Saturday, December 26, 2009

Solstice, Etc.: The All Purpose Carol

Christine Lavin & the Mistletones: The All Purpose Carol


The Runaway Christmas Tree is the source of this wee slip of a song. The album is a family favorite in our house. Most of the content, as the title suggests, is Christmas oriented. But, for 58 seconds, there is this wonderful bit of inclusiveness. I wanted to conclude my posting for this week’s theme in that spirit. If your tradition has not been included this week, I encourage you to adapt this song to your needs. I don’t think Christine Lavin would mind, as long as you properly acknowledge her, and don’t put the result to commercial use. I hope all of our readers from whatever tradition have had/ will have a wonderful winter holiday.

Solstice, Etc.: Light One Candle

Peter, Paul and Mary: Light One Candle


Hanukkah, from a purely Jewish point of view, is a minor holiday. I don’t think much is made of it in Israel. But, here in the United States, its importance is inflated. Hanukkah becomes a statement of Jewish identity in the face of competition with Christmas. There has always been, it seems to me, the fear on the part of Jewish parents that their children would convert to Christianity to get more presents.

But Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary remembers the true meaning of Hanukkah in his song Light One Candle. Hanukkah celebrates the freedom to practice one’s religion in the face of adversity, and the passing on of knowledge from one generation to the next is an essential element of any Jewish holiday. The holiday also recalls God’s promise to look after His children. And, oh yes, there was also some sort of military victory. That’s enough for any holiday to have to do.

For me, the rhythm of Yarrow’s song also recalls the touching of the shammas to the other eight candles to light each in turn. So Yarrow has perfectly captured the spirit of Hanukkah in a mere three minutes. No wonder any number of Jewish musicians have covered this for Hanukkah collections.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Solstice, Etc: Winter Solstice

Ralph Towner: Winter Solstice


What does the Jewnitarian/Pagan set do on Christmas Eve? In my house, at least, once the kids are in bed, we generally turn on the tree, turn out the lights, light a fir-scented candle, and snuggle in front of the fire to something mystical, mesmerizing, and less-than-Christmassy. And though most of the year this sort of stuff is a bit too experimental for me, on a night like this, it's just the thing for atmosphere.

Avante-garde jazz guitarist Ralph Towner, who whet his teeth on the world of free jazz and improvisation with the Paul Winter Consort in the sixties after years of training as a classical guitarist, has long been known among the new-age set for both his preference for small-scale production sans amplification and his penchant for cross-genre fusion of folk music, Indian classical forms, and freeform jazz. Fittingly, this sparse, atmospheric track comes to us from Towner's 1975 sophomore solo album Solstice.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Solstice, Etc.: Hanukkah Medley

All Gods' Children: Hanukkah Medley


What would it sound like if Sun Ra's Arkestra was beat up by a klezmer band? Well, it would sound something like "Hanukkah Medley", the first song on the first side of the first All God's Children cassette (released before the apostrophe had migrated to the right of the "s".)

It starts out with a maniacal laugh, followed by a minute and a half of what sounds like the band warming up. Just when you're ready to give up on it, the noise dies down, bandleader Adam Bernstein counts it out, and we're off on a four-minute, high-speed chase through Klezmerville.

This is music full of energy, full of life. Dancing to it at their many shows in the '90s was a missed marketing opportunity for the next big aerobics craze.

A band that couldn't be pigeonholed, all four songs on that debut cassette sounded completely different from each other. There was a tango, a big-band version of a Woody Guthrie favorite, and the hard-to-classify Gulf War statement "Guns and Humus". The band would follow a similarly eclectic pattern for all their releases.

When I first posted an AGC song here, none of their catalog was commercially available. But as of last week, the complete AGC studio catalog, as well as many previously unreleased live recording are now available. The MP3 of "Hanukkah Medley" I've included here comes from my digitization of my own well-worn cassette. If you want the real deal, hit up the "purchase" link above.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Solstice, Etc.: The Cutty Wren

Steeleye Span: The Cutty Wren


There are two ways I can think of to find songs for Solstice. One can look among the works of neo-pagan singer-songwriters. Here you will find many appropriate songs. There are some musical gems, but also a great deal of music that is unlistenable. I am not plugged into this scene, so I don’t know how to tell the difference.

But, another method should be available. Surely, in places where solstice was once observed, there should be a vast body of traditional material. But, try and find it. At a glance, there would seem to be no trace left of these songs. Actually, there is indeed a vast body of traditional songs for solstice hiding in plain sight. What happened was, most of these songs are considered Christmas songs, and their pagan origins have become obscured over time.

Think about the current example. Maybe you know your scripture better than I do. Is there any reason a wren should be hunted on St Stephen’s Day? Not that I know of. And yet, in parts of the British Isles, that is exactly what happens. There are a number of wren hunting songs, and a ritual procession that goes with the hunt. The wren is placed atop a pole, wrapped in holly and ivy, and taken in ritual procession to be buried. A picture of one such procession can be seen above. You can see the holly and ivy bundle containing the wren. More pictures, as well as a fuller description of the procession and accompanying rituals, can be found here.

I have found references that indicate that the wren in these traditions was originally a gold-crested wren, like the one pictured above. These birds are now simply known as goldcrests. It’s easy to see how this bird could be thought of as the “king of all birds”, given the golden crown he wears. It’s also easy to see how he would be associated with the sun. Solstice, in pagan belief, marks the death of the old sun god, and the birth of the young sun. The old god was ritually sacrificed so that the young one could be born. This sacrificial victim would have been a special effigy made for the ritual. (The notion that the druids practiced actual human sacrifice comes from Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and was probably nothing more than wartime propaganda; there is no archeological evidence to support this idea.) So it makes all the sense in the world that the wren hunt would be a survival of old solstice customs.

So there is probably more than you ever wanted to know about the hunting of the wren. Enjoy the song, and have a blessed St Stephen’s Day.