.  But she also keeps the simplicity of the folk songs that reflect certain regions and times in America. The album also features other friends largely from around her community in Woodstock, New York.  Other performers include Natalie Merchant, Aoife O’Donovan, Amy Helm, John Sebastian, Dan Zanes, and Happy Traum.

One of my favorites on the album is “Singing in the Land.” The song features vocals by Mitchell, Merchant, Traum, Sebastian, Ruth Unger, Daniel LIttleton, Michael Merenda, and Lyn Hardy.

The album also features photos and wonderful liner notes.  The notes include essays by each of Natalie Merchant, Daniel Littleton, and Elizabeth Mitchell. Additionally, Mitchell wrote comments for each song on the album.

If you are looking for some holiday music that warms your heart and seems significantly removed from the commercialization of Christmas, check out this album. The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs In and Out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook by Elizabeth Mitchell and Friends is available from Smithsonian Folkways.

Information in post comes from the liner notes to The Sounding Joy. What is your favorite lesser-known Christmas album? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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