Thursday, December 31, 2020

Auld Lang Syne—Murfin’s Carols for Corona and Winter Holiday Music Festival

                                                        Auld Lang Syne by Siusan O'Rourke & Zig Zeitler.

Note—The night cap for the New Year’s Eve two-fer.

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 it 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. 

                            The Scottish Ploughman Poet 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.  Burns 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 legacy 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.   It was incorporated in Scottish 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

The Hogmanay circle singing of Auld Lang Syne at the stroke of midnight.

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 breasts, 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.

A New Year's Eve broadcast by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.

But Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians really cemented Auld Lang Syne as the New Year’s Eve 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.

Zig Zeitler and Siusan O'Rourke.

Despite the Scottish roots of Auld Lang Syne, today we are featuring a version by Irish-American singer Siusan O’Rourke and her husband, multi-instrumentalist Zig Zeitler.  The daughter of first generation immigrants to New York City, O’Rourke used a treasure trove of decades of family photos which make this version a touching salute to the Irish diaspora in America.


What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? —Murfin’s Carols for Corona and Winter Holiday Music Festival

                                                    What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? sung by Margaret Whiting.

Note—We will have another two-fer on 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 tails 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.

Drunk driving enforcement and cozy stay-at-home TV extravaganzas have been eating away at New Year’s Eve revelry for years.  And of course this year the Coronavirus precautions will leave the crystal ball to drop in an empty Times Square and in most places clubs and nightspots are shuttered or open to extremely limited capacity.  Dancing and smooching at midnight which cannot conform to social distancing or mask-wearing will be discouraged in all but the kamikaze you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do-libtard states.

New Year's Eve--the romantic dream.

But way back when 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-wop group The Orioles hit #9 on Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues chart.

Ordinary folks of all ages celebrated in more modest venues like lodge halls and even church basements in Sears party dresses and off-the-rack suites.

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 20 million hits.   And in 2017 Scott Bradlee’s Post Modern Juke Box covered the song featuring vocalists Rayvon Owen and Olivia Kuper Harris and has registered more than a million views.   

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 20 million hits.   And in 2017 Scott Bradlee’s Post Modern Juke Box covered the song featuring vocalists Rayvon Owen and Olivia Kuper Harris and has registered more than a million views.   

Margaret Whiting in the early 1950s.

But today we are featuring the earliest recording of Loesser.s song by thrush Margaret Whiting in 1947.  She was the protégé of singer/lyricist/record label executive Johnny Mercer who signed her to his Capital Records label in 1942 when she was just 13 years old.  Mercer helped her get established as a nightclub singer despite her youth and as a regular on radio.  He featured her as a vocalist on orchestras under contract with Capitol and eventually putting out her solo recordings.  At one point Whiting was a regular on no less than five radio programs at the same tune,  Two years after she recorded What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve she had a mega-hit duet Mercer on Baby It’s Cold Outside, a winter song that became a holiday standard.  

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella—Murfin’s Carols for Corona and Winter Holiday Music Festival

                                Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers.

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 songs very different from the announcement and nativity hymns 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 a century later 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 are 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.

Today we feature a simple, lovely version by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers from the album, Songs of Angels, Christmas Hymns & Carols.  Shaw was one of the best known conductors of the mid-20th Century leading symphony orchestras in Cincinnati, Ohio and Atlanta, Georgia but he is best known as a great innovator and popularizer of choral music in many recordings by his Robert Shaw Chorale. The Chamber Singers were a smaller ensemble and their holiday recording was issued on the Telarc label in the late 1970s.  While he was in Cincinnati and Atlanta he also served as music director at local Unitarian Universalist churches and some of his armature church singers joined recordings by the Choral and Chamber Singers. 

Conductor Robert Shaw at the peak of his career.  Not only did he lead important symphony orchestras but popularized choral music.

Shaw was showered with honors in his lifetime including 14 Grammy Awards, the George Peabody Medal for service to American music, the U.S. National Medal for the Arts, the French Officier des Arts et des Lettres, and British Gramophone Award.  In 1981 he received the most prestigious American recognition in the Arts being selected for the Kennedy Center Honors.  He died in 1999, in New Haven, Connecticut following a stroke, aged 82.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Deck the Halls Nat King Cole—Murfin’s Carols for Corona and Winter Holiday Music Festival


Quiz—What popular British Christmas favorite is actually a Welsh New Year’s carol in disguise?  Hint—it is one of the festive street caroling songs and also celebrates a pagan-ish Yule without any mention of Christmas or the Christ Child.  AnswerDeck the Halls!

Blind Welsh Harpist John Parry first noted the melody for Nos Galan in a 1741 manuscript.

The melody for the song comes from a Welsh winter or New Year’s carol probably dating to the 17th Century or earlier and first found in manuscript by Welsh harpist John Parry as Nos Galan (New Year’s Eve), in 1741 and published in Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards by Edward Jones in 1784.

The English words to Nos Galan began as follows:

Oh! how soft my fair one’s bosom,

fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la.

Oh! how sweet the grove in blossom,

fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la.

Oh! how blessed are the blisses,

[instrumental flourish]

Words of love, and mutual kisses,

fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la.

That titillating lyric was representative of the revelry associated with New Year’s.  Additional Welsh lyrics added later and translated literally without attempt to rhyme included reference to drinking:

The best pleasure on new year’s eve,

fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la.

Is house and fire and a pleasant family,

fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la.

A pure heart and brown ale,

fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la.

A gentle song and the voice of the harp

fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la.

                            Scottish poet and musician Thomas Oliphant first penned the English language Deck the Hall.

The English lyrics were written by the Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant and first appeared in 1862, in Volume 2 of Welsh Melodies, a set of four volumes by John Thomas, and named Deck the Hall.  Note the singular form which referred to the common custom in Celtic societies like Wales, Scotland, and Brittany in France of decorating homes for New Year’s visiting and parties. 

Thomas’s collection included Welsh words by John Jones (Talhaiarn) which were once regarded as the source for Oliphant.  It was actually the other way around—Jones translated Oliphant’s version into Welsh. 

Oliphant’s song continued reference to drinking in the first verse and mentioned Christmas.  FYI—troul in the first verse means a round or lively folk song.

Deck the hall with boughs of holly,

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

'Tis the season to be jolly,

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel,

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

Troul the ancient Christmas carol,

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!


See the flowing bowl before us,

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

Strike the harp and join the chorus.

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

Follow me in merry measure,

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

While I sing of beauty's treasure,

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!


Fast away the old year passes,

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

Hail the new, ye lads and lasses!

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

Laughing, quaffing all together,

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

Heedless of the wind and weather,

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

An American version of the lyrics published in the Pennsylvania School Journal in 1877 removed references to drinking replacing “Fill the meadcup…” with “Don we now our gay apparel”, “See the flowing bowl…” with “See the blazing Yule before Us”, and “Laughing, quaffing all together” with “Sing we joyous all together.”  It also replaced “ancient Christmas carol” with “ancient Yuletide carol.”  These are the lyrics usually sung in the United States.

The title was not pluralized to Deck the Halls until 1892.

The song was perfect for street caroling, parlor sing-alongs, and in public school holiday programs which could be skittish about religious carols.  It is also popular with neo pagans who sometimes seem to believe that the 19th Century English words are much more ancient and perhaps even pre-Christian.

Deck the Halls has been recorded many times.  Nat King Cole had a charted hit with his version and it launched the jazz/syntho-pop/New Age instrumentalists Mannheim Steamroller as an annual Holiday Season touring phenomenon in 1984.

Nat King Cole on a 1970s TV holiday special.

Today’s version is from Nat King Cole’s 1960 Capitol Records LP The Magic of Christmas which was later re-mastered for stereo and issued as The Christmas Song three years later.  It was the best-selling Christmas album of the 1960s, and was certified by the RIAA for shipments of 6 million copies in the U.S.  The 1963 version reached #1 on Billboard’s Christmas Albums chart and remained for two weeks.  The song was included in several compilation records, was featured on Cole’s holiday TV specials and remains a perennial Christmas radio favorite.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Harambee Rita Marley for Kwanzaa—Murfin’s Carols for Corona and Winter Holiday Music Festival

                                            Harambee by Rita Marley.

Today is the third day of Kwanzaa which was created in 1966 during the blossoming of a period of Black Nationalism by Maulana Karenga, a Black studies scholar and a leading Los Angeles militant who was born  Ron Everett  in Parsonsburg, Maryland on July 14,1941

Beginning on December 26 and running through January 1, candles are lit representing African values.  Each of the values is given a Swahili name.  Today is day three— Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)Kujichagulia “To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.” 

Kwanzaa was meant to be a family centered celebration of African culture and values but father figures in private and men in public celebrations dominated the lessons.  Black women are  now more assertive in claiming a central place in the rituals.

Karenga was a graduate student in 1965 and already a veteran of several civil rights organizations when he became influenced by Malcom X in developing African-American unity, cultural pride, and a separatist militancy.  He was involved in many activities and organizations and was regarded as a rising intellectual leader.

Kwanzaa was designed in instill those values in a community he feared was still too dominated by “alienwhite ideology and religion.  It was to “give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” The name is derived from the Swahili for first fruit celebration, matunda ya kwanza.

Karenga used Swahili as the ritual language of its operations because it is a pan-African language, the most widely spoken of Sub-Saharan African tongues.  But it is an East African language as are the customs on which the celebration was based.  The vast majority of African-Americans trace their lineage to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and West Africa, very culturally and linguistically distinct from the east.  Critics in the Black community charged that he could have taken inspiration from instead from the West African empires and kingdoms.  But Karenga was a student of Swahili and the east, and not of the slave trade or origins of his own people.

The celebration, centered around lighting candles in the home over seven days, obviously is borrowed from Jewish Chanukah traditions, but Karenga has barely acknowledged that obvious parallel.

Karenga at first frankly hoped that his new celebration would supplant Christmas and New Year’s, both in his opinion instruments of White oppression.  But the deep connection of the Black community to the Church and to its celebrations stood in the way of the spread of his new observance.  Also, his allies in nationalism among Muslims, both followers of Malcom X’s traditional Islam and the Nation of Islamthe Black Muslims—also objected to Karenga’s non-theism and hostility to religion.

After 1970 Karenga changed his tune and now emphasizes that it is a secular observation that does not conflict with or contradict religious celebrations.  “Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday,” he wrote in 1994.

With that adaptation, Kwanzaa began to spread rapidly.  It was easy for families to adopt for private observation.  Most of those families also have a Christmas tree in the corner.  Public observations came to include many at major Black Churches.

Kwanza candles and associated symbols and books.

Candles are lit every night for the seven values.  Materials are available for study and reflection.  Songs and poems have been written.  The values are:

·       Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

·    Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

·     Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.

·       Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

·       Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

·    Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

·      Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

The final night concludes with a feast and gift giving. 

The spread of the observance was aided, ironically, in no small part to the attention given it in the mainstream, white dominated media, especially local television news coverage in major urban centers.  The attention always made the celebration seem much more pervasive than it ever was.

Maulana Karenga ,founder and leader of US/Organization,  a rival to the Black Panthers for leadership of the Black Nationalist movement.

Karenga himself became a controversial and polarizing figure among Black militants and nationalists.  The group that he founded in 1965 and led—US / Organization became a bitter rival to the Black Panther Party for leadership and influence in the West Coast African-American community.  That rivalry escalated into several episodes of violence including shootings, bombings, attacks on rival meetings and at least four murders.

In 1971 Karenga was convicted of kidnapping and sexually torturing Deborah Jones and Gail Davis.  Karenga’s estranged wife, Brenda Lorraine Karenga, testified that she had participated in the abuse.  Karenga claimed that the women were plotting against him and were part of the FBI COINTELPRO harassment that sought to stoke divisions in the Black community.  He denied claims of abuse.

He was sentenced to ten years in prison and held at the California Men’s Colony until he was released with the support of high profile Black state politicians and office holders.  While he was in prison his organization fell apart and the reputation of Kwanzaa was damaged.  Karenga seldom speaks about the conviction, except to note that he was once a political prisoner.  The episode is left out of his autobiography and on the Kwanzaa web page.

Kwanzaa founder Dr. Maulana Karenga in a recent photo.

Upon being released, Karenga devoted himself to an organization promoting Kwanzaa.  He finished one PhD. at United States International University (now Alliant International University) and a second at UCLA.  He is now the Chair of the Africana Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach, the Director of the Kawaida Institute for Pan African Studies, and the author of several books.

Despite its ups and downs, Kwanzaa remains meaningful and is an inspiration for many in the Black Community.  Several songs have been written for Kwanzaa, many of them for children to teach them the Seven Values represented by the candles. 

Like Hanukkah, the Jewish tradition Kwanzaa was obviously modeled on, the daily rituals were designed to be performed at home and were thus less disrupted this year by Coronavirus restrictions than many celebrations.  Public events held in houses of worship, schools, and cultural centers like this one in Chicago, are being Zoomed or live streamed.

Today, however, we are sharing a song by Rita Marley, the widow and musical heir of Bob Marley the reggae superstar, Jamaican nationalist, and Rastafari saint.  Cuban-born Alpharita Constantia Anderson was a back-up singer for Marley after two original members of the Wailers left the band under the name I Three.  After Marley’s death she launched her own career and worked tirelessly to preserve his memory.   Four of her children including Ziggy Marley have had significant musical careers of their own.

   Rita Marley

Rita’s 1984 song Harambee (working together for Freedom) has long been associated with Kwanzaa,