Songs and Carols for Midwinter & Christmastide, by Nowell Sing We Clear

Songbook

The release of this fantastic resource caps a glorious 40 years of performances by Nowell Sing We Clear—Tony Barrand, Fred Breunig, Andy Davis, and John Roberts. These four traditional musicians toured the Northeast and beyond with a performance of Anglo-American songs and carols of the season, drawing on their backgrounds: Tony and John’s English, Fred and Andy’s American. (Full disclosure: three of the four have been friends of mine all that time).

Now they’ve pulled together the band’s repertoire in this songbook. It’s musician-friendly, containing words and music for the songs and carols we love: wire-bound to lie flat, with chord symbols and harmonies. The extensive background material will fascinate musicians, singers and scholars alike.

Their concerts quickly became a December tradition for many of us, one that we’ve missed since the band retired from touring after a final concert in 2014. Each concert had the same template, which you’ll find in the songbook too. The first half featured music related to the Christmas story, often pub-sing versions of familiar carols, many filled with more directness and energy than the church versions. The second half was devoted to traditional songs of the season, such as wassail songs, visiting songs, the hunting of the wren, and counting songs.

The first half ended with a mummer’s play, and sometimes a sword dance. As their Facebook page says: “Performed in the traditional manner, the play is typical of folk dramas which survive to this day throughout Britain and North America symbolizing and portraying the death of the land at midwinter and its subsequent rebirth in the spring.” It was always different, with timely quips about current events or politics inserted, bringing guffaws from the audience.

Anyone who loves to sing will enjoy this book that celebrates this season when the light begins to return and many people celebrate the birth that became attached to the ancient rituals. For me, these songs have become such a part of my life for so long that they are inseparable from this season, but even those new to Nowell Sing We Clear will enjoy discovering new and old favorites. My two-year-old grandson’s favorite is Kris Kringle with its rollicking chorus.

Check out more videos from their concerts on YouTube. You can purchase the book and other Nowell Sing We Clear recordings here. I have no financial interest in purchases, just a friendly one: I want to bring together the music of my friends and you, my friends who will enjoy it.

Do you love to sing? This book is for you!

Father Christmas, by Raymond Briggs

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My young friend brought this award-winning children’s book along on a recent overnight at my house. I hadn’t heard of it before and, reading it aloud at bedtime, was thoroughly enchanted.

In the format of a graphic novel, the story follows Father Christmas through his most demanding day: December 24. There are no elven worker bees, no Rudolph, no North Pole. Instead we have a seemingly ordinary man waking from a dream of sunning himself on a beach to find that it’s Christmas Eve. No wonder he’s rather grumpy!

We follow him through his morning chores: putting the kettle on, collecting eggs, bathing. The detail in the pictures is quite incredible; I had to hold back my friend’s quick fingers to give me time to glory in them. The houses Father Christmas visits with his sleigh and two reindeer are quite extraordinary: from a camper to an apartment to a glorious manor house and even, well, I don’t want to give it away.

Just an ordinary man doing a job of work. He grumbles a bit, but finally is able to go home and cook his Christmas dinner and pudding. Under all that grumbling is a sweetheart who takes good care of his reindeer and even pulls out presents for his cat and dog.

I love this book. Most of us want to work at jobs that are meaningful, that in some way benefit others. We can’t all dispense a sleigh-full of presents, but we can give a few toys to a charity like Toys for Tots or donate time or money to a food bank or kitchen. We can find a way in even the most menial jobs (and I’ve held some of the lowliest) to make someone else’s burden a little lighter. We can pay forward the gifts that we’ve been given. Then we can go home and put our feet up, maybe with a cat on our lap or a dog keeping our feet warm, and know that we’ve made a difference.

Happy holidays to all.

Playlist 2015

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Songs, whether vocal or instrumental, are stories too. And sometimes poetry. I listen to a lot of classical music and–when I want calm and comfort–to Keith Jarrett’s The Melody at Night, with You. The playlist below filled the rest of my musical hours; they are the songs I kept coming back to this year. Many thanks to my friends for their music.

Desperado, Johnny Cash
Marching Through Georgia Lament, Jacqueline Schwab
Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier, Jacqueline Schwab
And Am I Born To Die, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
New South Africa, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Bitter Boy, Kate Rusby
Times A-Getting Hard, Happy Traum
Shebeg An Sheemor, Happy Traum
Gypsy Davey, Happy Traum
Sail Away Ladies/A Roof for the Rain/Snake River Reel, Ken Kolodner & Brad Kolodner
Black Jack David, Sweet Felons All
Raggle Taggle Gypsies, Sweet Felons All
Cornish Lads, Sweet Felons All
Adieu Adieu, Sweet Felons All
The Star Of The County Down, Walt Michael & Company
Ruins by the Shore, The Paul McKenna Band
Flying Through Flanders, The Paul McKenna Band
Slängpolskor, Lydia & Andrea
Schottis till Tom, Lydia & Andrea
Sweet Thames Flow Softly, Ian Robb

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I also have to add that I’ve been listening to Ryland Angel’s mostly a capella Christmas CD The New Voice of Christmas. His voice is quite lovely–I should say all his voices, since he sings multiple parts. What a range! I especially like an old favorite: In the Bleak Midwinter, and a hymn new to me: Be Thou My Vision.

What music have you been listening to?