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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    Pete Seeger: Down By the Riverside

    The great Pete Seeger was born in Manhattan on May 3, 1919. People have used a number of terms to describe the late Seeger, “folk singer,” “songwriter,” “Civil Rights activist,” “environmentalist,” “communist,” “defender of free speech,” etc. But whenever he had his banjo and an audience, he was simply wonderful.

    In this video, he plays “Down By the Riverside,” a spiritual that goes back to before the Civil War. During the Vietnam War era, the song often appeared at anti-war rallies because of its refrain, “Ain’t gonna study war no more.”

    Here, Seeger plays “Down by the Riverside” with two other legends, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. The two blues and folk musicians achieved some fame playing together. And Terry, who passed away in 1986, appeared in some films (The Color Purple (1985), Steve Martin’s The Jerk (1979)). McGhee, who passed away in 1996, similarly appeared in some movies and TV shows (The Jerk (1979), Angel Heart (1987)).

    Check out Seeger, Terry, and McGhee singing “Down By the Riverside.”

    The video is taken from a segment of Seeger’s television show Rainbow Quest, which ran on a UHF New York City channel from 1965-1966. You may watch the entire episode with Terry and McGhee below.

    What is your favorite Pete Seeger song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Billy Grammer and Buddy Holly’s Opening Song, “Gotta Travel On”

    Buddy Holly opened shows on his final tour in 1959 with “Gotta Travel On” a song that was not one of his originals.  Crickets drummer Jerry Allison once was asked why Holly performed the song so much.  He explained, “Because Buddy liked it.”

    I’ve laid around and played around,
    This old town too long;
    Summer’s almost gone,
    Yes, winter’s comin’ on;
    I’ve laid around and played around,
    This old town too long,
    And I feel like I gotta travel on.

    Tommy Allsup, who played guitar for Holly on The Winter Dance Party Tour, also has noted that Holly liked “Gotta Travel On” as the opener on that tour. There are no recordings of Holly singing the song, but here the late Tommy Allsup plays the song in 2015 in tribute to Holly.

    Bob Dylan also had a fondness for the song.  He recorded “Gotta Travel On,” which appears on his Self-Portrait (1970) album.

    And, perhaps because as a 17-year-old he had seen Holly perform the song on The Winter Dance Party Tour, Dylan also often closed with the song during his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1976. Additionally, The Seekers, Bobby Bare, Jimmy Dean, The Limeliters, Chet Atkins, Roy Acuff, Jerry Lee Lewis, Peggy Lee, Boxcar Willie, and others have covered the song.

    So, where did Buddy Holly’s opening song come from?

    Origins of “Gotta Travel On”

    “Gotta Travel On” is credited as being written by David Lazar, Larry Ehrlich, Paul Clayton and Tom Six.  But the song goes back quite a ways.

    The first time one hears the song, a listener may think the song is just about an adventurous person off to see the world.  But upon closer listen, there is a darker undercurrent.  There is a reason the person must be traveling on:  The singer has been gambling (“played around too long”), perhaps fraudulently.   And the singer also notes,”High sheriff and police riding after me.”  And Johnnie (the singer’s brother?) has “been on the chain gang too long.”

    The song has been traced to a song called “Yonder Comes the High Sherif” in 1891, although it also was called “I’ve Laid Around and Played Around.”  Ollis Martin made the first official recording of the song in August 6, 1927, with his version called “Police & High Sheriff Come.”

    The melody appears in different songs with different lyrics.  One song that uses the same tune is “Long Journey Home,” as in this version by The Delmore Brothers.

    A number of years passed before a variation of the original version of “Gotta Travel On” appeared through Sanga Music Inc. obtaining copyright in early 1959. The composers were listed as folksinger Paul Clayton, Larry Ehrlich, David Lazar, and Tom Six.

    Clayton was an important figure in the Folk Revival in the 1950s and 1960s.  In addition to his work on writing “Gotta Travel On,” he was a fine singer and scholar of folk songs.  He influenced a number of more famous artists, such as Bob Dylan, and also loosely inspired a character or characters in the film Inside Llewyn Davis. [Thanks to @pangurdubh3 for the additional information on Clayton.]

    The three latter names listed as writers were pseudonyms for members of The Weavers.  Ehrlich was a pseudonym for Lee Hays, Six was a pseudonym for Fred Hellerman, and Lazar was a pseudonym for Pete Seeger.

    On February 22, 1958, The Weavers performed the song with the title “Done Laid Around” live at Carnegie Hall (appearing on their album Hootenanny at Carnegie Hall).

    But it would take another singer to make it a massive hit.

    The Hit Recording of “Gotta Travel On”

    Billy Grammer — who was born on August 28, 1925 — took “Gotta Travel On” to near the top of both the pop and country charts in 1959.

    After the success of the song, Grammer became a regular member on the Grand Ole Opry.  Regarding his recording career, Grammer is largely known for “Gotta Travel On,” his one big hit.  But he had an interesting life.

    Billy Grammer’s Life

    In 1963, Grammer also was the first to chart with the “I Wanna Go Home.” The song later was a much bigger hit as “Detroit City” for Bobby Bare. Below is Grammer’s version.

    In the 1960s, Grammer formed a guitar company, RG&G Company, which after a sale was renamed Grammer Guitar, Inc.  Today, many collectors and musicians seek out Grammer guitars.  The first one made is on exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame.  Grammer was interviewed about his guitar for the NAMM Oral History Project in 2010.

    Finally, Grammer and his band, “The Travel On Boys,” attended an infamous event in American history.  They performed at the rally in Laurel, Maryland where Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace was shot and paralyzed on May 15, 1972.

    Grammer, who became blind in later life, passed away on August 10, 2011, after a long-term illness and an earlier heart attack.  He was 85.

    Although Grammer was not in the news toward the end of his life, many still remembered his work. The Grand Ole Opry honored Grammer for his 50 years of membership in February 27, 2009.  He was interviewed about his guitar for the NAMM Oral History Project in 2010.

    In this video from later in life with Grammer’s wife Ruth, Grammer tells the story behind another song of his and plays, “I’m Letting You Go, Goodbye.”

    And that is the story behind the song.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Mississippi John Hurt: “Lonesome Valley”

    Mississippi John Hurt was reportedly born in Carroll County, Mississippi on July 3, 1893.  But some sources, including his gravestone, say his date of birth is March 8, 1892.

    Born in the nineteenth century less than thirty years after the end of the Civil War, Hurt lived to see the start of the Civil Rights movement, giving us some fantastic music along the way.

    Hurt first recorded in the late 1920s, but his music found no audience. And then the record company went out of business during The Great Depression. So, Hurt returned to work as a sharecropper in Avalon, Mississippi.

    But new fans discovered Hurt when his recordings of “Frankie” and “Spike Driver Blues” appeared in Harry Smith’s collection The Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952. And in 1963, music collector Tom Hoskins found Hurt based on Hurt’s song “Avalon,” which referred to his hometown.

    Hoskins convinced Hurt to return to performing. Hurt’s performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival helped re-launch his career. He performed across the country, appeared on television, and recorded new albums.

    Hurt’s musical style crossed different genres, including blues and folk. He played his guitar with a unique syncopated fingerpicking style that he taught himself.

    Below is a fantastic 1965 recording of Mississippi John Hurt singing “Lonesome Valley” on folksinger Pete Seeger’s TV program, Rainbow Quest.

    Hurt got to enjoy his new success for a handful of years, dying in November 2, 1966. But, man, we are lucky he found his way back from obscurity.

    A number of collections collect his music from both eras of his career. One of my favorites is the 2-CD set that collects his 1960s recordings, The Complete Studio Recordings Mississippi John Hurt.

    What is your favorite Mississippi John Hurt song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Elizabeth Cotten: “Freight Train”

    Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was born on January 5, 1895 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, although some sources list the year of her birth as 1893. Cotten began playing the banjo at the age of eight and soon thereafter turned to the guitar and at the age of twelve wrote “Freight Train,” a timeless folk song that would eventually stand beside other classics in the canon of great train songs.

    Early Life, Discovery, and “Freight Train”

    As a young woman, Cotten put aside any hopes of being a musician for marriage, motherhood, and work. But after a divorce in 1940 led her to Washington, D.C., Cotten’s work in a department store led her to be discovered by the world, according to Nigel Williamson’s The Rough Guide to the Blues.

    While working in Landsburgh’s Department Store around the mid-1940s, Cotten found a lost girl and helped reunite the girl with her mother. The mother turned out to be Ruth Crawford Seeger, and the little girl was Peggy Seeger, who was the sister of Pete Seeger. The chance encounter led Cotten to working in the Seeger household, where the family’s interest in music rekindled Cotten’s own musical talents.

    Eventually, Peggy’s brother Mike Seeger produced Cotten and her unique finger-picking guitar playing for an album with Folkways, Folksongs And Instrumentals With Guitar (1958). The album included the song about death that Cotten wrote as a 12-year-old, “Freight Train”: “When I die, oh bury me deep / Down at the end of old Chestnut Street, / So I can hear old Number Nine / As she comes rolling by.”

    Music Career

    Audiences came to love Cotten’s performances at folk festivals, where she would tell stories about her life and perform songs with her distinctive guitar playing. As her friend and musician Dana Klipp would later explain, “It wasn’t just her music; it was her entire personality and her spirituality. It was a very gentle and graceful spirituality.”

    Still, she kept her day job of doing domestic work until 1970. She made additional recordings, and the album Elizabeth Cotton, Live won a Grammy award in 1984 when Cotten was 89.

    Later Life and Death

    Cotten spent the last years of her life in Syracuse, New York, which in 1983 named a small park “The Elizabeth Cotten Grove” in her honor. But Cotten still continued to perform in her later years. Cotten’s last performances occurred at the 1986 Philidelphia Folk Festival and at a New York City performance arranged for her by Odetta in 1987.

    Cotten passed away on June 29, 1987, and although in “Freight Train” she asked to be buried “Down at the end of old Chestnut Street,” her body was cremated.

    Cotton’s music and spirit, however, live on. Cotten left behind a lot of fans, while others are still discovering her today. Below is one of her late interviews, when she was interviewed by Aly Bain for his 1985 series Down Home.

    Cotten’s songs have been covered by many performers, including Jerry Garcia and Peter, Paul and Mary. Another of her many honors is that she was included in Brian Lanker’s book I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America.

    What is your favorite performance by Elizabeth Cotten? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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