Thursday, December 12, 2019

2019 Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival—Celestial Music of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Celestial Music reported to have been coded in the tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas, Patroness of the Americas, and most recently Patroness of the Unborn.  An image of her preserved on cloth in a Mexico City Basilica is the object of almost universal adoration in Mexico and among the large Mexican diaspora in the United States.  She has been called the “rubber band which binds this disparate nation into a whole.”  Mexican literary icons have attested to her importance.  Carlos Fuentes said that “you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe” and Nobel Literature laureate Octavio Paz that “the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.

The origin story goes like this.

On December 9, 1531, just ten years after the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortez, Juan Diego, an Indian peasant and particularly pious convert to Catholicism, was walking by the Hill of Tepeyac then outside of the capital city.  A temple to Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess of love and fertility, had surmounted the hill but been razed in the Church’s campaign to obliterate traditional worship.  When he glanced up the hill he beheld a maiden who bade him in his native Nahuatl language to build a church on the site in her name.  He surmised that she must be that she must be the Virgin Mary although she did not identify herself.

A reproduction of Our Lady of Guadalupe as she appears today.


Juan Diego hurried to Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the Archbishop of Mexico with his tale.  The Franciscan was impressed with his piety but skeptical of the story.  He instructed Juan Diego to return to the hill and ask the apparition for proof of her identity. The peon returned three more times to the hill over the next two days and the Virgin spoke to him each time. 
He first asked for a miraculous sign.  When he returned home he found that his uncle, who had been dying, was healed.  


The Indio peon Juan Diego presents his tilma with the image of the Virgin to Fray Juan de Zumarraga, Archbishop of Mexico.

On his final trip to the Hill the virgin commanded him to gather flowers at the summit.  These were not native flower, but red Castilian roses blooming out of season.  Juan Diego gathered them in his tilma or cloak and took the bundle to the Archbishop Zumárraga.  When he opened his cloak December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and on the fabric was the image of the Virgin.
This was enough to convince Archbishop who ordered a chapel be built at the base of the hill where the cloak would be displayed.  Juan Diego, his wife, and his uncle were given leave to build a hovel next to the hermitage of Franciscan fathers sent to attend the shrine and to act as their servant.  He reportedly died there in 1548. 
The revered image has been altered over the years, although not the central image of the Virgin on the tilma.  The figure of a dark skinned virgin is four foot eight inches high.  Her gown is a tawny rose tinted color said to recall the Mexican landscape. She is girded by a thin black sash which is taken as a sign of pregnancy. She wears a blue mantle traditionally associated with Mary.  Sharp beams radiate from her suggesting that she is “brighter than the Sun.”  One foot rests on the Moon and the other on a snake’s head.  This has been interpreted as her victory over darkness and triumph over the pagan Aztec feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl and/or the serpent of temptation from the Garden of Eden.
She may have originally had a crown on her head or that might have been added later.  Still later the crown was decorated with gold which deteriorated over the years.  In 1899 the crown was erased either because of the deterioration or to bring the image more into line with the republican sentiments of the people.  The tilma was reframed with the top being brought down just above the Virgin’s head to disguise damage in the process of the erasure.  Other additions over time included stars painted on the inside of her mantle representing the constellations of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, a supporting angel below her, and silver decoration which has also deteriorated.  Despite being centuries old on an unstable medium, however that central image remains remarkably bright.

The peasant army called to arms by Father Miguel Hidalgo and El Grito de Delores marched behind this banner depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Aside from its singular religious significance the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has become a rallying point for the national aspirations of the Mexican people, particularly for the Indios and mestizos.   The peon army of Father Miguel Hidalgo after El Grito de Delores marched behind a banner painted with a representation of Our Lady and many soldiers of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810 fought with printed cards of her image stuck in their sombreros.
Although anti-clericism ran deep among many in the 20th Century Mexican Revolution, Emilio Zapata’s army of southern presents and Indians entered Mexico City in triumph behind a Guadeloupian banner.  More recently, the contemporary Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) also in the south named their mobile city Guadalupe Tepeyac in honor of the Virgin.
In the United States banners of Our Lady appeared in the marches and during the strikes of the United Farm Workers, whose leader Cesar Chavez was deeply religious.  More recently it has been carried in demonstrations in support of immigration reform

Veneration at the National Shine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, Illinois.
As I type these final sentences in the wee small hours of the morning an all-night vigil continues in Des Plaines at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  More than 200,000 are expected to visit the Shrine over two days for the largest such veneration in the U. S.  
Transcribed notation of the "Celestial Music" said to be encoded on the tilma.
Today’s selection is from the reportedly celestial music found coded in the tilma forming musical notes with the stars and flowers of her dress reputedly discovered by researcher Fernando Ojeda who interpreted the positions through comparisons  using geography, geometry, astronomy.  Using his discoveries “musical experts” were able to reconstruct the music in standard notation.  Needless to say these claims are highly controversial but are treasured and spread by traditionalist devotees.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

2019 Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival—John Prine’s Christmas in Prison

Christmas in Prison by John Prine.

A good many of my friendsWobblies, social justice warriors, progressive Democrats, humanists, and those who follow the news with growing despair and anguish—think I have gone soft and squishy and have surrendered  to goopy sentimentality and faux joy every year when I trot out the Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival.  It’s not that I have retired my radicalism or activism, or that I have been corrupted by the commercialism of the holiday and impossible expectations of the culture.  I know what is going on in the world and still put some time in every day trying to fix it. 
But I think in dark times we all could use a little joy, a little hope, a little reminder of love, family, community, and connection.   This season of year when many cultures celebrate the triumph of light over darkness in their own unique ways is the perfect time for it.  Think of it as a spiritual battery recharge. 
To show that I have not gone completely daft on candy canes, and sugar plums, gotten drunk on the wassail, nog, and glug today I’ll share one of the saddest Christmas songs ever written—John Prine’s Christmas in Prison.  Oh, there are other melancholy seasonal songs but most of them are broken hearted love songs like Blue Christmas, or reflections on a lost past like Another New Year’s Eve.  The Pogues’ Irish folk punk Fairy Tale of New York may be even bleaker.  And of course country music can be relied on for sentimental tears in songs like the dreadful The Christmas Shoes.  But Prine’s lonesome ballad stands alone.

John Prine at the Fifth Peg Pub where he burst out at open mics.  The club new they had a star but still misspelled his name as Pryne on the banner behind him.
John Prine was a 24 year old singing mailman from suburban Maywood, Illinois when he showed up one night at a Chicago folk club open mic with a grab bag of astonishing original songs.  He was soon at the heart of the hot Chicago folk revival scene of the early ‘70’s alongside his buddy Steve Goodman and others packing them in at The Earl of Old Town, Somebody Else’s Troubles, and other local clubs.  Kris Kristofferson said that Prine wrote songs so good, “we'll have to break his thumbs.”
In 1971 he released his first album with now classic songs including Sam Stone, Illegal Smile, Angel from Montgomery, and Paradise.  That launched a touring career and a cult core following.  Major stardom and charting singles eluded him as others like Bonnie Raitt scored hits with his songs.  As a folky he was not embraced by country music’s Nashville recording cartel even though he was revered as a songwriter by many of the genre’s biggest stars.  When the folk music singer/songwriter boom faded later in the decade, so did Prine’s career.
He has staged at least two major comebacks with the 1990 album The Missing Years and after two dangerous bouts with cancer.  Surgery for squamous cell cancer on the right side of his neck in 1998 removed a piece of his neck and severed a few nerves in his tongue, while the radiation damaged some salivary glands.  His voice was permanently altered giving him a raspy, gravely tone.  In 2013 he had part of a lung removed after surgery.  Both times he returned to touring after recovery and was playing to the biggest crowds of his career.

Despite health problems, Prime continues to perform and is enjoying the greatest success of his storied career.
After the second recovery accolades for his long career began to pour in.   Prine was named winner of the 2016 PEN/Song Lyrics Award, won his second Artist of the Year award at the 2017 Americana Music Honors & Awards, was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, nominated for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and had three Grammy Awards nominations this year for Grammy nominations including for Best Americana Roots song and Best Americana Album for his first original studio recording in 13 years The Tree of Forgiveness.  That album was his first to crack the top of a Billboard record charts hitting No. 5 on the pop chart, No. 2 on the Country, Indie, and rock charts, and No. 1 on the Folk Chart.
Prine is frequently mentioned as a top candidate for the Kennedy Center Honors.

The second of three albums on which Christmas in Prison appeared.
He has recorded 25 albums including studio sessions, live performances, and compilations.  Christmas in Prison has appeared on three of them—on his third album Sweet Revenge in 1973, on the compilation A John Prine Christmas in 1993, and in a new recording on Souvenirs in 2000.  Today’s version comes from that session.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

2019 Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival—Ella Fitzgerald’s Frosty the Snowman

Frosty the Snowman by Ella Fitzgerald.

Frosty the Snowman, today’s entry into our Holidays Music Festival, touches several seasonal sub-genresWinter songs not actually holiday related, children’s songs, and in this version by the inimitable Ella Fitzgerald, jazz.
The tune about a plucky snowman who comes to life when crowned with an old top hat was written by Walter “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson on a hot summer day in the Westchester County suburbs of New York.  The composers said that it was set in Armonk near White Plains which had the village green mentioned in the song.
Rollins had already written Here Comes Peter Cotton Tail as an Easter specialty for Gene Autry and knew that the country crooner was looking for a follow up to his enormously popular 1949 hit Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  Autry, ever a shrewd businessman, recognized that holiday and children’s songs could produce a lucrative perennial income as his movie career was winding down.  As anticipated Frosty became yet another huge hit in 1950.  He would go on to record other Christmas favorites including Santa Claus is Coming to Town and his own composition Here Comes Santa Claus. 
But although released for Christmas sales, the song never mentioned the holiday.
But Autry was not the only one to hit it big with the spritely tune in 1950.  Jimmy Durante, Nat King Cole, and Guy Lombardo all charted that year. 

The song’s appeal and popularity immediately sparked adaptations in other media.  Little Golden Books came out with their drug store rack book that ended up in many Christmas stockings.  Also in In 1950, the UPA studio brought Frosty to life in a three-minute animated short for Chicago’s WGN-TV with a bouncy, jazzy a cappella version of the song and a limited animation style reminiscent of UPA’s popular Gerald McBoing-Boing. The black and white short became a perennial Christmas favorite on the station and is broadcast annually along with their two other Christmas shorts Suzy Snowflake and Hardrock, Coco and Joe every year since. 

The 1950 black and white cartoon short of Frosty made for Chicago's WGN-TV.
But the 1969 Rankin/Bass color animated CBS special, blew all other interpretations out of the water and became, like the studio’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  This version for the first time inserted Christmas and Santa into the story line and altered the original lyrics reprised by Jimmy Durante from “he’ll come back again someday” to “he’ll be back on Christmas Day.”  Rankin/Bass used cell animation out-sourced to Japan’s Mushi Production studio instead of the stop-action animation used in Rudolph.  It featured the voices of Durante as the narrator, Billy De Wolfe as Professor Hinkle, Jackie Vernon,  Paul Frees as Santa and June Foray as Karen.

The Rankin/Bass TV special became the definitive Frosty for three or more generations.
The popularity of the Rankin/Bass special and its three sequels means that the plethora of Frosty merchandise in stores every holiday season is based on its imagery

The magnificent Ella Fitzgerald.
Ella Fitzgerald—one of the few women to be included with the likes of Autry, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Andy Williams, and Johnny Mathis in the pantheon of Christmas music all-stars—recorded her version in 1960 for her album Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas for Verve Records featuring a studio orchestra arranged and conducted by Frank DeVol.  It was one of several original Christmas albums released by her and her version of the song has appeared in countless re-packages and other compilations.

Tree of Life Cookie Walk and Holiday Sale Returns


The Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 5603 Bull Valley Road in McHenry, Illinois is holding its annual Cookie Walk and Holiday Sale on Saturday, December 14, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.  
The event is actually three great sales in one.

A Table full of home baked treats at 2018 Tree of Life Cookie Walk.
The Cookie Walk will feature homemade cookies, baked goods, and candy for sale by the pound.  The Artisan Alley Boutique with handmade gifts and crafts is hosted by Mrs. Claus (Judy Ayers).  There also will be a Bells, Baubles & Bows Room with a variety of gently-used Christmas items and decorations offered at “take what you need, pay what you can” prices—perfect for bring Christmas cheer home on a budget.

Mix and match your choices and buy 'em by the pound.
Past visitors to the annual sale have rated it “the best cookie walk in McHenry County.”
The event is free, open to the public, and family friendly.
For more information, call the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation at 815 322-2464, email office@treeoflifeuu.org or visit the Facebook event.


Monday, December 9, 2019

2019 Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival—Holiday Wishes with Cassandra Vohs-Demann

Yesterday we were far away and long ago on the Murfin Winter Holiday Music Festival.  Today we go as new and fresh as Christmas cookies straight from the oven and just as local.  McHenry County’s own singer/songwriter/diva Cassandra Vohs-Demann has released a brand new original Christmas Song on Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, and all other major platforms as well as on her own web site.
For the first time, we don’t have a video, for this great holiday music entry, but Cassandra is making a gift of it to all of her friends—and now that’s you!  You can play it for free and if you want a more permanent copy, you can download it.  Such a deal!

Cassandra Vohs-Demann.
Holiday Wishes is a love song for Cassandra’s husband Phil and for Woodstock.  First performed last year to a strong response, she recorded it with friend and associate Billy Seger singing harmony and Graham Butler, a Los Angles producer originally from Woodstock. 
And it’s not the only Christmas song she released.  Celebrate Anyway is a rock ballad that Casandra wrote eight years ago to bring holiday comfort to a cousin who lost her son to cancer.  Together the two songs make a matching set of stockings to hang on your mantle
Cassandra is a gifted and powerful vocalist who is comfortable in multiple musical genres who toured and performed nationally before settling in Woodstock several years ago where she established herself as a music teacher and vocal coach while gaining a strong following performing at local venues.   She gives back to the community in many ways.
She founded the Woodstock Community Choir in 2015 and continues to lead it with bi-annual concerts at the Woodstock Opera House and public appearances like the annual Lighting of the Square event.  She also leads two regular monthly events at the Opera House’s Stage Left Café venueSecond Saturday Concert Series showcasing top local performers and the Original Open Mic on the fourth Saturdays of the month.  And she finds time to have fun with the Ukulele Superheroes.  
Professionally Cassandra continues her teaching and coaching in A Place to Shine Music, her home studio and is recording and licensing music for film and television.  She was recognized as the 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year by the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce.

Billy Seger performed with Cassandra this year at Woodstock's annual Lighting of the Square event.
Her frequent collaborator Billy Seger is just as much of a community fixture.  Billy Seger first started participating in musical theatre including productions of Dille’s Follies at the Congregational Unitarian Congregation in Woodstock, choir, and piano lessons at the age of 8.  He performed professionally across the country, including two national tours, two international contracts aboard Oceania Cruise Lines, and two Christmas seasons as a backup singer/dancer for country superstar Pam Tillis. Segar currently is a professional director/choreographer for various theater companies including Woodstock High School and Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake and teaches at McHenry County College.
Did I mention and/or brag the this fall Cassandra became Music Director for the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 5603 Bull Valley Road in McHenry with Billy as accompanist.  You can hear them with the Tree of Life Choir in a Holiday Concert at 10:45 am on Sunday, December 22.  That performance will also include original work by the Congregation’s poets, including a scruffy Old Man.

There are more opportunities to enjoy Cassandra and Billy’s talents coming up including the Stage left Second Saturday Holiday Wishes Concert on December 14 at 8 pm, at the Original Open Mic on December 28, and at the Woodstock Community Choir’s Winter Concert Shine: Songs of Empowerment, Growth, and Belonging on Sunday January 26 at 3 pm at the Woodstock Opera House.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

2019 Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival—Sei uns willkommen, Herre Christ

Sei uns willkommen, Herre Christ from the Aachener Fragment from the 14th Century.

Well, it is the Second Sunday of Advent and a week into the Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival and we have had only one a seasonal religious song, all five of the other selections were American, and four were written between 1943 and 1950.  Time for some diversity!  So step into the Way Back Machine for a visit to Aachen on the Rhine in medieval  Germany when it was still part of the Holy Roman Empire.
Nowhere in Christendom were Advent and Christmas so revered and culturally sacred than among the Germanic peoples.

Aachen Cathedral is one of the oldest in tact and still functioning cathedrals in Northern Europe.
Sei uns willkommen, Herre Christ (Be ye welcome, Lord Christ) may have origins stretching back to as early as the 11th Century but it was first recorded as a fragment in the Liuthar Gospels at found in the Aachen Cathedral Treasury dating to the early 14th Century.  Known as the Aachener Fragment it was most likely sung from the choir stalls of the Cathedral by the schöffen, appointed honorable citizens involved in general government and jurisdiction of the Bishopric.  It was not a folk song sung in homes. 
The earliest complete surviving version is in a manuscript from Erfurt dating to 1394.  In 1861 August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben reconstructed a translation from the Erfurt version back into Old High German.

The Aschener Fragment original manuscript.
The hymn is also known as the Aachener Weihnachtslied (Aachen Christmas carol) or Aachener Schöffenlied (Aachen juror carol).  It is the oldest recorded German Advent or Christmas carol and versions are included in both Catholic and Lutheran hymnal today.
Today we will listen to a version based on the Aachener Fragment recorded in 2011 with a vocal by Julia Ballin and Deff Ballin on guitar instead of a choir with organ, but you can get the idea.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

2019 Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival—I’ll Be Home for Christmas

I'll Be Home for Christmas--Bing Crosby.

Seventy-eight years ago today the Japanese launched their devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor thrusting the United States into a bloody worldwide conflagration and forever altering the lives and destinies of millions.  It also cast a somber pall over Christmas festivities getting underway stateside just as the last vestiges of the Great Depression were being shaken off and folks had money to spend for a change.

The USS Arizona going down after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1949.
With a long war ahead with families and sweethearts wrenched by separation and fear, people turned to music for comfort, especially at Christmas time.  There were many war-time Christmas songs written and recorded—almost every Big Band with a singer had at least one in their repertoire.  They filled the holiday radio shows and were transcribed to be played for the troops around the world.   Many of the songs were forgettable, but some have become timeless classics.
For my father, First Sargent W. M. Murfin posted to a forward American field hospital attached to the British and Anzac forces under Field Marshall Montgomery in North Africa in 1942, the song that brightened a cold night in the desert was White Christmas, the Irving Berlin song that made its debut in Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.  Its wistful note of nostalgia plucked many hearts and cemented its place as the most beloved secular American Christmas song.
Later in the war, millions thought that Judy Garland was singing for them as well as for Margaret O’Brien when she crooned the melancholy Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Bing Crosby on a USO tour in Europe. 
In 1943 Bing Crosby scored again with a song aimed directly at lonely servicemen far from home and their families.  I’ll be Home For Christmas by lyricist Kim Gannon and composer Walter Kent was released by Decca Records and became a top ten hit and Crosby’s fifth Gold Record.  .  Buck Ram was later also given credit after a law suit because he had written a poem with the same name and similar sentiments.
The song has been covered by Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Johnny Mathis, Connie Francis, The Carpenters, Anita Baker, Kelly Clarkson, Michael Bublé, Pentatonix, and Demi Lovato among many others.
But Der Bingle did it best.