Monday, December 31, 2018

Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival—Auld Lang Syne

Although there have occasionally been other songs that made feeble attempts to displace it, New Year’s Eve belongs firmly to Auld Lang Syne and promises to remain supreme in defiance of any and all changes in musical tastes and styles.
Most of us know that the song comes from a poem by the revered Ploughman Poet and Scottish national icon Robert Burns.  But you may not know the whole story.  

Robert Burns.
After his first blush of fame with the publication of his Kilarnock Poems in 1786, Burns began his fruitful relationship with the editor and publisher James Johnson who was preparing to publish his Scots Musical Museum.  He collected and often rewrote scores the songs of this great collection, which preserved Scottish music when it could have easily vanished.  One of the songs he forwarded was Auld Lang Syne with the notation “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.”
That was not quite true on a couple of accounts.  Other collectors had recorded variants and in 1711 James Watson published a version that showed considerable similarity in the first verse and the chorus to Burns later poem, and is almost certainly derived from the same old song.  Burns changed it from a romantic song about old lovers to a nostalgic drinking song of old friends.  Most of the words in Scotts we now sing were written by Burns.
After his early death in 1796 at the age of only 37, the song took on a special significance as a memory of the beloved poet.

John Masey Wright's and John Rogers' illustration of Auld Lang Syne in 1841

The tune was we now sing it may or may not have been the one that Burns originally heard but became standard in the early years of the 19th Century.  It is pentatonic—based on a five note scale—Scots folk melody, originally a sprightly dance in a much quicker tempo.
Exactly when the song became associated with New Year’s is unknown.  It is possible the earlier folk versions were already sung at that time.   But was incorporated in Hogmanay—the last day of the old year and the first of the new—celebrations by the mid-19th Century.
Nobody in the world celebrates New Years with zest and ritual like the Scots.  You can thank those dour old Calvinists of the National Kirk of Scotland—the Presbyterians for more completely scouring Christmas from the calendar than Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans ever dreamed in England.  If Scottish Catholics kept Christmas in their hearts, the kept their mouths shut about it and the practice faded even in their communities.  After the celebration of Christmas was no longer outright banned it was still shunned as being “too English” and did not become a legal holiday in Scotland until 1958 and only then because so many English were moving into the border areas and were employed at firms in the big cities.
Hogmanay has many quaint customs, but they center on the stroke of midnight.  Then the central room of a home hosting the celebration was cleared of furniture and guests join hands with the person next to them to form a great circle around the dance floor. At the beginning of the last verse, everyone crosses their arms across their breast, so that the right hand reaches out to the neighbor on the left and vice versa. When the tune ends, everyone rushes to the middle, while still holding hands. When the circle is re-established, everyone turns under the arms to end up facing outwards with hands still joined.
The song spread rapidly around the globe thanks to the Scottish diaspora to British Empire nations—especially Canada—and to the United States.  Scottish regiments spread the song even wider and it was adapted for use by British troops generally from India, to Africa, to the Middle East.
It wasn’t until the 1890’s, however, that there was printed mention of the song being used publicly at New Year’s in the United States, although it undoubtedly was sung in Scottish communities.  When the first illuminated ball was dropped in New York City’s Times Square in 1907 the song was so firmly identified with New Year’s that the crowd sang it after the ball touched down.

Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians with New Year's revelers at the Waldorf Astoria.

But Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians really cemented Auld Lang Syne as the New Year's song.  Lombardo first broadcast a New Year’s Eve program on CBS Radio on December 31, 1928.  He continued broadcasting from the Roosevelt Room until 1959, and then moved his base to the larger Waldorf Astoria.  In 1959 the New Year’s Eve program was first aired on CBS Television and continued on that network for 21 years.  After Lombardo’s death the song was still played in all of the airings of the Times Square celebrations.
Today we return to the simple, moving beauty of Burns’ creation in a performance by the great Scottish folk singer Dougie McLean.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival—What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve

Back in the day everyone who was not a misanthrope or a shut-in went out on New Year’s Eve.  The toffs wore their white ties and tales and elegant evening gowns and furs to don paper hats and dance the night way to orchestras in sprawling Art Deco ballrooms.  At least that is what all of the old movies taught the rest of the Depression and war weary populous.  But those average Joes and Jills also went out and celebrated with their own funny hats and noise makers in urban ballrooms, lodge halls, piano bars, and neighborhood saloons.  And it was not just attractive young people.  Period photographs reveal that revelers include many middle age and older couples.

Just about every couple imagined that they were the elegant revelers in the movies.
For those who were not married or already romantically involved.  The question what are you doing New Year’s Eve was of vital importance.  Nobody wanted to be alone on New Year’s and everyone wanted someone to kiss at the stroke of midnight.  That is what songwriter Frank Loesser had in mind in 1947 when he made the question into a song—What are You Doing New Year’s Eve.  Although it was performed on radio shows that often featured the popular composer’s work, it didn’t become a hit until 1949 when the early doo-wap group The Orioles hit #9 on Billboard’s Best-Selling Retail Rhythm and Blues chart.

The celebration was for everyone and resulted in as many hangovers as blossoming romances.
Despite that success, the song did not become an instant standard or holiday favorite.  In fact it languished seldom recorded until Nancy Wilson hit #17 on Billboard’s Christmas Singles chart in 1965.  Two years later the same recording returned to the Holiday Chart.  Wilson’s silky and sexy, take helped make the song a something of a jazz standard sung by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.
But the song still didn’t register as a pop standard until the new century and streaming video from YouTube made it go viral.  In 2011 an utterly charming impromptu duet with Zooey Deschanel and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt made a splash ultimately attracting more than 19,600,000 hits.

One of the ever-changing line-ups of Scott Bradlee's Post Modern Juke Box.
Last December Scott Bradlee’s Post Modern Juke Box covered the song.  The rotating cast of performers—to date more than 70 of them, rose to internet fame posting weekly videos on YouTube.  Originally taped in Bradlee’s Queens New York basement the group reworked classic song from older traditions—vaudeville, tin-pan alley, swing, and rhythm and blues or took modern pop, country, and even hip-hop hits and reset them to a jazzy old time nightclub style.  Their delightful version of What are You Doing New Year’s Eve featuring vocalists Rayvon Owen and Olivia Kuper Harris has registered nearly one million hits in its first year.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival—Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella

The French have a very deep tradition of Christmas carols.  In fact the word carol comes from French country dances that celebrated events throughout the year, but especially during Christmas.  Words were put to these lively dances creating song very different from the announcement and nativity hymn sung for masses.  Coming from the peasantry the songs often celebrated the lowly witnesses or participants in the birth story—the carpenter and his humble teenage wife, the animals in the stable, the shepherds, children, and peasants.  Thus these carols were subtly subversive, claiming the Christ child as one of their own.  Exactly such a song is the very old carol Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle—Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella.
The song originated in Provence in southern France which includes not only famous vineyard country, but mountains rising to the Alps.  It was first published in 1553.  The melody now sung is attributed to Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier but he probably adapted an older folk tune à boire Qu’ils sont doux, bouteille jolie from the now lost Le médecin malgré lui.
It was first translated in English in the mid-18th Century.

An illustration for Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella.
The song tells the story of two peasant girls who come upon the nativity and rush back to their village to tell the people and then leading them to the scene with torches in the night.  At the stable all awed and struck with silence so as not to disturb the baby’s sleep.
It is still a custom in Provence for children dressed as shepherds and milkmaids to carry torches and candles while singing the carol leading a procession on the way to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Children in Provence still lead procession on Christmas Eve singing  Un flmbeau, Jeannette, Isabelle .
Today we feature a simple, lovely version by the Idaho based Mormon Croft Family including father Vincent Crofts, his three youngest daughters Colette Crofts, Callie Crofts, Devri Dixon and their older brother, Adam Crofts.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival— We Wish You a Merry Christmas

Yes, you can still sing Christmas carols after December 25.  In fact, since the Christmas season lasts until the Feast of the Epiphany, it is both traditional and encouraged, particularly in Britain.  So today we feature one of the most widely sung carols which entirely omits any mention of the birth of Jesus or the tale and legends about the event.  We Wish You a Merry Christmas is instead a street begging song from the west if England that more than hints at a little extortion if the beggar’s’ demands are not met.

Wassailing with a begging bowl.  Perhaps these peasents and urchins got some figgy pudding from the master of the house.
The song was cast in its current form by composer, conductor, and organist Arthur Warrell for the Madrigal singing group he led at the University of Bristol which first performed it in a holiday concert on December 6, 1935.  The same year prestigious Oxford University Press published an elaborate choral arrangement in four parts and under the title A Merry Christmas: West Country traditional song.
While the song certainly sounds old and accurately depicts the mummery traditions of singing door to door for drinks and goodies on Christmas Eve, on St. Stephen’s Day—Boxing Day—and all the way to Twelfth Night it did not appear previously in any of the notable collection of West county songs—Davies Gilbert in 1822 and 1823), William Sandys in 1833, as well as from the great anthologies of Sylvester in 1861 and Husk 1864.  It was also absent from the very comprehensive The Oxford Book of Carols in 1928.
Some similar snatches of lines from old poems or songs have been found from the early to mid-19th Century.  Two variants include;

We wish you a merry Christmas
And a happy new year;
A pocket full of money,
And a cellar full of beer.

I wish you a merry Christmas
And a happy New Year,
A pantryful of good roast-beef,
And barrels full of beer.
Although it is possible that street singers were using a version like that recorded by Arthur Warrell but that it had somehow been missed by avid folk song collectors, evidence suggest that Warrell may have built a new song from the fragments of older pieces.
By 1992 the song was so widely popular and identified as traditional that Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott of the New Oxford Book of Carols noted that the song was “English traditional…the remnant of an envoie much used by wassailers and other luck visitors,” but did not list any sources for the attribution.

A modern take on a figgy pudding.
What, you may ask, was the figgy pudding so much in demand by those door to door hustlers?  Americans think of pudding as something that used to be peddled by Bill Cosby on TV, a sweet, smooth desert eaten with a spoon in flavors like chocolate, vanilla, butterscotch, or tapioca.  That not at all what the beggars demanded.  A figgy pudding has been described as an olden version of the modern English Christmas Pudding which is more like a rich cake.  Around London and other seaports it was originally made with figs.  But they were an expensive luxury that had to be imported from the eastern Mediterranean.  In the rural West country figgy pudding was more commonly made with raisins, plums, or prunes.  There were as many variations as there were makers and it could be prepared by being baked, steamed, boiled, or fried.
Today we bring you a swinging version by the classic a cappela group The Drifters in the late 1950’s.