Thursday, December 18, 2008

For The Season: "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"

In keeping with the holiday spirit...and there's a bit more to this song than meets the eye at first....

"We Wish You A Merry Christmas" is one of those songs that we all know, that we've always known, that was likely familiar to us before The Kingston Trio's The Last Month Of The Year - and that most of us could not say at all where we first heard.

The song's inclusion in that landmark album - still a nominee almost fifty years after its release as the most pleasingly and satisfyingly unique of all holiday releases during the era of recorded music - was ever so slightly mystifying because nearly every other cut was either a traditional song not widely heard ("Mary Mild" from "The Bitter Withy"), or an original composition ("The White Snows Of Winter" by Shane and Drake from Brahms, among others), or an unusual take on a familiar enough carol ("Sing We Here Noel"). The Trio's interpretation of "Somerset-Gloucestershire Wassail" is more interesting musically than "Merry Christmas," the aforementioned "Sing We Noel" is a better arrangement, and "Go Where I Send Thee" and the title song are more typical uptempo signature KT numbers.

The song itself is shrouded in a bit of mystery - no one knows its exact time or place of origin. A version of it appears in a "miscellany" - a somewhat random collection of poems and song lyrics from the early days of printing in England - in the mid-sixteenth century, when Shakespeare was a boy. Like many English carols, it seems to have originated in Wessex (named for the West Saxons and in, well, the west of the country) and like "Wassail" above was a carolers plea for some goodies as a reward for the holiday cheer that they hoped to bring. "Figgy pudding" is a concoction as simple as and apparently related to its New World cousin pumpkin pie (similar ingredients [except the figs instead of pumpkin, of course]) and never to be confused with the more elaborate, delicate, and difficult to do right plum pudding celebrated by Dickens.

I find two points of interest about the song as we have it today - the Kingston Trio's acquisition and handling of it in 1960, and the different flavors brought to it by the differing arrangements below.

There is just no question where the KT got the song, even as likely as it is that each of them, like us, knew it for a long time. The LMOTY arrangement, as you'll hear, is a nearly exact copy of the Weavers, who had their structure for the song under copyright. Some day I'll do an exact count of the number of Weavers songs that the Trio re-imagined on their first eight or so albums. Until then - you don't have to take my word for it. Here are the Weavers from their 1950 Decca sessions supervised by Gordon Jenkins:

As I noted when I posted a weekend video about "Across The Wide Missouri" (CompVid101 On "Missouri") Jenkins' considerable talents and the Weavers' style just didn't mesh well, any more than did Jimmie Haskell's with the KT on Something Special. You can barely hear Seeger's banjo on this, and the tinkling and brassy orchestration annoys more than it enhances.

The Weavers lost the orchestral artifice when they reunited for their legendary Carnegie Hall concert on Christmas Eve of 1955, four years after the Jenkins sessions and three following their dissolution under the pressure of the McCarthy era black list. Their set list of nearly thirty songs in that show echoed down through the next twenty and more years of popular folk music, as virtually every pop folk group and several folk-rock bands included Weavers tunes in their recording repertoires. The quartet closed the show with "We Wish You A Merry Christmas," but as of now no recording of that rendition appears on YouTube. However - the original group of Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert reunited 25 years after their first Carnegie concert for one of their final appearances before Hays's death, and they resurrected their acoustic rendition here, nearly identical to the '55 track except that it is slightly slower and with perhaps a tad less youthful gusto:

I'm guessing that NBD made two choices in their adaptation. First, the non-orchestral live Weavers' version from At Carnegie Hall (1956) proved to be a better model - on it you can hear how closely Dave Guard was following Seeger's banjo lines, and the whole effect is more rousing than the Decca studio recording above. Second - as I'm sure everyone noted - the Trio chose not to do that sort of "one world" verse that was the Weavers' kind of subtle political interpolation in many of their songs, the primary "one-worlders" of the era being of course the Communist and socialist movements in Europe and America. Here's the Trio - a snactioned posting not in violation of copyright:

Again as I noted in the "Missouri" piece - listening to the two versions makes me happy and thankful that Voyle Gilmore did not try to go the Gordon Jenkins route. The Trio's occasionally exotic instrumentation on LMOTY (bouzouki, for example) never gets in the way of the song and actually does enhance the sound and the uniqueness.

And now for some fun - John Denver and The Muppets:

After that, I needed an antidote - and what could be better than The Chipmunks (Featuring Alvin, of course) from the mid-Sixties :

Or a terminally cute version from my favorite all-girl Japanese band (there's a category for you), Vanilla Mood:

Japanese violinist Sori - not quite as fun as the Mood girls, but of the same stripe:

Irish New Age/neo-Celtic superstar Enya gives the tune her trademark treatment:

Ultimately, of course, whatever their "subversive" political motives may have been, Seeger and the Weavers are right - the words mean the same, whatever your home. So a merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. And God bless us, all, everyone.


johnddickey said...

Geez, Jim, what's the deal on this site removing The Weavers' "Last Month of The Year"? Hope YouTube doesn't remove my version of "Stay Awhile" (recently uploaded). It's my tribute to the swaddling-clothed year of 2009). Hope to hear from you soon. Regards, John

Folksinger91 said...

I found that about a lot of the weavers decca recordings I have the goodnight irene collection which is mostly made up of their years with decca. personally their vanguard years are my favorite plus they gave them more freedom to do what they need to do for their songs unlike decca