Thursday, December 23, 2010

For The Season #3 : "When Was Jesus Born/The Last Month Of The Year"

For those inclined to nostalgia, you can find the CompVid101 post #1 of this group from 2008 on "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" HERE and #2 2009's piece on "All Through The Night" HERE.

Christmas music is as diverse as are the celebrations of the holiday itself. Every country and region where the holiday is celebrated has birthed its own set of traditions and songs, from the villancicos and las posadas of Spanish-speaking countries to the wooden shoes and St. Nicholas traditions of northwestern Europe to the January 6th Epiphany observances of Orthodox Christianity.

In the U.S., the nineteenth century English-speaking Americans conflated Anglo-Saxon with Teutonic and Celtic traditions to create the repertoire of stately and moving carols that most of us know today - to which we have added, of course, a healthy amount of good old commercial American pop music as purveyed by Bing Crosby and Mel Torme and Nat "King" Cole and Andy Williams...and anyone else popular for long enough to make a holiday album.

When folk music became popular enough to be called commercial, its three earliest superstars - the Weavers, Harry Belafonte, and the Kingston Trio - each helped to broaden the national understanding of Christmas music. The Weavers predictably covered the globe with their selections, whereas Belafonte understandably focused on Caribbean and African-American slave era tunes. Both influenced the KT's landmark album The Last Month of the Year, each having recorded three songs that appeared on it prior to the Trio.

I heard Belafonte perform "When Was Jesus Born" live in about 1965, though I am not sure that he ever recorded it, and the Weavers may have done so as well (I seem to remember a medley with "Go Where I Send Thee"). In any event, the song comes to us through the work of musicologist father John A. and son Alan Lomax. John A. discovered the song's putative composer Vera Hall in Alabama in 1937, and he was so struck with the quality of her singing of both blues and spirituals that he began to record her immediately, assisted by Alabama folklorist Ruby Tartt. Alan Lomax and Tartt even brought domestic servant Hall to New York in 1948 for recording and live radio broadcasts, and Hall returned several more times to record for Folkways Records through about 1950 - at which point she disappeared from view until her death at age 62 in 1964. The copyright for "When Was Jesus Born" is assigned to Hall, Tartt, and Lomax. But a Rita Mae Brown also claimed authorship, and the truth is likely that both singers were building on a real slavery-era spiritual that had been passed down orally but never published.

One of the first things that strikes you about this song is its minor key, rather unusual for a song celebrating one of the most joyous of Christian holidays. As the melody unfolds, the minor chords are joined by 7ths and dissonances and sliding vocal notes and voila! - we realize that we are hearing a Christmas song that is a combination of both spirituals and blues. The Blind Boys of Alabama perform the number exactly like that, with a touch of meetin' house gospel as well:

Though the Blind Boys are a contemporary group, they do this one in a 1940s-50s style that reminds us of exactly where early rock music came from.

An older gospel version next, from the 1930s and one of the best vocal groups of the era, Heavenly Gospel Singers:

The Kingston group demonstrates a respect for the song's origins without trying to imitate the style of black musicians. This is a blues-spiritual as interpreted by three California college boys:

It's an effective reading with one nice arrangement touch - the three voices harmonize to a positive-sounding major chord on the last note of the song.

It was in looking for different versions of this song that I stumbled on the sad story of Jackson C. Frank, a talented folk artist who recorded but one album before mental illness and drug addiction rendered him incapable of functioning in society. He died an indigent in 1999 at the age of 56. He had a wonderful voice, and like the KT is translating the song into his own idiom:

In contrast, bluegrass/gospel artist Doyle Lawson with Quicksilver give a more restrained, even relaxed Appalachian country blues sound to the tune:

American rocker Chris Isaak goes a pretty straightforward blues route, here in 2009 - rather well, I'd say:

Finally, an uncommonly accurate rendering of American folk blues from Soulspirit - from Belgium, of all places - doing Lawson's arrangement:

Next week - my annual retrospective of the best videos I have found from the 45 posts from this blog in 2010. For now - "a merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"
Addendum - December, 2013
 It turns out that a few days after I published this in 2010, an excellent version by Don McLean of "American Pie" fame was posted to YouTube:

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