“Christmas is the bright crown of the year, it is a religious festival but it also marks the year’s end and is a time for fun and feasting as well as for worship and prayer. It is not one short day, but a long week of jubilation that begins Christmas Eve morning and lasts through New Year’s night.” –Julia Peterkin, 1933
Dust-to-Digital is another of those archival labels whose offerings we so love here at the Green Man offices. Gary had the pleasure and privilege of reviewing Goodbye Babylon which came as six CDs, packaged in a cedar box, with raw cotton, and a 200-page book. Whew! That was a beauty. Today we’re looking at a much smaller collection, only one disc, two dozen tracks, a tiny little (4″ x 2.75″) booklet with information on the songs, and a postcard. But that doesn’t make this collection any less exciting or less important. No sir! This is an anthology of 24 recordings from 1917 to 1959 which all deal in some way with Christmas. It is proclaimed “the First in a Holiday Series” and as such leaves one hungry for more.
Lance Ledbetter (owner of Dust-to-Digital) has put together this package with record collector Dick Spottswood. Spottswood makes the following claim for the anthology:
This collection reflects sentiments of earlier times, when the holiday involved more than indoor trees and endless trips to the mall. Our playlist includes Southern fiddles, banjos and choirs, jazz bands and blues singers, and festive music from Puerto Rico, Italy, Ukraine, and Trinidad. In the spirit of fairness, we’ve tried to designate equal time for sacred and secular, for Christ and Santa Claus, and for respectable and rowdy. Have a Merry Christmas!
So the question is, how did they do? You will never find a more eclectic collection of Christmas songs, no matter where you look.
The album begins with the traditional song “Last Month of the Year” sung by Vera Hall Ward. It’s also the newest recording, and it sounds crystaline. Beautifully reproduced, Ms. Ward’s rich unaccompanied soprano rings out with the question and answer, “What month was Jesus born in? / Last month of the year.” A good place to start. This is followed by the Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers doing “Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn” from 1929. Piano, banjo, cornet, bass horn and choir. I have heard an updated version of this song by Bruce Cockburn which follows this model almost perfectly (albeit with guitars replacing the original instruments). Rollicking and hopeful. This leads to Lead Belly’s “Christmas Is A-Coming,” a celebration of the arrival of Santa. Just Huddie Ledbetter and his 12-string guitar, but he makes plenty of music!
Lord Executor provides an East Indian slant to “Christmas is a Joyful Day” with Gerald Clark and his Caribbean Serenaders from 1937. Paolo Humeniuk plays a violin solo (accompanied by hammered dulcimer) on a 1926 recording of “Dance Under the Willows.” Los Jibaros do “Decimas De Nacimiento” as a vocal duet with three guitars and guiro. Alongside all of this there’s “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle” vocals by Pasquale Feis accompanied by zampogna (that’s ‘bagpipes’ to the uninitiated) and ciaramella (you may want to skip this one after the first listening). Add Buell Kazee’s “Lady Gay” (vocals and banjo) and we’re only a third of the way through.
There are some Christmas albums that can be played non-stop throughout the Christmas season — favourite seasonal songs by your favourite singers. James Taylor recorded one last Christmas that will stay on holiday playlists for years. But every once in a while a record comes along that transcends the season and provides good listening, solid musical value, and even (dare I say it) historical importance to be played outside the month of December. Where Will You Be Christmas Day? is one of those recordings.
I haven’t mentioned the presence of Bessie Smith, Henry Townsend and Walter Davis; or the true gospel of Rev. J.M. Gates or Rev. Edward Claypool; or the Sacred Harp singing, or Leroy Carr. This is a little treasure box filled with odd and fascinating souvenirs, all paying tribute to a time of the year when many of us celebrate in one way or another the birth of a baby some 2,000 years ago. Whether you focus on the arrival on earth of the God-man, or the red-suited elf who delivers his gifts by reindeer-towed sleigh, there’s something on this collection for you.