Monday, December 15, 2014

Christmas Music Made in USA

By this time of the year almost everyone has had their fill of "Jingle Bells," "Silent Nights" and "All Ye Faithfuls" that follow you through stores, offices, restaurants and malls. If you are not careful to turn off your radio and TV, you are not spared in your own home or vehicle either. The so-called "holiday season" seems to start earlier every year - these days almost as soon as you pack away your beach clothing, and the longer it lasts, the more annoying these harping tunes become. That is not to say that America does not have great 
Christmas music. It does, only most of it is a well kept secret.
Consider this historic account about an early 1800's New England school: on Christmas morning, the headmaster asked the students what day it was and none of them knew.

New England's Puritan religious leaders did not approve of celebrating Christmas and in part of the 17th century it was even a crime to do so.

"When we think of the hilarity that Christmas produces in America in the 21st century, it is quite humorous to compare it to the way it was NOT celebrated in the 18th century and in the earliest days of the country," said
Robert Saladini, former head of the historical music 
section at the Library of Congress.

Even when the ban on Christmas was repealed in the late 17th century, the Puritans frowned upon Christmas carols which were far more exuberant than hymns due to their origins in folk dances and pagan festivities. In the 16th-century Scotland, carols were associated with witchcraft, and in 17th-century England, officials tried to outlaw carol-singing. So when the Puritans settled in the New World, said Saladini, caroling was not considered suitable to their austere life style.

But that is not to say that composers avoided writing hymns about the Nativity, said Saladini. It inspired them just like any other portion of the New Testament. But these hymns weren't created to celebrate Christmas, he said. Christmas songs written at the time often bore the name of the place where they originated.
One of the earliest American Christmas songs is Boston by William Billings, first published in a 1778 collection titled The Singing Master's Assistant.
It's funny, Saladini said, because Boston was a place where Christmas was not observed.

Like his father, Billings was a tanner, but he also taught singing and wrote music to his own poems.

While Puritan Americans went on with business as usual on Christmas day, most of their neighbors did not. Singing, dancing , shaking and crying in a trance was an essential part of religious ceremonies of the Shakers - a Christian sect that spread through parts of New York and Ohio during the 18th century. The Shakers became famous for their music, and many of their songs are now used by other groups. One of the best known is The Midnight Cry which calls for repentance in preparation for Christ's return to the Earth. It was first recorded in the 1844 collection of shape-noted music called The Sacred Harp. Saladini said Christmas was widely celebrated in the American South, where many settlers belonged to the Anglican, Lutheran and Catholic churches.

"As a matter of fact, there was this great tradition in the South, from Maryland on down in which once the Yule log was brought into the house, Christmas began and all work could cease. So there are even stories of the slaves and the servants taking the Yule log into a local stream and soaking it before they'd bring it into the house to ensure that it would burn for a 

long time and that they would have a great old Christmas and there would be dancing and 
feasting and parties and merrymaking," said Saladini.

African-American slaves created some of the most beautiful and lasting Christmas songs and
spirituals. The best-known is Go Tell It on the Mountain, dating back to at least 1865.

African-American history scholar and singer Bernice Johnson Reagon said slaves identified with Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was forced to travel and have her child in a stable with no better place to lay him in than a manger. "So the son of God comes to the world with nothing. There is a way in which this story affirms that we all come here naked," said Reagon. She searched for old and forgotten spirituals in small rural communities in the South and sang some of them with her a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

A parallel music tradition developed among poor whites in the South. Saladini said their music bears influences of African-American spirituals as well as music by Billings and renaissance music from Europe. They reflect the Christmas atmosphere in impoverished small towns and rural areas: no Santa Clause, no tinsel and trees, no gifts and no Christmas stockings. These southern families celebrated Christmas in a variety of ways: from quiet prayers to shouting, eating and dancing, and even the shooting of muskets.

Many mountain people and small farmers sang about their Savior and his parents Joseph and Mary as they would gossip about their next-door neighbors. 
Joseph and Mary, also known as the Cherry Tree Carol, is a brilliant example. 

“Then Mary spoke to Joseph,
So meek and so mild,
"Joseph, gather me some cherries,
For I am with Child."

Then Joseph flew in anger,
In anger flew he,
"Let the father of the baby Gather cherries for thee.” 

In some 18th- and 19th-century American communities, people held all-night watch services on Christmas Eve, filling the time with songs and sermons. The songs would describe episodes in Christ's life. Simplicity was key in these folk songs and somber music pieces were often followed by humorous ones.

In many parts of America Christmas was celebrated for 12 days, until January 6th. Neighbors would visit each other's homes and have rollicking house parties with musicians playing at the door.  The tradition is known as "breaking up Christmas" and there is a traditional tune appropriately called Breaking up Christmas. 

Songs accompanied by guitar, fiddle or banjo and an occasional dulcimer, covered every aspect of the holiday season.

In some carols, Jesus was born on January 6th, the use of the older Gregorian calendar testifying to their ancient roots in Europe.

Then Joseph took Mary
All on his left knee,
"Oh tell me, little Baby,
When thy birthday will be."

"The sixth of January
My birthday will be,
The stars in the elements
Will tremble with glee.”

American folk singer John Jacob Niles, who died in 1980, was among the first to revive old folk ballads. In 1912, he published a collection of folk tunes titled Songs of the Hill Folk, mainly from the Appalachian Mountains. Among them is one of the earliest American tunes I Wonder As I Wonder, one of the very few that have entered the standard cannon of U.S. Christmas music.

It was not until the mid-19th century that Christmas in the United States began to be celebrated on a grand scale as it is today. Saladini said that with the start of the American Civil War in 1861, the disapproval that some religious groups felt toward celebrating Christmas softened. After the war in 1865, a large influx of European immigrants brought along their own Christmas traditions, such as decorating an evergreen tree, gift-giving, and Santa Clause. Caroling became increasingly popular. Music associated with the holiday especially English, German and French, was added to songbooks during this period, said Saladini.

"Most of our sacred music Christmas traditions are based on English and (other) European models even to this day. Performances of Handel's Messiah, or at least portions of it, are sung by nearly every choral society as well as church choirs in the United States. In addition to regular church services, the service of lessons and carols, which is modeled on and made popular by the famous lessons-and-carols service broadcast from King's College in Cambridge, England, are very popular."

American composers continued to produce music for the holiday during the 19th century, but more and more of them abandoned the indigenous folk sound. Composer Lowell Mason from Boston, who directed the Handel and Haydn Society there from 1827 to 1832, spent his long career trying to replace the vital American folk-hymn tradition with what he considered a more sophisticated music style. He wrote music for one of America's most popular carols, Joy To the World, loosely based on a theme from Handel's oratorio Messiah. The lyrics are by Isaac Watts, an early-18th century English writer of hymns and spiritual songs. Saladini said a great number of today's popular American carols were written during the 19th century, among them O, Little Town of Bethlehem, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear and Away In a Manger.

Just as some imported carols became more popular in the Unite States than in their country of origin, some American carols fared better across the Atlantic. We Three Kings, an 1850s carol by Episcopalian clergyman John Henry Hopkins from Pennsylvania, is one of our most successful exports to Europe.

It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that American composers regained their confidence and began abandoning their European models. Charles Ives was among the first. Richard Wayne, a native of Illinois and a longtime organist at the Washington National Cathedral, wrote several Christmas compositions. His long choral piece Welcome, All Wonders, and Nativity for solo flute and mixed chorus, are occasionally performed at more serious Christmas concerts.

If American composers learned from their European colleagues during the 19th century, the situation may have reversed during the 20-th century. With the development of film and recording industry, American jazz, pop, rock and other styles have reached audiences and influenced contemporary music worldwide and composers such as Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Elliot Carter and others have become admired and imitated outside the United States. In 1999, John Adams, known for his opera Nixon in China, wrote a major work based on the Nativity, titled El Nino, for the 2000 premiere in France.

CD Cover Illustration For El Nino by John Adams 

His opera-oratorio is a Nativity story told from a woman's point of view. It expresses the misery and pain of labor, the uncertainty and doubt of pregnancy and the mixture of supreme happiness and inexplicable emptiness that sometimes follows delivery. In addition to the biblical text, Adams uses other sources, including British medieval mystery plays and some anonymous English texts. One third of the El Nino text is in Spanish, based mainly on the work of female poets from Mexico.

You are hardly likely to hear these tunes on your next Christmas shopping trip, but you don't have to look for them in the Library of Congress either.  The Seegers family of folklorists have collected and recorded many of these old jewels and there are recordings by Paul Hillier's group His Majestie's Clerkes.  You may also run into some older ones that have disappeared from mass market store shelves.  

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