Monday, November 30, 2020

Christmas Is—Murfin’s Carols for Corona and Winter Holiday Music Festival


Who doesn’t love Dolly Parton?  The poor little girl from Pidgeon Forge with big dreams and a coat of many colors.  The country music legend who warbled with Porter Wagoner.  Penned hundreds of songs that were hits for her and many others who celebrated 50 years on the Grand Ol’ Opry this year.  Big hair, big smile, big boobs and cheerfully honest about it—“It takes a lot of money to look this trashy.”  A bigger more generous heart than anyone could imagine.  A loyal wife and a successful business person who met and conquered the world on her own terms leaving nary and embittered enemy.

That generosity of spirit extended to her family, shirt tail relatives, friends, and neighbors.  She began giving books to school children in her home town and ended up endowing a program that has provided more than 100 million books sent monthly directly to children from toddlerhood to kindergarten around the country and the world to get them excited about reading.  And this year her $1 million gift to Coronavirus research was partly used to fund Moderna’s promising Covid-19 vaccine. 

Like I said, what’s not to love!

Dolly loves Christmas and we love Dolly loving it.

Dolly really loves Christmas.  This year she released her fourth or fifth—who’s counting—holiday album which mixes new material with old chestnuts.  She is showing up on late night talk shows, day-time women’s gab fests, and at the virtual Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting program this Wednesday on NBC.

Our Murfin Winter Holiday Music Festival selection today from the album, A Holly Dolly Christmas is one of her new songs features her duet with her real-life Goddaughter Miley Cyrus.  Most of the Nashville Country Music establishment turned viciously on the former Hannah Montana star when she rebelliously shed her good-girl image embracing tattoos, twerking, flashing her boobs, licking a wrecking ball, and generally flipping off prudes and fuddy-duddies.

Miley Cyrus celebrated her most shocking music video with a Christmas ornament in 2013.

Dolly never wavered in her love and support for Miley.  The girl from a mountain Baptist upbringing has become a shining example of what Unitarian Universalists call the inherent worth and dignity of every person and justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.  That has been shown in her embrace of feminism—she wrote the anthem 9 to 5, the Civil Rights movement, support for the LGBTQ community and marriage equality, and this year vocal support for the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd.

Miley outgrew the rougher edges of her rebellion but like Dolly stakes out her own personhood regardless of criticism. 

Together Dolly and Miley are a seamless duo on What Christmas Is.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas—Murfin’s Carols for Corona and Winter Holiday Music Festival

This year Coronavirus restrictions have whetted the appetite for some Christmas Season joy.  We really do want the world to begin to look a lot like Christmas!

There are many subsets in the category of the Golden Age of American Popular Christmas Song.  One might be called the secular Advent songs—tunes that conjure up the growing excitement of the Holiday season invoking winter scenes, decorations, shopping, and general merriment.  At their best they deftly mixed daubs of nostalgia, with a snappy, jazzy modernity.  They could evoke the rustic past, but were most at home in bustling urban streets.

                      Meredith Willson in his radio days.

Perhaps the most beloved of the genre is It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas written in 1951 by Meredith Willson, then a prolific pop composer and the musical director of poplar radio programs like The Big Show hosted by actress Tallulah Bankhead and the Jack Benny Show.  Later he would become best known for his mega-hit Broadway shows, The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

The original hit recording was laid down on September 18, 1951 by Perry Como and The Fontaine Sisters with Mitchell Ayres and His Orchestra.  Less than two weeks later the ultra-prolific Bing Crosby, who seemingly recorded every promising new song and was already carving out a special niche as the voice of Christmas, made his own version which also charted that season.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

We Gather Together —Murfin’s Carols for Corona and Winter Holiday Music Festival

It looks like the annual Murfin Winter Holiday Music Festival comes just in the nick of time this year.  As we go Coronavirus stir crazy and reel from a year of body blows to our psyches of every imaginable sort, the TV news informs us that Americans are rushing headlong into the Holiday Season.  Decorations are going up inside and outside homes almost as soon as they are showing up in the stores.  There is a run on real trees as folks try to re-connect with Christmas traditions.  Even though in store shopping is curtailed to one degree or another around the country, on-line sales and virtual month long Black Friday sale are breaking records.  Economy and plague be damned folks, want gifts for those they may not be able to see.  People who have not mailed Christmas cards for years are buying boxes of them and holiday stamps to send them.  Charities are finding creative ways to keep up and expand distributions of food, warm clothes, and toys and people are digging deep to help out.

Significantly some folks have been playing Holiday music for weeks now and the usual No-Christmas-music-‘til-after-Thanksgiving militants are even cutting them some unexpected slack.

If you have been Jonesing for some festive tunes, this is the place.

The Annual Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival works like this.  Every year on the First Sunday of Advent until the Feast of the Epiphany—the Day of the Three Kings—on January 6, I will post a seasonal song, not only sacred and secular Christmas favorites, but songs celebrating the many winter festivals observed during this time of year including Hanukkah, St. Nicholas Day, Santa Lucia, Winter Solstice, Boxing Day, and New Year’s.  I try to mix up the familiar with what might not be so well known including songs from different cultures and new music.  Of course there will be plenty of time and space for the old chestnuts.   Regular followers know that I am especially fond of the secular songs of the Golden Age of American Christmas Music which stretched roughly from the early 1930’s to the late 1970’s.

I am also eager to get suggestions and requests.  You can message me on Facebook, e-mail , or post a comment to a blog entry.

Lighting the Candle of Hope on the Advent Wreath.

Today in most Western Christian churches is the first Sunday of Advent, the four week liturgical season of anticipation of the birth of Christ.  Although most Americans call the whole time from Thanksgiving to December 25 the Christmas Season, Christmas was the 12 day period from the Nativity to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.  In churches only hymns of prophesy of a coming Savior, songs of Joseph and Mary on their journey to the City of David, and finally announcement carols on Christmas Eve were sung during Advent.  Songs of celebration of the Birth come after.

In most churches in addition to specific Bible readings light the first of the four candles on an Advent wreath as part of their services.  The first candle represents Hope.

In the U.S. unless there are 5 Sundays in November, the First Sunday of Advent follows Thanksgiving and elements of that holiday are often also part of the services in many Protestant congregations.

Adrianus Valerius wrote the patriotic Dutch song Wilt heden nu treden in 1597 and is still considered  national Hero in The Netherlands. 

So it is fitting to start off our Music Festival with one of the most beloved Thanksgiving carols, usually known as We Gather Together.  Origin written in 1597 by Adrianus Valerius as Wilt heden nu treden to celebrate the Dutch victory over Spanish forces in the Battle of Turnhout. It was thus a patriotic song rather than a religious one.  But of course it had religious overtone in that it celebrated the defeat of Catholic Spain over the mostly Reform Dutch patriots whose congregations could finally worship safely free from fear of the Inquisition.  Which is why you will probably rarely here it sung at a Mass

It was originally set to a Dutch folk tune and was introduced in America an American hymnal in 1903.  When the Dutch Reformed Church in North America decided in 1937 to abandon the tradition of singing only Psalms and add hymns in church services, We Gather Together was chosen as the first hymn in their first hymnal.  It soon spread to other denominations, notably in the influential Methodist hymnal.  Church music historian Michael Hawn explained the song’s new popularity, “by World War I, we started to see ourselves in this hymn,” and the popularity increased during World War II, when ‘the wicked oppressing” were understood to include Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

The Minneapolis based Dale Warland Singers.

There are several different translations from the Dutch and other adaptations published under a varietyUnitarian Universalists warble We Sing Now Together with lyrics by Edwin T. Becher.  But probably the most popular version   has lyrics by Thomas Baker was arranged for Choir and congregation by Stephen Paulus.  That is what we will hear today performed by the Dale Warland Singers

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Lotta Hitschmanova—A Canadian Hero in a Unitarian Uniform

Lotta Hitschmanova as she began service as the Executive Director of the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada in October 1946.

If you live this side of the border of the Land of the Great White Grandmother, chances are that you never heard of Lotta Hitschmanova.  But you should learn about her.  She was awesome.

Canadians of a certain age will remember her for her once ubiquitous annual fund raising appeals on radio and television and in smartly produced short films for the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada (USCC) which she served as Executive Director for many years.

Her story begins in Prague when the Czech city was still a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on November 28, 1909.  Her birth name was Lotte Hitschmann.  Her father was a prosperous malt merchant and the secularized Jewish family lived in modest wealth and comfort.

She was a gifted student who excelled at the progressive and co-educational Stephans Gymnasium. She studied philosophy and mastered several European languages at the University of Prague and then went on to study political science and journalism at the Sorbonne in hopes of entering a career in international diplomacy.

In 1935 Lotte returned to Prague where she completed her Ph.D. studies and launched a successful career as a freelance journalist often contributing material to Czechoslovak, Rumanian, and Yugoslav newspapers.  As the menace of Hitler and Nazism rose she became noted for her outspoken anti-fascist beliefs and articles.  By 1938 she changed her name to the Slavic Lotta Hitschmanova as a protest to German hegemonic ambitions. 

When Germany annexed the Sudetenland Hitschmanova learned that she was on a list of hostile journalists to be detained.  She was forced to flee her homeland leaving her parents and a younger sister behind. She first fled to back to Paris and from there she went to Brussels, Belgium, where she resumed her journalistic career.  But the war kept catching up with her and for the next few years she alternated between a variety of journalism and humanitarian jobs while often finding herself a stateless refugee. By late 1941 she was in Marseilles in Vichy France where she worked as a secretary at charity for refugees.  It paid next to nothing and the tiny woman fainted on the streets of starvation after which she was taken to a clinic run by Unitarian Service Committee.

After being taken to an Unitarian Service Committee clinic in Marseilles, Hitschmanova went to work for the agency as a translator.  The USC was a rare beacon of hope for desperate refugees from all over Europe.  Here the agency distributes relief bundles.

It was a fortuitous match.  Soon she was volunteering her services with the USC as a translator and then as a liaison officer with the Czech relief agency, Centre d’Aide Tsechoslovaque.  Her work was valued by the USC, but officials recognized that she was still in danger.  In 1942 they arranged her escape from Europe via Lisbon on a converted freighter crammed with other refugees and headed to New York.

Like many Jewish refugees even with the help of the USC, Hitschmanova could not gain permanent refuge in the U.S.  After stopping in Boston to deliver highly sensitive documents detailing the dangerous work of the USC in Europe, she went to Canada, which offered her asylum.

She later recalled “exhausted, with a feeling of absolute solitude in an entirely strange country...I came with $60 in my pocket. I had an unpronounceable name. I weighed less than 100 lbs, and I was completely lost.”  Yet relentlessly resourceful, within two days she found employment as a secretary and three months later was in Ottawa where she worked as a Department of War Services postal censor.  She read the letters of German prisoners of war and scoured them for useful military intelligence.

Still deeply impressed by the selfless work of the USC, Hitschmanova joined the Unitarian Church of Ottawa.  She also continued her work for refugees with the Czechoslovakian National Alliance and by raising money for Czech War Services in London.  She regularly contributed articles to the Canadian press and made speeches on behalf of her causes.  Toward the end of the war she went to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

All during the war she never gave up a desperate search for her parents and sister Lilly.  She learned that for a while her parents were held at Terezin, a model concentration camp used as a showplace for the Red Cross and international diplomats.  Then she got the devastating news that they had been taken from that relative comfort and safety and had died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.  Eventually she located her sister living in Palestine with her husband.  Both eventually joined her in Canada.

With no family to return to, Hitschmanova decided to remain in Canada.  She turned down several excellent job offers.  Instead, she determined to serve the uprooted refugees still in Europe.  In July 1945, she helped to organize the Canadian branch of the Unitarian Service Committee, which was affiliated with both American Unitarian Association and the Unitarian Church in Canada.  Senator Cairine Wilson, a liberal icon in Canada, was named the Honorary Chairwoman, but as Executive Director, Hitschmanova ran the show with systematic energy and efficiency.

At first registered under the War Charities Act the Canadian committee was restricted to fundraising only through Unitarian congregations and to individual Unitarians.  When the law changed in February 1946 Hitschmanova energetically began her public appeals citing the great need.  At first funds were directed to Czechoslovakia and France.

That spring she made her first annual tour to inspect the work in the field.  She adopted a military style uniform modeled after that worn by American WACs.  She found the outfits useful in gaining admission to even restricted areas.  Besides they were comfortable and made packing for her extended trips easy.  She wore the uniforms at home and abroad for the rest of her life.  They became her trademark as she rose as a public figure in Canada.

Despite her affection for the Boston based USC, it didn’t take long for her to come into conflict with its leadership.  They insisted that all field operations be headed by an American.  She felt that those on the ground and familiar with the situation knew best.  She preferred to empower local partner organizations and their leadership by providing them with needed funds and perhaps technical support.  Her secondary goal was to make those partner organizations self-sustaining and independent as quickly as possible.

There are three basic principles in the field of the art of giving aid. To come as an open-minded friend and good listener, when offering help; to say goodbye to a project when it can continue on its own; to serve with a personal touch, because a relationship of confidence must lift your aid beyond the realm of a simple business proposition and prove that you really care.

To accommodate that philosophy in 1948 she re-organized the Canadian Committee completely independent of not only the Boston based USC, but of the Canadian churches as well.  Despite its independent status, the USC Canada continued to draw support and volunteers from Unitarian congregations and most proudly considered it “ours.”

The current logo of the Unitarian Service Committee Canada.

In the first full year of operations in 1946, Hitschmanova set a pattern which she would repeat yearly—three months of intense fund-raising in Canada, four months overseas to supervise programs and investigate possible new partners, and months at home reporting on her findings and producing an annual film about the Committee’s achievements.  That first year she raised $40,000 and collected 30,000 kg of clothing for distribution in the refugee camps.

She particularly homed in on the needs of children, making a project to supply prosthetic limbs to maimed victims a high priority, and establishing one of the first adopt-a-child sponsorship programs that became a model for many others. 

Hitschmanova with Korean orphans on one of her annual world-girdling inspection tours of  USCC humanitarian aid projects.  The organization expanded beyond Europe to include projects like this in Korea and others in India, Africa, and serving Palestinian refugees.

She found herself showered with honors.  According to a biographical sketch in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography by Joyce Thierry:

Dr. Hitschmanova received numerous awards, including the 1975 Woman of the Year for India by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. By this time, grateful governments around the world had acknowledged her work in their countries in a variety of ways: the Chevalier of Public Health from the Government of France and the Gold Medal from the Red Cross of France, 1950; the Medal of St. Paul from Greece, 1952; Public Service Medal from the Government of South Korea, 1962; Athena Mesolora Gold Medal from the Government of Greece, 1967; Officer of the Order of Canada, 1972; the Royal Bank of Canada Award, 1979; and Companion of the Order of Canada, 1980. In 1983, she received Officer of Meritorious Order of Mohlomi, Lesotho, and was only the third person to be given the Rotary Award for World Understanding. She refused to accept honorary doctorates from universities, saying she had worked hard enough in Paris and Prague to earn her own doctorate.

In 1982 after 37 years at the helm, ill health finally forced Hitschmanova to retire.  Sadly in her remaining years she suffered from Alzheimers.  She died of cancer on August 1, 1990 at the age of 79.  She was widely mourned across Canada and by the hundreds of thousands whose lives she touched around the world.  Her memorial service was held at her beloved Ottawa Unitarian Church.

In perhaps an even more profound tribute to her vision the modern Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, heir to the old Boston based organization, now follows Hitschmanova’s model of partnering and nurturing organizations on the ground.

Friday, November 27, 2020

A Murfin Memoir Snapshot in Time—Cañon City, Colorado After Thanksgiving 1953

Dad was Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce which would have been responsible for this sign greeting circa 1950.

: My memoir of a distant place and time has become a post-Thanksgiving tradition here.

It was 1953. My father was the secretary of the Chamber of Commerce in Cañon City, Colorado.  We rented a big old stone ranch house just outside of town.  Kit Carson was reputed to have signed a treaty with the Utes underneath a massive old cottonwood in the back yard.  Behind the tree was a big screen house and beyond that the barn, assorted sheds and outbuildings, the caretaker’s cottage and the spring house built into the side of hill with its entry way of cut sod.

The day after Thanksgiving the men from town—the merchants, their sons plus some of the teachers from the high school, police and sheriff’s deputies, and even a real cowboy or two from nearby ranches came to build the Christmas street decorations.  

They had two farm wagons drawn by enormous hairy-footed draft horses filled with spruce boughs.  The sharp smell of the sap still running fresh from the cut branches knifed through the crisp air. There was a lot of laughing and shouting and some cussing as the men brought armloads of the boughs into the screen house.

                                 Dad, W.M. Murfin, in Cheyenne about a year after the street decoration project.

They wore black and red checked hunting coats, overalls, wool caps with the earflaps down and yellow workman’s boots caked in mud.  My dad stood out—tall, slim and handsome, his gray Stetson on his head, bundled in a maroon corduroy jacket and olive twill trousers from his Army uniform, shoes slick soled and polished.  He pointed this way and that, creating order out of the chaos, sure authority resting lightly on him. He would take his turn with the bundles and the other work, an extra hand where needed.

They strung heavy wire between steel fence posts sledged into the frozen ground by the screen house.  They carefully wound the boughs around the cable twisting bailing wire to hold it in place. They twined the greenery with garlands of silver tinsel off of big reels. They laced strings of multi colored Christmas lights along the length of wire.

Inside the screen house on trestle tables made of rough planks other men made wreaths for the lampposts. Inside each wreath was a celluloid sign with a light bulb inside. Some were green and said Happy Holidays others were red and said Season’s Greetings.

Even larger wreaths were made to tie to the center of the garlands.  Multi-pointed stars or bells made of canvas and painted with bright red and yellow air craft dope were suspended inside the wreaths and lit from inside with a light bulb. The work went on for hours while the men laughed and smoked and sometimes took pulls from pocket flasks and passed whiskey bottles.

                                    Mom, Ruby Irene  Mills Murfin, around 1950.  She  commanded the kitchen that day.

Meanwhile the wives had taken over the kitchen. Mom built a wood fire in an old range on the screened-in back porch.  Two big enamel pots of coffee—one white and one blue with white speckles—bubbled on the fire. Stacks of heavy tan coffee mugs from the cafe downtown sat on a redwood table. The men would stomp up the back steps knocking the mud from their boots. They would remove their sap-encrusted gloves, blow on their hands and then wrap them around the mugs steaming with scalding black coffee.

Inside was a flurry of print dresses, clouds of flour, and high pitched chatter. Pies were going into or coming out of the oven. Thick stew simmered in enamel pots that matched the coffeepots on the porch.  Into the stew went potatoes, carrots, turnips and celery, jars of last summer’s home canned tomatoes, huge white lima beans that had soaked in the dish pan over night, and chunks of beef, venison, and the remains of more than one of yesterday’s turkeys. There were corn bread and biscuits, jars of pickled beets.

At noon the men lumbered in and piled the food on enameled tin plates and then took them outside to eat sitting on the fenders of their Buicks, Packards, and Studebakers or the running boards of battered ranch pickup trucks.  When the feast was gulped down, the women took turns over the steaming dishpans, scrubbing until their arms turned pink.

The Cañon City downtown where the Christmas decoration were hung about the time this postcard was published for sale over at City Drugs.

By mid-afternoon the job was done. The screen house and yard were strewn with trampled spruce twigs and scraps of tinsel.  The garlands were carefully laid out in the wagons that had brought the boughs.  The men got into their cars and trucks. Horns blaring they drove off behind the wagons to string the five blocks of downtown Main Street with the decorations.

Silence descended on the yard with the gray coming of evening.  A boy danced with unimaginable excitement.  Christmas was coming!