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The Celtic Origins of Samhain
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Music for the Winter Solstice
Article ID: 7547
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 4,079
Times Read: 25,310
Author: Peg Aloi [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: November 29th. 2003
Times Viewed: 25,310
(originally posted 2003-11-29) Hey, all you stylin' witches out there. Look, I KNOW that some of you get into this whole Yuletide thing. What's not to love? Twinkly lights, cookies with sprinklies, images of leaping deer, holly and ivy, and presents. Maybe you even enjoy the music piping into every department store, record shop, "drugstore" (you know, that place where you buy your toothpaste, aspirin, cat food and batteries) and elevator starting around Thanksgiving. Sure, sometimes you feel like screaming when you hear "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" for the tenth time that day (remember the DJ who barricaded himself in his booth and played it endlessly because he was sick of people calling in to request it?), but if you're like me every new arrangement of "Sleigh Ride" or "Carol of the Bells' is kinda heart-warming.
Yes, some of the most beautiful and enjoyable music some of us can think of is associated with Christmas. But what do we do when we want to hear songs that are about the solstice? The celebration of the return of the light? Well, the short answer is, there aren't many of these songs out there. The long answer is, depending on how you interpret them, some songs of the season, both traditional and contemporary, contain very pagan imagery and capture the mood of solstice more than they celebrate the birth of the Christian savior. Now, bear in mind, pre-Christian mythologies also celebrate the birth of a solar god (Mithras, Ra, Lugh, Apollo) and so we open-minded students of comparative religion can see Christmas as one more stop on the way to a universal myth that embraces everyone's belief system.
Yeah, right. Okay, maybe that won't happen anytime soon, but I'll bet some of you are just wishing for a way to make this holiday, be it Christmas or Yule, less commercial and more meaningful. I am of the opinion that good music can help. I am not one of those people who likes "filk" songs for Yule, where the original lyrics are replaced with new pagan ones, like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Solstice." I mean, come on. Give me Bing or nothing. But I find a great many pagans enjoy traditional songs for this time of year. I think it should be possible to accept So here I offer some suggestions of recordings that just might be suitable for your next Yule party, or for decorating gingerbread persons in your kitchen! (Note: no grandmothers have been harmed by reindeer in the compiling of this list).
New this year: THE JETHRO TULL CHRISTMAS ALBUM! (a short review)
Most Tull fans will have heard a few of these already, but this wonderful album contains some new songs and brand-new arrangements of old ones. For those who prefer the band in their less rock and roll, more Elizabethan mode (like with their previous albums Songs from the Wood or Heavy Horses), this CD is for you. With excellent flute, mandolin, guitars, percussion and vocals, this is a classic Tull album, one of the best new ones I have heard in years. There are also some nice surprises, like jazzy arrangements of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' and "Bouree," both of which I heard this summer when the band performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. There are new arrangements of old faves, and while some of these reworked tunes are better for it (I love the new rendition of "Ring Out Solstice Bells" (from SFTW) as the old one always sounded a bit hokey to me), some would have done better to stay closer to the original version. In most cases, though, it's mixed, with improvement for the most part. I like the less-electronic feel of "Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow," but I think the vocals on the first version (available on the "20 Years Of Jethro Tull" collection) were fuller. Some of my other favorite tracks from SFTW are here, "Weathercock" and "Fires at Midnight," and I like the new versions, which are warmer and mellower than the originals. Songs new to me here include the contemporary songs "Last Man at the Party," "Birthday Card at Christmas," "First Snow on Brooklyn," and "AWinter Snowscape." The album contains some nice instrumentals, including "Pavane" and "Holly Herald." I did wonder why "Pan Dance" was not included, since this was on a special edition Christmas 45 record a few years back. But all in all, I can't really offer any complaints about this CD. Great to have, great to give.
Other CDs suitable for Yuletide:
To Drive the Cold Winter Away by Loreena McKennitt The Canadian artist's first major album. Gorgeous harp and haunting vocals, some spoken word, mostly traditional and some fine original compositions, including "Snow" set to a poem by Canadian nature poet Archibald Lampman.(available from www.amazon.com) So enjoy these jewels of seasonal music, and amidst the shopping and eating and merry-making and stress, find some time to quietly reflect and remember, ahem, thetrue meaning of the solstice.
A Christmas Celtic Sojourn. This is a collection of songs and poetry collected from a popular Boston radio program. Some of my favorite Celtic artists are on here, including The Voice Squad (with John Renbourn and Mairead ni Dhomhnaill), Maddy Prior, and Connie Dover. (available from www.amazon.com)
Wassail! A Country Christmas by Magpie Lane. I can't rave enough about this fine English band. Great vocals and terrific traditional arrangements. This one includes "Down in Yon Forest," "Sheep Beneath the Snow," and "Lullay, My Liking" to name a few. Hard to find but worth the effort.
Just Say Nowell by Nowell Sing We Clear. This traditional English band is led by folklorist/musician Tony Barrands and John Roberts,well-loved in the New England area. Rich vocal harmonies in a rustic country style, very authentic and bracing to listen to on a coldwinter's night. (Seeveral of these albums are available from www.folklegacy.com)
Frost and Fire by Waterson/Carthy. Traditional songs of the season by two of the best-loved English traditional musicians
Winter's Turning by Robin Williamson. A favorite performer of traditional songs with his own magical spin on the world. This one includes obscure traditional songs like "Blow Thou Winter Wynd," "Hunting the Wren," and "Sheep Under the Snow.'
Celtic Christmas: A Windham Hill Sampler This is pretty much what it sounds like, and there are several of these samplers available, but in among the somewhat saccharine instrumentals played on harp, piano and B-flat Flugel horn, there are some really great contemporary Celtic artists with lovely renditions of traditional songs. You'll find Donal Lunny, Triona ni Dhomhnaill, Altan, Luka Bloom, Carlos Nunez, Nightnoise and others. Definitely worth having at least one of these. (available from www.amazon.com)
On Yoolis Night by Anonymous Four. These four women sing incredible a cappella versions in Gregorian chant and Renaissance style. This recording will lend a classy, somewhat spooky air to your party. I love this album for those nights when the wind is howling outside and you have plenty of candles in the house...
This Winter's Night by Mothertongue. Well, you should get this one because it has a beautiful song ("Yule Carol") written by Witchvox's own Darragh Nagel on it! This one is still a favorite in the pagan community, with a unique collection of traditional and contemporary songs for Yule including Gwydion Pendderwen's "Wintry Queen." (Available from www.ladyslipper.org)
Bright blessings to you all,
Location: Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
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