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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    Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire

    Merry Christmas to our readers around the world. Below is one of the classic Christmas songs, appropriately titled, “The Christmas Song.”

    You have to wonder whether other songwriters were jealous when songwriters Bob Wells and Mel Tormé named their song “THE Christmas Song.” How could anyone come up with a more definitive title for a Christmas song than this one first published in 1945?

    But then you hear Nat King Cole sing it, and you finally understand why it is “THE Christmas Song.”

    Cole recorded the song several times during his career. He first recorded it in early 1946 as part of The Nat King Cole Trio, but later that year Cole asked to re-record it with a string section. It was that second version that became a massive hit. Cole recorded it again in 1953 with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. A version we often hear was recorded in 1961 with an orchestra conducted by Ralph Carmichael.

    According to Wikipedia, Tormé later added a coda to the ending of the song, adapting the words from “Here We Come A-wassailing.”

    Love and joy come to you;
    And to you your Christmas too;
    And God bless you and send you a happy New Year;
    And God send you a happy New Year.

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    The Killers Lament Another “Christmas in L.A.”

    The Killers have released their annual Christmas song. This time, the video for “Christmas in L.A.” stars Owen Wilson lamenting life in Los Angeles, dreaming of a white Christmas.

    As was the case with The Killers’ seven previous Christmas singles, all proceeds from “Christmas in L.A.” go to to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS as part of a partnership with (RED).

    In addition to Owen Wilson, the video for “Christmas in L.A.” also features an appearance by Harry Dean Stanton. And see if you can spot the animated Warren Zevon too. Check out “Christmas in L.A.”

    Also, see our posts on some other Christmas songs from The Killers.

    What is your favorite Killers Christmas song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Star Wars Holiday Special 1978

    With all the buzz about the new film Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which continues to break box-office records, one is bound to think back to another holiday season affected by the Star Wars franchise. After the successful release of the original Star Wars film in 1977, the following November gave television viewers The Star Wars Holiday Special.

    The Special

    CBS broadcast the 97-minute television show on Friday, November 17, 1978 at 8:00-10:00 p.m.  The Star Wars Holiday Special centered around Chewbacca and his family celebrating Life Day, a holiday that happens to be a lot like Christmas.

    The musical-variety show featured many of the characters from Star Wars, even though many of the stars did not really want to be involved in the show. As Harrison Ford explained during a 2011 press tour: “It was in my contract. There was no known way to get out of it.” In the special, the movie stars were helped out by TV stars of the era like Bea Arthur, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, and Harvey Korman.

    The Star Wars Holiday Special included an animated segment that is notable for showing Luke, Han, and Leia having their first encounter with bounty hunter Boba Fett.  The bounty hunter, of course, would later appear in The Empire Strikes Back.

    Below is the beginning of the special.


    Fans of the movie had high expectations for anything related to Star Wars.  So, they were disappointed with the Star Wars Holiday Special, including its low budget and its motivation to sell toys to kids. The special became pretty much universally reviled by everyone including George Lucas.

    Still, through the years, some fans have grown more fond of the show for its kitschy and nostalgic appeal. There is an entire website devoted to the TV show. And Mental Floss recently posted “An Oral History of The Star Wars Holiday Special.”

    Below is a 15-minute “best of” compilation from the special.

    If you still want more, you may watch the entirety of The Star Wars Holiday Special on YouTube. May the Force be with you through this holiday season.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Paul McCartney Joins Springsteen for “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”

    After it was announced that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band would appear on NBC’s Saturday Night Live during the week of Christmas, it was a safe bet to predict that the band would be busting out its Christmas classic “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” But who would have known that they would be joined onstage by Paul McCartney?

    After performing “Meet Me in the City” and “The Ties That Bind” earlier in the evening to promote the new box-set release of The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, Springsteen and the E Street Band appeared at the end of the show for the goodbyes from the show’s hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Then, the whole cast danced while Springsteen sang “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” capturing the joy of what Christmas music should be, with a little help from Paul McCartney.

    Although McCartney stays in the background on the singing, it is great to see two rock legends on stage together having fun. Check it out.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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