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Towards Christmas, the normally silent worship of Quakers assumes slightly more structure. Meetings see Friends reading their favourite pieces of poetry (inescapably, “The Journey of the Magi”), or possibly singing a carol or, adventurously, playing a tune on the violin.
MidWinter, a boxed set from the stalwart anthologists Free Reed, has the same atmosphere as one of these meetings. Its four discs cover four seasonal themes: advent, the nativity, peace and goodwill, and the new year. The material is imaginatively juxtaposed. The usual Free Reed congregation of British folk stalwarts offer up seasonal party pieces: Grace Notes cover Joni Mitchell’s “River” from Grace Notes; Alan Rose covers John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)”.
They are joined by their transatlantic counterparts. Bob Dylan’s friends Richard Farina, Blind Boy Grunt and Eric Von Schmidt sing “Xmas Island”. Mahalia Jackson tells it on the mountain. From before the war, the vaudevillians Butterbeans & Susie warn that “Papy Ain’t No Santy Claus”, and the banjo-picking Baptist minister Buell Kazee delivers an Appalachian ghost story.
Christmas is a time of year when amateurs engage enthusiastically in unaccompanied song, and this is true of this set. There are Wassail singers, Mummers and the carollers at the Black Bull, a pub in Ecclesfield, recorded in 1959. Poets drop in too: Robert Frost reads part of “Stopping By Woods On A Winter’s Night”, and Free Reed’s Nigel Schofield reads extracts from Wordsworth’s The Prelude and from the Gospels. And, to make Quakers feel at home, T.S. Eliot himself reads his (or Lancelot Andrewes’) “The Journey of the Magi”.
All the speech brings variety and texture to the music, and some may wish that the poems had been allowed to run to their full lengths. But overall the four discs of MidWinter, along with the sumptuous accompanying book of Midwinter lore, are the musical equivalent of a seasonal hamper.
Waterson:Carthy, who feature strongly on Midwinter in their various incarnations, have a new seasonal set of their own, Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man (Topic). Although there is a May song and a harvest one, ‘Reaphook and Sickle’, most of the material is from winter: two songs, ‘Sugar Wassail’ and ‘Awake Awake’, rearrange the tune of “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” in different ways. Waterson:Carthy’s sound benefits from the addition of a cheery brass section, and extra vocals from The Devil’s Interval, which gives the album the air of a communal singalong. Some of the material is hugely bleak, however, notably the Gypsy ballad ‘On Christmas Day It Happened So’.
Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong (Arista) is a rock star’s Christmas special, a genre that should generally be avoided. McLachlan, however, avoids the ingratiating bonhomie that her peers are heir to. Never known for her light-hearted frivolity, the Canadian singer combines traditional songs (”O Little Town Of Bethlehem”, “Silent Night”) with seasonal ballads. A lot of the songs appear on MidWinter as well: the album opens with Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)”, and there is another version of Mitchell’s “River”. The overall ambience is melancholy and numinous rather than festive; should that resonate, this could be the soundtrack for you.
Christmas is, of course, a commercial opportunity masquerading as a Christian festival in turn erected on pagan foundations, although today we are embarrassed by the Christian and suppress the pagan. At their best, these albums acknowledge all three, and live joyfully with the contradictions.